Profiles: Finding a Calling in Creation - Rachel Holmes

Ray Waddle

Yale student Rachel Holmes keeps Aquinas on the night- stand and worms under the bed.

The Aquinas book is for school. The worms stay busy in a small vermicompost bin: they feed on food scraps and produce a useful plant fertilizer.

This ecological arrangement seems nicely emblematic of her life and calling. Holmes, 26, is at ease in two worlds that traditionally are wary of each other — church and environmentalism.

She is the only student who is jointly enrolled at Yale Divinity School and the Yale School of forestry & Environmental Studies. She’s determined to see cross-fertilization between the two disciplines. They need each other now, she says.

“Thinking about climate change, I have bouts of tremendous despair, but that’s where faith really contributes to the environmental movement,” she says.

“We all have access to the statistics. No one is spared: We’re all going to have to rethink how we live in the natural world. We have two options. We can say there’s nothing we can do, so let’s party like there’s no tomorrow. Or we can move forward with hope, the hope that humanity can change.”

Some days, Holmes feels like an apologist for Christianity in an environmental movement suspicious of the faith’s at- titude toward the hard sciences (according to stereotypes, no Christian believes in evolution, and Pat Robertson speaks for all believers). Other days, as a Roman Catholic, she is a green ambassador inside the church walls.

But her emerging sense of vocation connects both faith and ecology. What bridges them is the theme of healing.

“It’s not necessarily environmentalism I want to bring into the church but relationships with nature. Planting trees and restoring stream beds are ways of rehabilitating nature, but they are also ways of rehabilitating ourselves. I believe a person can heal — heal a wounded faith, a lack of hope — when you help heal nature,” she says.

Her experience with healing is intimate. She was treated for Hodgkin’s lymphoma as an undergraduate in 2003 and has been in remission since. (Her relationship with her horse, Twister, helped her through it.)

The illness intensified a deep-rooted passion for hope and activism. At Cook College of Rutgers as an undergraduate in her native New Jersey, she double-majored in religion and hu- man ecology, served as student rep on the university’s board of trustees, and also rode in the student mounted patrol, an auxiliary of the Rutgers police on the downtown streets of New Brunswick.

The Yale joint degree is a four-year program. She’ll be immersed in Bible, theology, and ethics on the Divinity side, and statistics, economic policy, and natural science down the street at forestry. Her Cook College experience paved the way: besides church history she did watershed research and studied manure management.

The church, she acknowledges, has been slow to grasp the environmental theme, but she has not given up.

“I have the same faith in the institutional church that I have in people. You have to look at what else the church has been grappling with in recent decades — economic justice, social justice, gender. We’ve only recently reinterpreted Genesis to mean stewardship instead of domination. Change is slow, but you know what? When it happens, it lasts. It lasts in hearts, minds and souls.”