Green Congregations Advocate for People Affected by Environmental Problems

As creation care takes hold in a congregation’s building, worship and church life, God often nudges the church to a tipping point. Members begin advocating for those most affected by environmental problems.

Mountaintop removal site. Wikimedia Commons photo by JW Randolph

As creation care takes hold in a congregation’s building, worship and church life, God often nudges the church to a tipping point. Members begin advocating for those most affected by environmental problems.

For the Coral Gables United Church of Christ youth group, that tipping point was seeing mountaintops removed for coal mining. For coal-industry-executive-turned-pastor Mitch Hescox, it was realizing that being authentically pro-life requires caring about babies born with harmful blood levels of mercury. And for Christian farmers in Kenya, it was experiencing the effects of climate change and land abuse.

All these Christians understand why the 2012 Lausanne Global Consultation on Creation Care declared creation care “a gospel issue within the lordship of Christ.” They agree with the consultation that creation crisis is “urgent…and must be resolved in our generation.”

Congregations become advocates by listening to those most affected by creation abuse. Despite its discomfort, these congregations choose both truth and hope.

Listen to the “least of these”

At a 2012 national gathering of United Church of Christ (UCC) youth, two pastors showed a film about mountaintop removal (MTR) in Appalachia. Coal companies bulldoze trees and dynamite mountaintops to access thin seams of coal. They dump the resulting rubble and toxic waste into valleys and streams. More than 500 mountains and 2,000 miles of stream have been destroyed in West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee.

“As people who live in a flat area, we really appreciate mountains. It stirred much emotion to see that the government has allowed MTR for so many years,” says Guillermo Márquez-Sterling, associate pastor at Coral Gables UCC in metro Miami, Florida. His church’s youth came home determined to learn and do more about MTR.

In June 2013, a group of Coral Gables UCC youth and adults visited Virginia to enjoy unblemished mountains, meet with people affected by MTR and talk with legislators and lobbyists in Washington, DC.

“Leaders from Appalachian Voices took us to a mountain that’s being removed near Wise, Virginia. One resident said, ‘That destroyed mountain is one I loved to visit as a child.’ The  blasting of machines and trucks goes on 24/7. We saw the house where a falling boulder had crashed in and killed a young boy. The streams are red and murky. You’re not supposed to swim, bathe or fish in them. It was very upsetting. Two kids openly cried,” Márquez-Sterling says.

Their experience in Wise, Virginia, spurred them to think about the people connected to the electricity, gas, food and plastic bags they use. As Wise resident Kathy R. Selvage says in an Appalachian Voices video, “The people who pay for electricity in other places—I don’t think they fully understand that while they may have less expensive electricity rates, the people and the culture and the environment of the Appalachian people are being ruined.”

Choose truth and hope

Christians who become advocates for creation care sometimes despair about what they’re up against. Mitch Hescox, director of Evangelical Environmental Network (EEN), laments the truth of human pride that “feeds our addiction to fossil fuels, consumerism and general disregard for God’s creation,” as he writes in Sacred Acts: How Churches Are Working to Protect Earth’s Climate by Mallory McDuff. But Hescox finds hope in what can happen when praying Christians realign with God’s intention to protect and heal all creation.

Hescox grew up in Pennsylvania coal country. Both his grandfathers died of black lung disease. He began his career overseeing installation of expensive coal-powered electricity grids in China and India, where he met some of the world’s three billion people who can’t access or afford conventional electricity.

He often says his two passions are “sharing the story of Jesus and helping the poor.” Like those he pastored for 18 years at Grace United Methodist Church in York, Pennsylvania, Hescox cares deeply about unborn children. One in six U.S. babies is born with harmful blood levels of mercury, which lowers IQ and impairs their language and motor skills. Coal-fired power plant emissions are the main source of methylmercury pollution in soil, water and fish.

Some powerful industries, donors and legislators argue that laws requiring cleaner air and water cost too much. Hescox counters that it’s inconsistent to be against abortion yet refuse to protect unborn children’s “God-given potential” from mercury and other toxins.

EEN talks a lot about energy poverty. Without access to modern energy for heat, light and power, poor people have less chance for good health, education or income. Modern dirty energy disproportionately impacts poor people, plus billions can’t afford it. That’s why EEN advises churches and Christians to reduce their fossil fuel use and spend those savings on partnering with organizations that help people produce energy from renewable sources.

Care for creation

Although Christian mission organizations have historically included health, education and agriculture, few have linked Christian discipleship with sustainable energy or creation care.

For example, the first Protestant missionaries to Kijabe, Kenya, said the region was beautiful and “thickly populated.” They praised its lush pastures, productive farms, dependable rains, forested mountains and clear fresh streams. Over the next century, Kijabe became one of the world’s largest mission complexes, known for its hospital, academy, college and high percentage of Christians.

Meanwhile, however, people kept chopping down forests for firewood. Without trees to capture rain and hold topsoil in place, streams dried up. Biodiversity and farming yields plummeted. When heavy rains now come, Kijabi’s denuded earth erodes into catastrophic mudslides. A mudslide in May 2013 killed three schoolgirls.

There are places in Kijabe, however, where people have accepted the invitation to “plant God’s trees…harvest God’s water…and farm God’s way.” These priorities come from Care of Creation Kenya, founded in 2005 by Craig Sorley. He explains that since “all things were created by him and for him (Colossians 1:16),” then caring for creation honors Christ and fulfills his command to love our neighbors as ourselves.

Christians in Kijabe are planting trees so women don’t have to walk so far for firewood. Some are using fireless cookers (insulated containers that store heat). Climate change has disrupted seasonal rains, but when rain comes, Christians are harvesting it in cisterns and in mulched and reforested areas. They’re using scientifically-sound practices such as no-till, mulch, organic inputs and seed saving to heal the land—that way their children will always have plenty of food and water.

Featured Links

Learn More

Appalachian Voices and I Love Mountains work to replace mountaintop removal coal mining with clean energy. National Resources Defense Council and YES! report on grassroots successes in earth care.

Learn how to build solar panels on a short-term mission trip with New Vision Renewable Energy.

Get inspired by Care of Creation Kenya

Start A Discussion

Feel free to print and distribute these stories at your staff, board, outreach, missions or social justice meeting. These questions will help people think about why and how to advocate for creation care.

  • What is the longest you have ever gone without power? How would long-term lack of electricity, gas or clean water change your life and congregation?
  • Consider your community, faith tradition and mission partners. Who among them can connect you with people whose health is affected by pollution, agricultural chemicals or living near highways, factories and toxic waste sites? How do your consumer choices affect their lives?
  • Ask God to show you what you can do, join or support to protect the natural world and promote sustainable living—so that all may enjoy God’s good creation. You can’t do everything, but you can do something.

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