Today's piece is written by Pat Watkins. Rev. Watkins is a missionary with Global Ministries serving at Caretakers of God's Creation.
As a missionary in Nigeria in the 90’s, I learned a very important life lesson. Because of the isolated nature of our village (even the Nigerians who lived there said we lived at the “end of the earth”), I had to learn to live my life in relationship with how the earth lives its life in ways I had never before experienced.
For example, there was a mango tree in our backyard. We could have mangoes only when they were in season; when they were not, we couldn’t go to the market and buy one from South America. Also, there was a rainy season and a dry season in our part of Nigeria. We had to plan our trips to the city during the dry season because in the heart of the rainy season we could not get out of our village by road. The rivers filled up with water, and as there were no bridges, when the water got too deep to drive through, we couldn’t go anywhere. I was forced to consider the life of earth when planning my own.
In the US I never had to do that; I could essentially ask the earth to conform its life to mine. I could turn on heat or air conditioning and always get myself out of the rain or snow. I never had to change my life due to the life of the planet until I arrived in Nigeria. For people who have grown up on farms, this comes naturally, but for me, it was quite a revelation.
And for me that newfound relationship with the earth really did something to me. Instead of merely figuring out ways of tolerating such a relationship, I embraced it. There was something good about it, and as time went on I began to wonder if perhaps there might even be something sacred about it.
I came home from Nigeria with a huge question in my mind and heart: “Is there a connection between a relationship with the earth and my life as a disciple of Jesus Christ?” I had attended seminary, but I wanted to learn some earth science in an effort to have a conversation within myself between science and theology; only then could I answer my question. So I went back to school in Environmental Science to learn that part of the conversation.
After a couple of years, I could answer that question with a resounding “Yes!” Absolutely there is a connection between my faith as a Christian and not only a relationship with God’s creation but also a responsibility to care for it and heal it.
My follow up questions were, “If this relationship with the earth is a valid one from the perspective of Christian faith, then doesn’t it make sense that the church should see itself in mission to and with the earth, just as we are with God’s people? And if so, then how do I live this out for myself as an ordained clergy person, and how can I suggest the church live it out?”
After a few years of working for policy organizations in Virginia, I had the bright idea that the church should make me a missionary again, only this time instead of sending me to another country or group of people, the church should send me to God’s creation.
I was commissioned a Church and Community Worker assigned as the Executive Director of Caretakers of God’s Creation, a ministry of the Virginia Conference. Our goal was to raise United Methodists’ awareness about the connection between faith and the responsibility to care for creation and then to equip individuals and congregations in how they could live out their faith, given this connection.
Over the next several years, I met people from other parts of the country for whom this connection between faith and creation care was also a passion; some had started creation care ministries in their local congregations, districts and/or conferences. It became evident to many of us that there was a need within the UMC for a national US creation care organization. Thus, my mission position evolved to become a Global Ministries Missionary with a global focus.
My approach in promoting this mission of the church always starts with theology. It is crucial that we have a good foundational knowledge of the biblical theology of creation care, such that any and all actions we engage in naturally evolve out of our faith. I routinely discuss climate change, for example, with congregations, Sunday School classes, etc., but always from within the context of good, solid biblical theology.
I never need to tell people what to do (i.e. recycle, get rid of Styrofoam, drive a Prius, etc.) because they already know all of that and are smart enough to figure out in their own lives, based on their contexts and situations, what are the most effective actions they should be taking. My job is to provide them with an additional motivation for why, as a Christian, they should care about doing those things. It isn’t because “green” has become the “in” thing; it’s because we’re Christians!
In addition, I try to associate creation care issues with the traditional, historic mission of the church. For example, how can the health mission of the church make the connection between human health and the health of the planet such that healing the earth can be seen as healing God’s people? For me, it is impossible to care for the earth without caring for God’s people and impossible to care for God’s people without caring for the earth.
Another example is the disaster response mission of the church. We do a great job of responding to disasters around the world, but can we begin to see mitigation of climate change as a way to reduce the frequency and severity of the disasters we react to? We can replace houses and churches that are destroyed by a hurricane, for example, but we can’t restore the lives that are lost. But if we mitigate climate change and reduce the severity of hurricanes, perhaps we can prevent the loss of life.
Mission is complex and complicated, but we as United Methodists have the intelligence, the ability to think complexly, the experience and the skills necessary to embrace a very difficult world and transform it for the sake of the Gospel of Christ. But we have to be able to make all kinds of connections with all that we do, including connections with the earth itself.