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Plastic-bag 'fast' latest in a more modern take on Lent

What are you giving up for Lent? Some are giving up plastic bags.

When the Rev. Ryan Sirmons speaks from the pulpit at the United Church of Christ in Annapolis on Sunday, he says, he'll talk to his congregation about Lent, the 40-day period of fasting and reflection leading up to the Christian celebration of Easter.

But he won't encourage church members to give up coffee or desserts. Instead, he says, he'll challenge them to forgo accepting plastic bags when they're at the checkout of the grocery store.

"I used to think of Lent as a time you give up chocolate," Sirmons said. "The point is to give up something to make you aware not just how you individually feel, but how you look at the world."

Sirmons is one of several faith leaders encouraging a fast from plastic bags during Lent, which begins Wednesday with Ash Wednesday. They have the backing of environmental groups that are pushing a bill in the Maryland General Assembly that would ban plastic bags and levy a 10-cent fee on paper bags.

The clergy and activists are the latest in a growing number of groups who are using Lent to advance charitable or political causes. Such efforts often focus on the environment. In recent years, Christian leaders and others have encouraged believers to reduce their carbon footprints during Lent, or to fast for "climate justice."

The Roman Catholic Church on Sunday launched the CRS Rice Bowl, sending worshipers home from Mass with coin boxes to collect money for Baltimore-based Catholic Relief Services.

The Knights of Columbus are seeking "40 bucks for Lent" — donations from those who observe Lent to support its fund for Christians persecuted in the Middle East.

"Since many people give up something for Lent, we wanted to provide an opportunity for their sacrifice to make a difference — not only in their own life, but in the lives of others," said Carl Anderson, supreme knight of the Catholic fraternal order.

"During the Lenten season, we recall Christ's suffering and death. In turn, remembering and assisting those who are today suffering and dying for their belief in Christ is an excellent way to do good where it is most needed and to enter more deeply into the spirit of this season."

James M. O'Toole, a professor of history at Boston College who studies American devotional practices, traces the activity to the modernizing Second Vatican Council of the early 1960s. Since then, he said, the church has focused more on Lent as an opportunity to reflect on whether one is making a meaningful contribution to the world.

"The idea was to not [only] do 'negative' things, by giving something up," he said, "but rather to do some 'positive' things" as well.

Frederick Bauerschmidt, a professor of theology at Loyola University Maryland, spoke of an evolution in Lenten practice.

"Fasting now becomes not simply something we do for self-discipline, but it becomes a practice that benefits everybody," he said.

One of the early efforts was Operation Rice Bowl, in which children could set aside the money they would have spent on candy so it could be used to feed hungry children instead.

The bag fast — like the Lenten Fast for Climate Justice organized by Catholics last year, or the Lenten Carbon Fast promoted by leaders of many denominations for several years — represents a new approach.

"We want people to really make a conscientious decision about their use of plastics, particularly plastic bags," said Jodi Rose, director of the Interfaith Partners for the Chesapeake. The group works with religious congregations to promote clean water.

The Catholic Church, for its part, has no position on Maryland's bag bill, or the plastic bag fast. A spokesman for the Archdiocese of Baltimore said the only official Lenten obligations for Catholics are to fast and to abstain from eating meat on Ash Wednesday and all Fridays during Lent.

Beyond that, spokesman Sean T. Caine said, it is up to individual Catholics to decide whether to engage in other acts of self-discipline, deepening their faith or helping others.

"Someone wishing to promote the common good by exercising good environmental stewardship by not using plastic bags during Lent is welcome to do so," Caine said.

Promoters of the bag fast hope that it raises awareness of the negative impacts of plastic bags on the environment, and it shows people that it's possible to use fewer of them.

They also hope it helps them pass the ban.

"They say it takes 30 days to change a habit," said Julie Lawson, director of Trash Free Maryland, a nonprofit group that is leading the charge against the bags in Annapolis. "Lent is 40 days."

It doesn't hurt that Lent coincides with the annual General Assembly session. Easter falls on March 27, about two weeks before legislators finish up for the year.

Lawson said getting religious leaders involved, and sharing their views with their congregations, helps move the issue from environmental circles into the mainstream.

The American Progressive Bag Alliance, which represents bag manufacturers and recyclers, opposes the bill. The group says plastic bags are usually reused or recycled by consumers, and most of the 10-cent fee on paper bags would be kept by stores, not for environmental cleanup.

In a radio ad, the alliance says the bill would drive up the cost of groceries and put jobs at risk.

"Bag bans and taxes don't work," a woman says in the ad. "They're bad for consumers, small businesses and the environment."

The Catholic Church has sharpened its focus on the environment under the last two popes.

Pope Benedict XVI made the Vatican carbon-neutral, including putting solar panels on the roof of the papal audience hall. And Pope Francis released an encyclical last year outlining a theological basis for fighting climate change.

Increasing numbers of Christians have declared a responsibility to the environment, a movement called "creation care."

"Caring for creation, caring for the Earth, being good stewards, is pretty clear in the Bible," Rose said.

Sirmons, a Naval Academy graduate who became a minister after his Navy service, says safeguarding the Earth should be fundamental to Christian faith.

"Creation care is something that we are called to do," he said. "The very first thing that we as humankind are given is stewardship of creation. … How we live out our faith comes from how we treat the creation around us."

The Rev. Robert E. Walker hopes his congregation at Mount Zion United Methodist Church in Pasadena will join him in the bag fast.

Already, the church has taken steps toward earning a designation as a "RiverWise Congregation" by adopting environmentally friendly practices such as treating their stormwater runoff.

Walker said Lent is a good time to work on individual environmental actions.

"Fasting during the Lenten season puts in perspective how do we become better people individually and collectively during this period of time," he said. "One of the things that we need to fast and pray about is what will make us a better person, and this is one."

It's not clear how many churches or individuals plan to participate in the bag fast. The Interfaith Partners for the Chesapeake doesn't plan to track participation.

It also remains to be seen whether the fast will have any impact on the bag ban, which has kicked around Annapolis in different forms for at least half a dozen years without being passed.

This year's version is led by Del. Brooke Lierman, a Baltimore Democrat, and Sen. Victor R. Ramirez, a Prince George's County Democrat.

The Senate version was presented to a committee last week; Lierman plans to make the case for the House version on Wednesday afternoon.

Plastic bag manufacturers will be among the opponents at Wednesday's hearing.

Walker wants the bill to pass. But even if it doesn't, he says, he hopes the bag fast will help participants rethink their wasteful habits.

"It would be one great practice that we could do to help to clean up the environment," he said.

pwood@baltsun.com

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