Profiles: Finding a Calling in Creation - Jeanie Graustein

Frank Brown

Jeanie Graustein, a lifelong Roman Catholic, is fond of using Quaker terms to describe the decades-long, organic process that saw her love of science gradually evolve into a career as a professional Catholic environmentalist.

“I always had the Quaker idea in mind: ‘A way will open,’” says Graustein, who enrolled as a part-time student at Yale Divinity School in 1990.

“The more I thought about it, the more I was interested in the big picture. And, the big picture has a theological element … I went with this interest in science and religion but I had no idea where it would lead.”

Over the next five years at YDS, Graustein  moved  — through a series of small steps and modest revelations — to an understanding of where science and her spirituality could meet in a practical way. One key event was a journey in the spring of 1995 to the Holy Land.

“It brought scripture alive to me,” Graustein says. “It was the reality of the land and thinking about the scriptural reality of the natural world.”

At the very same time that Graustein was set to graduate from YDS with a master of divinity degree, Roman Catholic dioceses across the united States were ramping up their commitment to the Church’s social teaching on the environment. The increased emphasis nationwide on environmental issues came on the heels of Pope John Paul II’s 1990 speech, “The Ecological Crisis, A Common Responsibility,” in which the pontiff raised an alarm seldom stated in such stark terms from the Vatican.

“There is a growing awareness that world peace is threatened not only by the arms race, regional conflicts, and continued injustice among peoples and nations, but also by a lack of due respect for nature,” the pope stated in a pronouncement for World Peace Day. “moreover, a new ecological awareness is beginning to emerge which, rather than being downplayed, ought to be encouraged to develop into concrete programs and initiatives.”

Initially, while still at YDS, Graustein held an environmental internship in the Archdiocese of Hartford’s Office of urban Affairs. But, following graduation, the job of Environmental Justice Coordinator became full-time and permanent. An important element of what she does as she encourages parishes statewide to explore this dimension of the faith is to emphasize the opportunities for practical, personal action.

“It’s not just environmental doom and gloom,” she says, referring to a series of conferences sponsored by her office and held across the state in regions. “We always try to say, ‘Here’s the situation. Here’s the Catholic social teaching. Here’s what you can do.’”

Responses range from skepticism that the subject is too political or too technical to an enthusiastic embrace of Graustein’s suggestions. much depends on an individual priest’s reaction or the activism of a parishioner. One of the archdiocese’s biggest success stories is the Saint Gabriel School, attached to a parish by the same name in milford,  Connecticut,  where students and teachers cleaned up local woodlands and started composting the school’s lunchroom leftovers.

It was as a schoolgirl herself in San Rafael, California, that, Graustein says, she first became aware of her own unique sensibility. “As a Girl Scout, I was the only one who did the wildflower badge, who did the seashore badge,” she says, somewhat shyly.

“I always felt that when finding a certain shell or a certain fossil, that it was a gift for me.”