Caring for God’s Creation

People of faith are called to protect the earth—and the people living on it.

Caring for God’s Creation
Participants in a vigil for environmental justice at the 2016 United Methodist General Conference in Portland, Oregon, on #umwday.

United Methodists from across the country gathered in Arlington, Virginia, in April 2017 to participate in the Caretakers of God’s Creation Conference.

United Methodist Women was part of the host committee organizing the conference, which also included representatives from Wesley Seminary, the Methodist Theological Seminary in Ohio, the General Boards of Church and Society and Global Ministries, and representatives of United Methodist Caretakers of God’s Creation and the Virginia Annual Conference.

Hosted by Mt. Olivet United Methodist Church, those in attendance heard from retired United Methodist Bishop C. Joseph Sprague, Green Faith’s the Rev. Fletcher Harper, Global Ministries Native American Ministries’ Chebon Kernell, and Fossil Free UMC’s the Rev. Jenny Phillips, among others working to move church and society toward more sustainable ways of living and away from exploitation of vulnerable communities.

“The United Methodist Church was the first denomination in the country to identify climate change as a threat to justice throughout the world when we passed a resolution in 1980 calling global warming and large scale coal power plants to be challenges to justice and sustainability,” said Jaydee Hanson, senior policy analyst at the Center for Food Safety and chair of the host committee. “To work on climate justice means we are working for a world in which the poorest people are not exploited.”

The one-day event also featured a forum with United Methodist Bill McKibben, senior advisor and co-founder of

“The conference was structured to facilitate faith, hope and love in action,” said participant Phyllis Terwilliger, United Methodist Women “Be Just. Be Green” guide for the Northeast Jurisdiction. “It was bookended by a tour of an urban farm in the Capitol Heights district of D.C. on Thursday and the People’s Climate March on Saturday. Sandwiched in between was worship and workshops. So we were spiritually fed, educated by workshops and the tour, and then acted with our feet and signs as part of a massive witness in the People’s Climate March.”

United Methodist Women’s executive for climate justice, Elizabeth Lee, moderated a climate justice simulation, a role-playing exercise designed to help participants understand concerns of an environmentally degraded community. Kirsten Rumsey and Sarah Kellogg of United Methodist Women’s New Generations climate justice advocates led attendees in playing roles of those affected by mining in an indigenous land zone, by mountaintop removal in Appalachia, and by pollution in a city industrial zone.

“The topic of climate justice can often feel overwhelming. There’s so much science, data, and so many communities being impacted,” said Lee. “Where do we begin? The climate justice simulation, developed in partnership with Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, Black Mesa Water Coalition and Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, is a concrete way for groups from as small as six to even more than 100 to use role-play in learning about realities facing three communities our partners actively work in. You may be a coal miner who earns a living from mountaintops being destroyed, an indigenous farmer on a reservation with contaminated water from nearby uranium mines, or a young United Methodist Women member who has respiratory problems caused by the lead released from a nearby metal heating facility and concerned about the possibility of raising healthy children.

“The simulation brings disparate characters into dialogue with one another, showing how they all are impacted by the consequences of extractive industries, and participants explore and collectively decide what they would do to press for climate justice in those three particular communities,” said Lee.

The materials to host your own climate justice simulation are available at Climate Justice Simulation Experience.

Other workshop topics included investment/divestment and advocacy related to fossil fuels, the Bible and creation, the Dakota Access Pipeline and Virginia Pipeline and public advocacy and community organizing.

Choose life

Climate justice has been a longtime priority for United Methodist Women. Working to end and reverse the negative effects of climate change is about more than just protecting the environment; climate change and the human contribution to it is a moral issue, especially regarding the communities most affected. Some cultures have benefitted from our unjust and unsustainable economic system, and others have been consistently harmed.

“Unfortunately, the communities, both in the United States and around the world, that are most affected by climate change are those most at the margins,” said the Rev. Pat Watkins, missionary for Caretakers of God’s Creation and editor of United Methodist Women’s mission study Climate Justice: A Call to Hope and Action. “In the United States they are communities of color, of low income, of Native Americans, of refugees and immigrants. These are the communities located in close proximity to coal-fired power plants, coal mines, chemical and other industrial facilities, pipelines, rivers that are the most polluted, etc. These communities are disproportionately plagued with health issues, food insecurity, energy insecurity and loss of land and culture.

“Wealthy, predominately white suburban communities are largely immune from problems associated with close proximity to the source of environmental concerns. They have the economic and political clout to make sure their communities are far less affected.

As people of faith we are called to care for all of God’s creation, which includes the earth and the people who inhabit it. “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses,” says Deuteronomy 30:19. “Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.” Choose life. Choose love. Choose practices that lead to abundant life for all. These are our biblical directives.

“Not only does our faith call us to care for creation, but it is the foundation of our faith,” said Shanae Als, United Methodist Women Program Advisory Group member who attended the conference. “It all started in the beginning. If we say we are Christians, we need to follow the Good Book.” Als attended the conference to learn more about the systemic issues underlying climate injustice and to learn ways to take action.

“Not only is this rooted in our faith as United Methodist Women,” she said, “its rooted in the legacy we have and want to continue.”

