Religious communities are taking on climate change

Churches that have long played a role in social justice are stepping up.

 

Before Pastor Jim Therrien, 49, moved to New Mexico, he rarely thought about environmental issues. Back in Kansas, where he was born and raised, the grass outside his home was always green, and though the state had an active oil industry, companies fenced off well sites properly and promptly cleaned up spills. But then he and his family saw the impacts of energy development on the Southwestern landscape and their new church community. Therrien began to think about the connection between the local environment and the broader issue of climate change.

Every day, Therrien, a blond, ruddy and tattooed man of Irish descent, looked out his window and saw a dry land getting drier. Residents told him that winters used to be much colder and snowier. The hotter temperatures thickened the methane haze, and oil and gas traffic tore up the dirt roads. Therrien started to see these problems as injustices that conflicted with Christian values. So he decided to take a stand. Churches have long played a crucial role in social movements, from the civil rights era to immigration reform. Why not environmental activism?

“I don’t ever consider myself an environmentalist,” he told me one afternoon at the Lybrook Community Ministries, on a remote stretch of Highway 550, between the Navajo Nation and the Jicarilla Apache Reservation. “I’m more of a people person.”

Therrien’s congregation, mostly Navajo, had spent years living with the San Juan Basin’s drilling boom, and the last thing they needed was a sermon about climate change. So instead of lecturing, he created a garden to reduce the church’s use of fossil fuels to transport food. Then he began fundraising for solar installations on homes around the mission and urging lawmakers to tighten regulations on methane, a powerful greenhouse gas released by oil and gas drilling.

Last year, he joined the Interfaith Power & Light campaign, “a religious response to global warming” composed of churches and faith communities across the U.S. Since 2001, the network had expanded its membership from 14 congregations in California to some 20,000 in over 40 states. The group provides resources to churches and other faith communities for cutting carbon emissions — helping install solar panels, for instance, and sharing sermons on the importance of addressing climate change.

Therrien says he is merely “following the Scripture.” In the process, however, he has joined a growing environmental movement that brings a religious dimension to the problem of climate change.

 

Members of the New Community Project tour the Navajo Nation near now-dry Washington Lake to learn how oil and gas extraction is affecting the Navajo people who live nearby.
Sarah Tory

The green religious movement is gaining momentum. In May, nine Catholic organizations announced plans to divest from fossil fuel corporations, a move inspired by Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical, Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home.

In June, President Donald Trump announced plans to withdraw from the Paris climate accord, a decision that Catholic Bishop Oscar Cantú, of Las Cruces, New Mexico, called “deeply troubling.” “The Scriptures affirm the value of caring for creation and caring for each other in solidarity,” said Cantú, who is the chairman of the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on International Justice and Peace. “The Paris agreement is an international accord that promotes these values.”

In July, the United Church of Christ delivered a similar message, urging the clergy to preach on “the moral obligation of our generation to protect God’s creation” and exhorting individuals to take political action.

For these churches, climate change connects a long list of social and economic injustices they care deeply about, from food insecurity to the global refugee crisis.

Pope Francis stands in front of a statue of St. Francis of Assisi. The pope, who takes his name from St. Francis, the patron saint of animals and ecosystems, has led a call to action on climate change for the Catholic community.
CNS/Paul Haring

“Climate change is the biggest ethical, moral and spiritual challenge of our day,” Joan Brown, the executive director of New Mexico Interfaith Power & Light, told me.

She pointed to St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals and ecology, a medieval Italian monk who spent much of each year living in hermitages, caves and on mountainsides, praying in the wilderness. “St. Francis speaks of everything being connected,” she said, “of there being no separation between the human and natural world.” When Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected pope, he chose his name in honor of St. Francis. Brown credited Pope Francis with helping reframe climate change as a moral concern.

Laudato Si’ describes the relationship between global poverty, inequality and environmental destruction, and issues a call to action. When Francis visited the White House in 2015, he declared: “Climate change is a problem which can no longer be left to a future generation. I would like all men and women of goodwill in this great nation to support the efforts of the international community to protect the vulnerable in our world.”

