Maximizing Our Capacity for Compassion: An Interview with Akisha Townsend Eaton

Akisha Townsend Eaton1) How did you get involved in animal protection?

I was blessed to have many people in my life plant the seeds that led me to be concerned about other creatures. Growing up, my mother always taught me that it was wrong for people to let animals suffer. As a university student I became deeply inspired by the work of Reverend Andrew Linzey, an Oxford Professor Anglican priest, and animal theologian. As a person of faith, it seemed intuitive to me that the well-being of God's creation was important as a moral issue. But it wasn't until I found his work that this feeling was validated for me in a way that was tangible. From then on, I decided to make my life's mission one that focuses on improving the condition of animals that the animals that have been entrusted to our care and stewardship. Even though I am Catholic, the virtues of mercy and compassion resonate throughout Christian theology.

2) How have you tried to engage your church on animal issues? What's the response been?

I've moved a bit over the years with school and careers, but wherever I've happened to be, I try to be active in care for creation ministries. Along with some other young adults, I have also recently started an intergenerational discussion group around animals in response to Pope Francis's encyclical, Laudato si' which calls every person on the planet to show greater concern and care for our common home and all who live within it. We regularly hold teleconferences on different animal related topics, and invite guest speakers with expertise in various areas of animal protection. It is open to people of all faiths and beliefs who are interested in learning more and acting on this call in their daily lives. The response has been very positive. Many people involved have want these issues to be addressed in their own places of worship, and the group gives us as place to connect with one another to share our thoughts as well as opportunities.

3) Do you get support for animal protection work from within the church?

I've been blessed to have opportunities in the past to play a role in organizing events such as the annual blessing of the animals, film screenings about animal issues, and humane education programs for youth going through religious education. Both types of opportunities offer the of the faith community the chance to explore modern issues facing animals within traditions that have spanned the centuries. Many within my church are interested in the work I do, and offer encouragement. Others are genuinely curious about how it fits within the teachings of the church. I am glad to be able to share my personal story about how I feel called to do the work I do on the basis of my faith.

4) How has working for animals influenced your faith, or vice versa? In other words, talk about what spiritual challenges and growth your work with animals has produced in you. 

My faith was what inspired me to start working for animals. In turn, working for animals has helped me to become more deeply connected with my faith in ways I never anticipated. Through my work in animal law and policy, I've come to learn that many of the issues that the Church is now concerned with, such as reduction of poverty, hunger, violence and environmental degradation are strongly linked to the way we treat nonhuman animals. Our Church teaches that anyone who is cruel to animals is often likewise cruel to human beings, for example. Through my work on animal issues, I've learned about so much human suffering that accompanies it. Today we see this evidenced in the link between domestic violence and animal cruelty. Likewise, when animals suffer substandard living conditions in industrial settings, those working with them often face poor working conditions. And more recently, the issue of climate change has become a key concern for Catholics. Yet, one of the best ways to combat climate change is to shift away from animal foods, which are often produced in massive factory farms where animals are treated more as commodities rather than individuals. Such an action helps people, planet and animals. One of the challenges ahead is connecting these dots. But I think we're on our way to getting there.

5) What do you wish people in the church knew about animals? 

This is an interesting question. I think many people in the Church have the same attitudes toward animals as the general public. Many people love animals and have them as companions at home. Most know that animals have the capacity to suffer and do not wish to see this happen. But I think we could do well to look inwards to examine what type of power we have as individuals to prevent suffering through our daily actions, and then start a process of adopting these habits. For some, this will require a profound conversion. But this type of conversion is exactly what we're called to as people of faith serving Christ and respecting the creatures that bear the imprint of our Creator.

According to our faith God saw animals as "good" from the very beginning by their very design. They belong to God and are designed to give God glory. The majority of people interact with animals directly, such as with their family pets and indirectly with animals through the products they consume that rely upon animal sources. The challenge is figuring out ways to make the latter less invisible, and ensure we are doing our part to allow them to give glory to God and treat them with the respect our faith demands of us. So, I guess I can say I wish people in the Church could know more about their own capacity to effect positive change for God's creatures.

Akisha Townsend Eaton, OFS, is a Secular Franciscan, and animal protection attorney.  She is also an Associate Fellow at the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics and HSUS Faith Outreach Ally. Akisha was interviewed by Sarah Withrow King.

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