PUERTO RICO: Mountaintop ministry takes root

January 4, 2011

High in the central mountain town of Aibonito, Puerto Rico, an hour or so from San Juan, spirituality and environmental sustainability are merging at Centro Espíritu Santo.

Part retreat center, part eco-lab, vegetable garden and nature preserve, and part burgeoning local congregation, the merger is the shared vision of the Rev. James Snodgrass and ecologist Patty Parsley, husband and wife.

"When we talk about sustainability, creation and biblical theology, people say, 'this is the first time I've heard this.' It rings with them, but you have to talk to people first," said Parsley during a recent visit. "This is something different."

The Episcopal Diocese of Puerto Rico purchased in 1996 the center's 11 acres of land, which had at one time been used to cultivate tobacco, at another to graze cattle. Snodgrass and Parsley arrived 10 years later, in 2006. They live in a house that was already on the property. A local board oversees the center.

Snodgrass, who had visited Puerto Rico many times through a diocesan companion relationship between Puerto Rico and Western New York, and served urban Latino congregations in New York and New Jersey, and Parsley, who spent some time living in Puerto Rico as a child, welcomed the chance to begin a new ecological-theological ministry there.

"In reading the Bible, in teaching and preaching, bring in the whole message -- this is not just about God and human beings. The Bible really is about God and all of creation -- all the creatures," Snodgrass said. "And just to bring that to bear, and say you know the word, the ancient word that describes this is 'ecology,’ care of God's house."

"We are trying to raise consciousness of that," Parsley added, through workshops and retreats. Parsley and Snodgrass were the only people representing a religious organization to set up a display at Plaza Las Americas, a San Juan shopping mall, for last year's Earth Day, she said.

Parsley maintains an organic vegetable and herb garden, conducts gardening workshops and sets up a booth at a weekly farmers' market in Old San Juan.

A new congregation was not in the original plan, but people from La Tea, a nearby neighborhood, began worshipping in Snodgrass and Parsley's carport, and Misión Espíritu Santo, La Tea, was born.

"I think the connection between how you live your life and the impact on the environment ... is part of God's call to us, to live in a more conscientious way with all creatures," Parsley said, adding that she has noticed a "natural spirituality" in the people living nearby.

For outside visitors, the center offers an opportunity to experience rural Puerto Rican culture, practice Spanish and walk the property's trails -- which include Stations of the Cross for both Advent and Lent.

Currently the center has two large platform tents, but an acre of land was cleared at the center's entrance to build more traditional housing, which should be completed in the next six to nine months, Snodgrass said.

Click here for more information about Centro Espíritu Santo.