PORTLAND, Ore. (RNS)-- After years of heated political and scientificdebate about the decline of Columbia salmon and the river's many uses,religious leaders of Oregon and Washington are joining in the discussion-- but differently.

On Feb. 4, the Rev. John Rosenberg of the Southwest Washington Synodof the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America urged 60 people gatheredfor a "Day of Moral Deliberation" to sing a hymn.

"Shall we gather at the river, where bright angel feet have trod,"sang the group of ministers, parishioners, farmers, business people,environmental activists and Native Americans--people whose views aboutthe Columbia River do not harmonize nearly as well as their voices.

The all-day event, held at Northeast Portland's Bethlehem LutheranChurch, illustrated the link that religious leaders are working to forgebetween faith and environmentalism.

"We know these are issues that evoke passion, confusion andcacophony," said David Leslie, executive director for the EcumenicalMinistries of Oregon, in offering the opening prayer.

In churches and synagogues across the country, congregations are nowregularly reminded the Bible and the Torah instruct mankind to care forthe Earth and its creatures. In the Northwest, religious leaders arefocusing on one of the region's most divisive environmental concerns:the Columbia River.

Roman Catholic bishops in the Northwest and British Columbia arefinishing a pastoral letter that, as early as this spring, will reachout to Catholics as well as "all people of good will" and likely declarethe Earth a "sacred shared space." A draft version says problemssuffered by wildlife and native people in the region are the result of"greed, ignorance, irresponsibility and abuse of economic and politicalpower."

The "Day of Deliberation" invited people of different interests toshare their opinions on the breaching of four lower Snake River dams,dredging the Columbia River, Native American fishing rights, theeconomic benefits of barging and the role agriculture plays.

But the sponsors--four cross-denominational religiousorganizations in Oregon and Washington--also urged participants to dosomething that is not common at public hearings or meetings.

Participants were asked to explore their spiritual connection to theriver as well as their ethical responsibilities to one another.

For example, Antone Minthorn, chairman of the Confederated Tribes ofthe Umatilla Indian Reservation, described the salmon harvest as thetribes' "communion with the Creator."

Irene Martin, an Episcopal priest who also fishes for salmon withgill-nets, spoke of disparaging stereotypes. Gill-netters have beenaccused of taking too many salmon, and their annual fishing season hasbeen sharply limited almost to the point of nonexistence. Blaming,name-calling and finger-pointing can't go on, Martin said.

"If one group is stereotyped, then any group can be stereotyped. Ifone group is left out of the moral circle, then others can be left out,too," she said.

By afternoon, few participants were willing to say their opinionshad been changed by what they heard. But many said they would considerthe Columbia River and its salmon in a new light.

"These people have their cultures and their perspectives, and theycling to them, just as I cling to mine," said Tim Morland, a onetimefarmer who now manages a machine shop in Troutdale.

The Rev. Mark Brocker of the Trinity Lutheran Church in McMinnvillesaid he realizes now more than ever that "salmon embody the spirit ofthe Northwest."

"That's why we care so much," he said.

Danielle Welliever, director of the Lutheran Public Policy Office inWashington, said she felt as though people of faith can help the regionreach a common vision. "But we're not there yet," she said.

The Rev. John Boonstra, executive minister of the WashingtonAssociation of Churches, challenged church leaders and others of faithto keep working toward a resolution on salmon and other environmentalissues.

"There's a clear role for the church in all of this," he said. "Wecan't work together if we don't know each other, and we can't know eachother if we don't meet, and we won't meet unless somebody brings ustogether."