PORTLAND, Ore. (RNS)-- After years of heated political and scientific debate 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 Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America urged 60 people gathered for 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 about the Columbia River do not harmonize nearly as well as their voices.

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

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

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

Roman Catholic bishops in the Northwest and British Columbia are finishing a pastoral letter that, as early as this spring, will reach out to Catholics as well as "all people of good will" and likely declare the Earth a "sacred shared space." A draft version says problems suffered by wildlife and native people in the region are the result of "greed, ignorance, irresponsibility and abuse of economic and political power."

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

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

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

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

Irene Martin, an Episcopal priest who also fishes for salmon with gill-nets, spoke of disparaging stereotypes. Gill-netters have been accused of taking too many salmon, and their annual fishing season has been 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. If one 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 opinions had been changed by what they heard. But many said they would consider the Columbia River and its salmon in a new light.

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

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

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

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

The Rev. John Boonstra, executive minister of the Washington Association of Churches, challenged church leaders and others of faith to keep working toward a resolution on salmon and other environmental issues.

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

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