Quaker Universalist Conversations

Interfaith group seeks to protect California deserts

Members are linked by the spiritual connections between their local desert landscapes and the parched sacred grounds that have nurtured some of the world’s great religions.


By Louis Sahagun, Los Angeles Times

January 8, 2011

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Seven religious leaders climbed out of their vehicles on a recent weekday and scattered on foot across Whitewater Canyon northwest of Palm Springs. They were looking for clues to the character of the prophets said to have used the wilderness as a gateway to spiritual awakenings.

It didn’t take long for members of the newly formed Desert Stewardship Project, an interfaith coalition dedicated to protecting the vast expanses of arid California, to find what they were seeking.

Moses met the Lord in the form of a burning bush on a mountain in the Sinai desert. Jesus prayed in the desert for 40 days before beginning his ministry. The prophet Muhammad meditated in a cave on the desert mountain of Hira, where the Angel Gabriel recited the Koran to him.

Gazing across a broad, sandy gulch where the Whitewater River carried its cargo of silt and snowmelt past fortress-like sandstone walls, Petra Mallais-Sternberg, pastor of the First Congregational United Church of Christ in San Bernardino, said, “The basic elements of my faith are all around us.

“I see flowing baptismal waters, and boulders that stand for the cornerstones of my faith,” she said. Pointing toward a gentle slope above the riverbed edged with willows and creosote, she said, “They are fruits of the earth.”

Fatima Alrahem, 27, of the Muslim Student Assn. at Cal State San Bernardino, said she was reminded of the ways that “Islam, which was born in the barren Arabian deserts, encourages us to be mindful of the fragile environment, and to take special care of our life-giving rivers.”

Jim Burklo, associate dean of the office of religious life at USC and a project leader, was along on the field trip too. “I feel a sense of humility and an understanding that the Earth has a right to exist apart from us,” he said (To read more see http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-beliefs-desert-20110108,0,2708832.story