Faith and climate justice

Though some of us are affected more severely and more immediately by climate change and an unsustainable, resource-obsessed economy, lack of sustainability will eventually affect us all. Stemming the damage may begin with changes in personal habits and consumption patterns, but for real change to occur it will take local, national and global policy changes as well as changes in practices by the sectors contributing most to climate change. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the top sources of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States are, in order, electricity, transportation, industry, commercial and residential, and agriculture.

“United Methodist Women members are rightly changing consumption practices through our 13 Steps to Sustainability,” said Carol Barton, United Methodist Women executive for community action, who co-led the community organizing workshop. “At the same time, for the greatest impact, advocacy is needed in our communities to get government and institutions to move toward alternative energy consumption and waste disposal. During the organizing workshop we discussed advocacy to challenge efforts to roll back environmental protections at the EPA as well as local faith-based community efforts to get municipalities to become more sustainable. We heard about how communities of color, on the front lines of toxic energy production sites, are taking on corporate practices and enlisting support of the faith community.”

United Methodist Women, like The United Methodist Church, can make great impact not only with its strength in numbers but with its organized presence in local communities, states, regions and nations.

“United Methodist Women’s 13 Steps to Sustainability embody the intersection approach that is needed to tackle environmental justice legacy issues and climate change,” said Michele Roberts, national co-coordinator of Environmental Justice Health Alliance for Chemical Policy Reform and director of Outreach for Coming Clean, who preached at the event’s closing worship. “United Methodist Women provided funding to the environmental justice movement at a time when it was very hard to get funding back in the early 1990s.”

Care for the natural world is part of the United Methodist Social Principles. United Methodists acknowledge that “rampant industrialization and the corresponding increase in the use of fossil fuels have led to a buildup of pollutants in the earth’s atmosphere. The ‘greenhouse gas’ emissions threaten to alter dramatically the earth’s climate for generations to come with severe environmental, economic, and social implications. The adverse impacts of global climate change disproportionately affect individuals and nations least responsible for the emissions” (¶160D, The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church). Because of this, we “support efforts of all governments to require mandatory reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and call on individuals, congregations, businesses, industries, and communities to reduce their emissions.”

“United Methodists in Africa have faced decades of drought that may have been made worse by climate change. Methodists in the Pacific and the Chesapeake Bay are seeing their islands shrink as sea levels rise,” said Hanson, who also serves a policy director at the International Center for Technology Assessment. “U.S.-based United Metho-dists living in the nation that has produced the largest amounts of global warming gases have a special responsibility to lead the worldwide reductions of global warming gases.”

The current U.S. presidential administration recently withdrew from the historic Paris Climate Agreement, signed by 195 nations who agreed to reduce carbon emissions, increase efforts to adapt to climate change and build resilience, and support sustainable development.

United Methodist Women opposes this withdrawal from the world’s first comprehensive climate agreement. United Methodist Women General Secretary Harriett Jane Olson also signed onto a letter to the current head of the EPA opposing his decision to rollback corporate regulations reducing harmful methane, smog-forming pollution and toxic emissions. Sixty-five other organizations also signed the letter. These recent policy decisions increase the urgency to work within local communities and directly with corporations.

“It is my expectation that as United Methodists continue to examine what it means to be disciples of Jesus Christ, we would include creation care as a core theological tenant of our discipleship,” said Watkins. “It is the responsibility of all Christians to care for this amazing creation.”

The United Methodist Council of Bishops also issued a statement against the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement.

“United Methodist Women has not relied on states, governments or companies alone to pave the way for justice—it has created and demanded justice,” Lee said. “During Jim Crow, United Methodist Women chose to host events only where white and black women could be together while pressing state and local governments to overturn the laws. Our task today around climate justice is no different. God calls us to steward God’s creation. This means we engage in climate justice by changing our own consumption patterns personally and by addressing climate injustice systemically. United Methodist Women is pressing for the drastic reduction of greenhouse gases from top emitters in the United States. These top emitters not only increase global warming but also release toxic gases and chemicals that poison our waters, neighborhoods and communities, which disproportionately impact low-income communities, communities of color and children. As United Methodist Women, we can come together in our units, districts, conferences and jurisdictions and work with other partners to let our local, state and federal governments and greenhouse gas emitting companies know that we will not sit idly by but will serve as the climate justice gadfly of our time so that all of God’s creation is protected.”

A world safe from exploitation, toxic air and preventable diseases and disasters is something all deserve and something we can all accomplish. Informed by scripture, we can work together to live in alignment with our faith.

“We honor God, who created everything, by respecting and cherishing God’s artwork. Climate justice is not tangential or a compartmentalized part of my faith but an integral part of my day-by-day relationship with Jesus Christ, others and the earth,” said Terwilliger. “When I read of a permit being sought for a natural gas pipeline and call my senators, bicycle to an event, or grow veggies in a community garden, it is being intentional about that relationship with the living, breathing God and being conscientious toward those who are most vulnerable to climate change.”

Tara Barnes is editor of response.

Posted or updated: 10/9/2017 12:00:00 AM

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