Although they have widely differing backgrounds and life experiences, Lucy Silva-Thomas, Vincent Valdez and Betsy Reifsnider all are putting their Catholic faith into action working on a common goal: the belief that individuals and parish communities can be better stewards of creation.
They are each working to increase awareness among their fellow Catholics of the long tradition of Catholic social teaching on the responsibility for creation care. Each is personally invested in speaking about the importance of and the obligation to better care for God’s great gift to all, the environment.
Lucy grew up Catholic in San Jose and moved to Sacramento in 1999 with her husband and three sons. Since that time, she’s been a member of St. Philomene Parish. She studied construction management in UC Davis’ certificate program and works for a local contractor.
Over the past 12 years, she has served in several key ministries, including as the director of religious education at St. Philomene for four years, before joining the respect life ministry, the Gabriel Project and environmental justice concerns, with a focus on immigration, human and family rights. She also serves on the Diocesan Immigrant Support Network.
Lucy’s ministry in environmental justice began when local activist Herman Barahona (see story, page 22) asked her to help with air monitoring and community engagement. “As a resident of Arden Arcade, I have seen the decline in human respect and air quality, as well as the increase in health disparities, immigrants and homelessness,” she notes.
“Our parish is primarily comprised of minorities and we saw the financial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic with our parishioners. Many lost their jobs, their children were stuck at home, and the rental crisis was especially hitting them financially. While many immigrants work regular jobs, many of them were unable to file for unemployment or tax stimulus payments. They were left with very little resources.”
The parish created a resource system so immigrants could connect to local agencies and the parish food closet for assistance. Lucy had joined United Latinos at the time, and that group was jump starting the air monitoring program in Sacramento County. The parish began engaging in relationships with the Sacramento Tree Foundation, Latino Leadership and Sierra Health. The parish is now part of the Sacramento Environmental Justice Coalition. “We want to spearhead efforts in engaging more parishes around us in immigration outreach, tenant rights, building a cohesive community and learning more about care for creation,” she says.
At St. Robert Parish in Sacramento, Vincent, who has lived in the Hollywood Park area since 1976, is a member of the Knights of Columbus and has been involved with St. Robert and St. Rose parishes for many years.
“I’ve always had an affection for the earth and how we maintain it as stewards of the environment,” says the longtime construction worker. “It was instilled in me since childhood that we are all a part of nature, what God gave us. I’m an outdoors person. We always camped, fished and hunted. My grandfather would always tell us, ‘Don’t leave any trash; leave your campsite clean.’
“So when Laudato Si’ came out, it touched me. It reinforced that we are part of creation and that we have to care for mother earth. Who we are and what we are starts with the earth. We are all environmentalists. The excitement is there for all of us to be involved in coalitions and organizations which are working on air quality, combating climate change, working toward being carbon free, doing tree planting and addressing other issues.”
Vincent has been involved with The Climate Mobilization movement and the Sacramento Climate Coalition, which was successful in lobbying the Sacramento Municipal Utility District to become the first energy producing company in the nation to pledge to be carbon free by 2030, as well as other environmentally-friendly policies adopted by the city and county.
He shares his passion for environmental concerns with his son, Arthur, a sophomore at Christian Brothers High School in Sacramento, as they work jointly on projects at St. Robert School and other venues, such as tree planting, air quality monitoring, and other efforts.
Betsy Reifsnider, a member since 1994 of St. Francis of Assisi Parish in midtown Sacramento, says her love of the outdoors was fostered during her childhood years in Glendora, located at the base of the San Gabriel Mountains. “I was very fortunate to always be able to go hiking, backpacking and bicycling on mountain roads and in the wilderness,” she recalls. She was a Girl Scout, graduated with a degree in diplomacy and world affairs from Occidental College, and studied modern Chinese political history at the University of Chicago.
Her career of more than 30 years throughout California focused on work for many nonprofit environmental organizations, and she served as environmental justice director with Catholic Charities in the Diocese of Stockton from 2004 to 2013. Now retired, she still serves as a policy associate in Sacramento for the Mono Lake Committee.
Living in southern California before the Clean Air Act was signed into law, “as a kid, we had some of the worst air pollution. My lungs would hurt and since then I’ve had a sadness because of how we pollute our earth,” Betsy recalls. “Still today we are all victims of air pollution, but we are also the perpetrators and we can’t scapegoat anyone. Everyone has to play their part in caring for the environment.”
For several years, she has been involved in the Pathways for Justice ministry at St. Francis, which focuses on social and environmental justice. The ministry hosted a presentation on Laudato Si’ when it was first issued by Pope Francis. Among the ministry’s activities were a Bike to Church Sunday; an energy and water audit of the church, school and parish hall by the City of Sacramento Water Department and the Sacramento Municipal Utility District; organizing ecological Stations of the Cross during Lent; and working with St. Francis of Assisi School to designate the school and parish grounds as a St. Kateri Tekakwitha Habitat.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, when parishioners couldn’t gather in person, the ministry offered a four-parish Zoom series to discuss Laudato Si; provided an eight-week Zoom series from JustFaith called “Sacred Land,” in conjunction with the Dominican Sisters of Racine, Wisconsin; and distributed seedlings, compost bags, Care for Creation prayers and earth-friendly information after all Masses on Earth Day weekend.
“I have a passion for environmental concerns and it’s connected to my Catholic faith,” Betsy concludes. “Sometimes the problems are so overwhelming that you can be discouraged, but I see parishes collaborating on actions and that gives me hope. We are all in this together – Laudato Si’ is a call to spirituality, action and work – and by talking to one another we can start sharing and partnering in our efforts. We need to celebrate what we are already doing in our parishes and expand our outreach together.”
In photo above, Care for Creation leaders are, left to right: Carol Kinser, Father Loreto Rojas, Kim-Son Ziegler, Betsty Reifsnider, Lucy-Silva Thomas, Vincent Valdez and Herman Barahona.