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Indonesian priest takes interfaith road on environmental awareness

Bandung's Eco-Learning Camp transcends the religious divide to convey the urgency needed to save the planet

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Indonesian priest takes interfaith road on environmental awareness

Participants in an Eco-Camp 'Green Leader' program are seen here in early 2020. (Photo: Maria Alexandra Iskandar/Eco-Camp)

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A 2009 training program on climate change held in Melbourne, Australia, by former US vice president and prominent environmental campaigner Al Gore left Father Stanislaus Ferry Sutrisna Widjaja deeply concerned.

“I learned that carbon dioxide levels at that time were 397 parts per million [ppm]. It was said that the earth would be really hot for us to live on if carbon dioxide levels reached 415ppm. This spurred me to do something,” the 59-year-old Indonesian priest told UCA News.

The priest, who was ordained in 1990, later took part in similar training programs in 2010 and 2011 respectively in Nashville, Tennessee, in the US and in the Indonesian capital Jakarta.

Three years later, Father Widjaja and 10 other people from different religious backgrounds founded the Eco-Learning Camp, known as Eco-Camp, in Bandung in West Java province.

The Eco-Camp is a transformation of a Spirit Camp — an environment-based education program for children also founded by the priest and others in 2002.

Targeting children, teenagers and adults and providing them with environment-based activities such as education, conservation and research, the Eco-Camp aims to raise environmental awareness among interfaith communities.

With its vision of “qualified humans, earth protection and earth learning,” the Eco-Camp has several missions, including creating socially ingrained habits and skills, based on the values of the integrity of creation, to give the young generation better environmental awareness, and to develop an environmental-based education.

“The Eco-Camp was in Djuanda Grand Forest Park for the first two years after we received an invitation from the local government,” Father Widjaja said, adding it has since moved to an 8,000-square-meter plot of land a short distance away.

Djuanda Grand Forest Park is a conservation area and botanical gardens located in Bandung. Opened in August 1965, it contains thousands of types of plants.

Strengthened by Laudato si’

A year after Eco-Camp’s establishment, Pope Francis issued the encyclical Laudato si’ (On Care for Our Common Home), calling for swift action on climate change, among other issues.

“If we talk about Laudato si’, the Eco-Camp is like a Laudato si' center. What we have done so far is contained in Laudato si’,” said the priest, who also teaches pastoral management, pastoral theology and social theology studies at Parahyangan Catholic University in Bandung.

“I asked the current apostolic nuncio to Indonesia for a meeting with the pope. He told me that the Eco-Camp is an implementation of Laudato si’ in Bandung Diocese even though it is not a religion-based entity,” he said.

Some young Muslim members of a team now running the Eco-Camp now have a good understanding of the pope’s encyclical.

“A young Muslim can quote Laudato si’ 50th point: ‘whenever food is thrown out it is as if it were stolen from the table of the poor.’ Another wants to meet the pope after reading it as he thinks it embodies very good values,” Father Widjaja said.

“We feel strengthened by Laudato si’,” he said.

Meditation sessions

Since its establishment, more than 30,000 people, both young and old, have attended programs offered by the Eco-Camp.

“We focus on environment-based education. We concentrate on raising environmental awareness among participants,” Father Widjaja said.

In the morning, participants join a meditation session called “Sitting in Silence,” followed by a “Garden Tour” session and an “Eating in Silence” session.

“Participants are encouraged to touch the ground and to preserve plants. It is more like creating a connection between them and nature,” he said.

There are also sessions highlighting the current environmental situation facing the world, the reasons behind it, and what participants can do to change it.

Each program can last from only three hours to 11 days, depending on the requirements of participants, mostly from West Java and Jakarta.

“The longest program is called ‘Green Leader’,” he said.

Green Leader is an annual program for teachers and environmentalists who want a better understanding of living a harmonious life with nature.

In August, Father Widjaja, a former chairman of UNIO Indonesia, an association of diocesan priests, co-founded the Eco-Circle. Located just 350 meters away from Eco-Camp, Eco-Circle focuses on spiritual ecology and targets only adults and families.

Accusation and benefits

Establishing Eco-Camp did not go all that smoothly. Father Widjaja and his associates quickly drew the ire of the local Public Order Agency.

“We were accused of building a church. Because of this, we four Catholics and five Muslims were summoned and grilled by agency officials,” he said.

“A village leader suspected we were a religious group. But he finally understood that the Eco-Camp would not be espousing religious teachings but environmental issues,” he said.

Finance has been another problem. “We have faced deficits and depend solely on the generosity of our donors,” the priest said.

Despite such challenges, the Eco-Camp has inspired interfaith communities as well as individuals, including Maria Alexandra Iskandar, a 22-year-old Catholic laywoman.

“I am now much more aware of the environment. I hope Eco-Camp becomes a place of hope. The priest is totally committed to what he does. His work is extraordinary,” said Maria, who now works for the organization.

For Father Widjaja, his work is not a master plan. “I am assigned to this place. God shows me the way. It is not something I can plan. I believe it is all from God because God provides everything.”

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