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Co-founder of Southwest Portland's Earth and Spirit Council goes beyond religious and cultural dividers to honor the Earth



The first time she met Rod McAfee, the man who would become her husband, Linda Neale says that she was overwhelmed and “a mess.”

It was 1990, and she was in charge of planning the 20th-anniversary Earth Day celebration for the city of Portland. The details were overwhelming. Rod, a Native American elder of the Akimel O’odham (Pima) people, listened intently as Linda described her personal, political and logistical difficulties with planning the celebration.

SUBMITTED PHOTO - Rod McAfee and Linda Neale visit Hatt Butte.“And then there was this long silence. I mean, a very long silence. For some reason, I knew enough to keep my mouth shut. Finally, Rod said, ‘It’s like you’re walking in a desert, and it’s very hot. And you come upon a pool of water, covered with debris and garbage. Then what do you do? You stick your head under the debris, so you can drink the clear water underneath.'”

At that moment, Linda says, she fell in love with this calm and wise man, who helped her see past the details of a seemingly overwhelming project to the mission and purpose of the celebration. A week later, in a pouring rain, thousands gathered for an interfaith worship service honoring the Earth.

Rod could not have known it, but when he described the pool of clear water that was hidden under debris, he was in a sense describing Linda’s spiritual journey, which is a journey of seeking the clarity at the heart of traditions whose wisdom may have become muddied or obscured.

For example, her senior thesis at Washington High School was a comparison of the similarities between Christianity, Islam and Judaism. “But,” she says “it would have been easier to research their differences, because there were so many similarities.”

Even as a young person, Linda was able to see past the “debris” that muddies the waters of interfaith dialogue and drink of the clear water of unity underneath.

As a young graduate of Stanford University in the early 1970s, Linda traveled to the Navajo Reservation, where she worked as a Head Start teacher for three years. Once again, she did not skim the surface, but dove into the heart of the experience — learning Navajo language, accepting invitations to sacred ceremonies with Navajo women, and even riding a horse to work.

Late in 1990, Linda attended a conference in Seattle called Earth and Spirit. There, Linda met hundreds of others like her — activists, spiritual seekers and environmentalists who sought to look past their cultural and religious differences and to connect with the sacred in the Earth.

Returning to Portland, Linda was determined to bring this transformation experience to her hometown. The first Portland Earth and Spirit conference, which drew thousands of attendees, was the birth place of the organization Earth and Spirit Council (www.earthandspirit.org), which continues to connect people, the sacred and the Earth. At first, the Council shared offices with the Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon, but over time there were enough differences between the organizations that Earth and Spirit moved out on its own.

Today, Linda Neale still sits on the board of Earth and Spirit Council as it continues its dedication to strengthening a connection with the natural world through speakers, ceremonies and recording the stories of elders. She recently authored the book "The Power of Ceremony," available at lindaneale.com, which explores the power and connection of participating in existing ceremonies and creating new ones.

In these projects, as in all her life’s work, Linda continues pushing back the debris to get to the clear water of truth and unity.

Jennifer Garrison Brownell is pastor at Hillsdale Community Church–United Church of Christ and the author of the forthcoming memoir “Swim, Ride, Run, Breathe: How I Lost a Triathlon and Caught My Breath.

Contract Publishing

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