'Blue theology' workshops and mission trips explore ocean ecosystems

'Blue theology' workshops and mission trips explore ocean ecosystems
By Gregg Brekke

LESSONS FROM THE OCEAN. Dan Paul is pastor of Pacific Grove Christian Church, which offers blue theology workshops and retreats.

PACIFIC GROVE, Calif. In an innovative intersection of earth science, ocean ecology, and theology, a Disciples congregation in Pacific Grove, Calif., has begun offering "blue theology" workshops and retreats that encourage participants to explore the wonder of God in ocean ecosystems.

With larger questions of global warming and climate change looming, Dan Paul, pastor of Pacific Grove Christian Church, points to the vastness of the ocean — nearly two-thirds of earth's surface — and the importance of its health to the health of the planet.

"We have realized a responsibility for it — though the sea is huge and mighty, there is something fragile about it. Everything we flush or dump down the drain eventually ends up in the ocean," he said.

The church serves as headquarters for blue theology mission trips and workshops, offering a full kitchen, dining room, showers, meeting rooms, and sleeping areas. Participants have access to learning and reflection experiences in addition to service projects, many within walking distance of the church.

Students enter the program with introductory study of the Bible verses that speak of the sea, encouraging a spiritual focus for their learning and activities.

Learning sites include the Monterey Bay Aquarium, Point Lobos State Reserve, Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), in addition to interaction with local ecological groups.

The term blue theology was coined by Paul's friend Deborah Streeter, a United Church of Christ minister. Streeter or another of the six "spiritual docents" guide participants through each experience while integrating discussion, journaling, prayer, and reflection.

"An amazing amount of deep learning occurs," Paul said.

Hands-on service includes sand dune restoration, beach cleanup, coastal trail maintenance, and projects with partner organizations. A common response to these experiences is participants' surprise at "how much junk is going into the ocean," Paul noted.

Students are also astonished by the variety of life that ocean ecosystems support, especially in the unique deep-sea environment of Monterey Bay. Kayak trips offer a closer look, allowing participants to see the complexity of life contained in the bay and to encounter species they might have missed from the shore.

The blue theology workshops grew out of concerns of the church's board and its activism in ocean preservation. In 2006, church members organized an Oceans Initiative Summit, inviting 150 scientists and 150 theologians for a day of discussion at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

The gathering of two groups who have often distrusted each other was a key launch point for blue theology. Armed with supporters from both the scientific and theological camps, the church's board put their plan in motion.

Another shift in the mission of the congregation was becoming a "mission station." Paul said the moniker indicates the board's desire to serve the entire church and the broader community as advocates and educators.

"The big thing for me is that we are helping people develop a broader theology — as co-creators and re-creators with God," said Paul.

For more information, visit www.pacificgrovechurch.org.