When Thomas Eiermann, BS’69, was a child, severe asthma kept him from playing sports with other kids his age. So he sought solace in nature.
He roamed the prairies near his home, observing critters darting around the landscape that was once an ancient shore of Lake Michigan. These boyhood wanderings instilled in Eiermann a deep appreciation for the natural world; after graduating from Creighton University with his degree in biology and pursuing a career in teaching, he worked hard to incorporate environmental education into his classroom.
Today, Eiermann is still educating people on the importance of caring for the Earth at his home parish of St. Stephen Deacon & Martyr in Tinley Park, Illinois. As a member of the parish’s Creation Care Team, Eiermann partners with other parishioners in suburban Chicago to spread awareness of environmental issues and promote sustainable living.
“Being a teacher, I really feel like you need to educate people if this is something they’re unfamiliar with,” Eiermann says. “I’m 74 years old. My fear is people will wake up too late to fix this. In 50 years, I’ll be gone, but my children will be here. I don’t know what kind of world they’re going to be living in.”
Supported by the Catholic Climate Covenant, an environmental nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., the more than 300 Creation Care Teams around the country work to address ecological issues at the local level. The teams, Eiermann says, are composed of his fellow “boots-on-the-ground Catholics” who regard caring for the planet as an expression of their faith.
The Catholic Church, Eiermann says, has long taken a stand on ecological issues. Past popes, including Leo XIII, St. John Paul II, Benedict XVI have all spoken about the duty Catholics have to preserve God’s creation for future generations. In 2015, Pope Francis released Laudato Si’, his encyclical calling for “swift and unified global action” to address the looming environmental crisis.
Eiermann and his partners in the local faith community work to carry out those directives at a grassroots level. His parish, St. Stephen, has joined with neighboring parishes, including St. Elizabeth Seton in Orland Hills, Illinois to form a creation care ministry around the southwest Chicago suburbs.
“We try to educate people that creation care is one of the seven tenets of Catholic social teaching,” says Andy Panelli, who works with Eiermann in the local ministry. “It’s not just an Earth Day slogan, it’s a requirement of our faith.”
Eiermann, Panelli and their partners have enacted a number of environmental measures at theirs and neighboring parishes. They’ve begun publishing a “Creation Care Corner” in the parish newsletters, which provides weekly tips on sustainable living, such as reducing plastic waste. They’ve also hosted documentary screenings and after-Mass education events covering the dangers of climate change.
The teams also encourage parishioners to write to government officials in support of environmental policies, including the proposed Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act (H.R. 763), which has been endorsed by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
For Eiermann, the Creation Care Team and broader environmental ministry is inextricably linked to his belief in God, the Creator. When people ask him why, he talks about the long bicycle trips he used to take with his students, setting out from Minnesota, winding through Wisconsin and northern Illinois.
“It’s just astonishing, doing that,” he says. “Seeing the wonders of creation as I’m out riding my bicycle, appreciating nature. That ties to my faith strongly. Probably more than any other thing.”