“It’s about time for me to email him again,” said the sophomore from an evangelical college in Tennessee. Since her arrival at the school, she’s been encouraging students, faculty, staff, and administration to follow God’s original command to humans: to care for the earth. In this case, every couple of weeks, she’s been asking for the school to host a chapel speaker who can talk about creation care. And she’s been turned down every couple of weeks, for a year. “This isn’t something our students are interested in,” replies the chaplain, every time, as if spiritual leadership is about telling people what they want to hear. As if college students today aren’t reading headlines about unprecedented species extinction, historic weather events becoming every-year-occurrences, global food insecurity, and more.
I met this Jesus-following student and a handful of her peers from schools across the U.S. as part of my day job directing CreatureKind, a nonprofit that helps Christians recognize faith-based reasons for caring about the wellbeing of farmed animals, and take action in response. This year, we’re partnering with Young Evangelicals for Climate Action (YECA) and I got to attend their annual cohort retreat, where evening conversations revolved not only around favorite Instagram accounts and the best of bad reality TV, but how college students could reduce their energy use in dorms, the pain caused by immigration raids and family separations, and how to share their testimonies. This year, there was also a lot of conversation about Amazonian Rainforest. Students were concerned that this massive area, often referred to as the world’s lungs, had been enveloped in apocalyptic blazes for weeks, in part because the current Brazilian President has emboldened agri-business to accelerate the pace at which they slash and burn the rainforest landscape to make room for more cattle grazing and cattle-feeding crops.
Why did these college students give up the last week of their summer vacations to attend a training in rural Michigan and engage themselves in emotionally difficult conversations? To a person, they answered a call because their faith compelled them to be there. As members of the body of Christ, as part of the Christian church in the United States, they read and respond to the words of Jesus: “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:13-16)
This year’s YECA cohort join a rich tradition of missionally-minded people working on behalf of God’s creation. They’re prepared to be salt on their campuses and in their churches, shaking a bit out everywhere it’s needed. Candles in the dark. Lone voices in the wilderness. Because voices need to speak, lights need to shine, and salt needs to be shaken out of its container and onto food to do the job it’s meant to do.
But is working on behalf of creation really salty? Maybe not always. But most of us who spend our time and energy in this space aren’t simply trying to preserve our own future (or present) security. Rather, action for environmental justice is obedience to God (Genesis 2:15). Action for environmental justice is seeking justice for and serving the most vulnerable of God’s people (see Loving the Least of These, a primer from the National Association of Evangelicals). And action for environmental justice is pressing into the promise of the reconciliation of Jesus Christ (Romans 8:18-23).
Seventeen years ago this month, I started my post-college job search. I made a list three pages long of nonprofit organizations that I thought did good work, and at which I thought I could make a difference in the world. I didn’t grow up saying the Lord’s Prayer on a regular basis, but the years have taught me that I was trying to make my life the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples: “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done; on earth as it is in heaven.” On earth. As it is in heaven. Of course, nothing I can do will bring about the full reconciliation of creation, that’s the work of Jesus (Colossians 1:15-20). I will never heal the world’s wounds. But my three-page list was a prayer: “Show me how to press into the promise of your Kingdom, on earth.”
My list wasn’t all environmental organizations. I cared about a lot of issues then, and I care about a lot of issues now. I see many of the world’s struggles as deeply interconnected, and it’s hard not to feel overwhelmed by the enormity of the world’s wounds. Systems that cause harm to the poor also cause harm to the environment. The devaluing of one kind of life can easily lead to the devaluing of another. The same sickness that causes someone to abuse an animal can cause that same person to abuse a human. And our sins hurt us as much as they hurt others.
One of the YECA leaders closed the retreat with the following prayer as a blessing for the students. A reminder that enormity—and the knowledge that the work will never be done in our lifetime—need not stop us in our tracks. We can and should “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly” in service of Jesus. We need to be salty, and we might even need to turn some tables over in the process, but we can do so in full peace, knowing that we are workers, not the Master Builder.
Archbishop Oscar Romero Prayer: A Step Along the Way
*This prayer was composed by Bishop Ken Untener of Saginaw, drafted for a homily by Card. John Dearden in Nov. 1979 for a celebration of departed priests.
It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent
enterprise that is God's work. Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of
saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the Church's mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.
This is what we are about.
We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an
opportunity for the Lord's grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master
builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.
About the Author
Sarah is the author of Vegangelical: How Caring for Animals Can Shape Your Faith (Zondervan, 2016) and Animals Are Not Ours (No, Really, They’re Not): An Evangelical Animal Liberation Theology (Cascade Books, 2016). She spends her days working for CreatureKind, helping Christians put their faith into action. She lives in Eugene with her husband, son, and animal companions and enjoys action movies, black coffee, the daily crossword, and dreaming of her next international journey.