Among non-Catholics, too, the pontiff’s message has had an effect: Polling from the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication shows that the number of Americans who say they think global warming will harm the world’s poor rose from 49 to 61 percent; the percent who say the issue has become “very” or “extremely important” to them personally jumped from 19 to 26 percent.

A little over a year later, during the Paris climate negotiations, Brown recalled how during a breakout session for faith leaders, one of the Paris organizers praised Laudato Si’ and the similar documents released by Muslim, Jewish and Buddhist leaders. It was the first time, Brown said, quoting the organizer, “that ethical and moral imperatives are front and center with delegates.”

 

Here at his hardscrabble New Mexico parish, Therrien continues to practice what he preaches. On a hot day in July, he herded 28 visitors into the mission’s two white vans for a drive out onto the Navajo Nation. The group, mostly Easterners, ranged in age from 8 to over 60 and had traveled to the Lybrook mission as part of a weeklong fact-finding trip. Like Therrien, many were members of the Church of the Brethren, a Protestant denomination with a history of activism. More recently, their focus had shifted to environmental issues — especially climate change.

“It’s concerning that our government is pulling back from what we should be focusing on,” one of them, Jim Dodd, told me. Recently, the giant Larsen Ice Shelf had broken off from Antarctica, and Dodd was worried. “Villages already at sea level are going to get flooded,” he said.

Leading the group was David Radcliff, director of the New Community Project, a Vermont-based organization. “It’s a fairness issue for the rest of God’s creatures,” he told me. Radcliff has led “learning tours” around social and environmental justice issues for church groups, most recently, to the Ecuadorian Amazon.

Radcliff, a small, wiry man with an intense blue gaze, wore a white T-shirt with a very long slogan on the back. “Earth is a mess,” it said, and “God’s not amused.” If you aren’t satisfied, it added, “do something about it.”

For Radcliff, discussing the facts of climate change isn’t enough. That’s where religion comes in. “At a certain point, you have to talk about the consequences, and past that it becomes a conversation about morality,” he said. Take moose in the Northeast: They are dying from tick infestations exacerbated by a warming climate, caused by humans taking more from the Earth than they need, he said. “We are stealing from other living things.”

As we drove over bumpy dirt roads west of the mission, the Easterners stared in awe at the crumpled mesas and the vast New Mexican landscape. Navajo homesteads peeked out of the sagebrush. Every so often, a large semi-truck carrying pipes and other equipment roared past in a cloud of dust, heading for one of the scattered well pads or towering rigs marking fracking operations.

Therrien stopped the van at one of the well sites and ushered everyone out, gesturing toward a row of high metal storage tanks. Under federal and state regulations, the company should have built fencing around it, but out here on Navajo land, Therrien noted, the rules weren’t always enforced. Last year, several oil storage tanks north of Lybrook exploded, forcing Navajo families living nearby to evacuate their homes. Since moving to the mission, he often thought about how much easier it was to ignore the consequences of oil and gas development — and of climate change — if people weren’t involved.

Back in Kansas, Therrien had recycled cans and kept a compost pile, but when it came to climate change, he felt mostly resigned. “I used to think, ‘What can one person do?’ ” he told me. Now, as a pastor on the Navajo Nation, he felt a new sense of urgency and purpose.

Last January, he spoke at a rally outside the Bureau of Land Management’s office in Santa Fe, New Mexico, protesting the agency’s decision to lease 844 acres of land for drilling. The rally brought together Navajo activists, environmental groups and religious leaders from the state chapter of Interfaith Power & Light. Although they failed to stop the sale, Therrien remained hopeful. “Through the church, I realized there was this network of people fighting for the same things,” he said.

Therrien stopped the van at a low rise overlooking what was once Washington Lake. Families once gathered water here for themselves and their livestock. Four years ago, it dried up.

Everyone piled out, while Radcliff explained how aquifers were losing water. “They’re dropping all over the world,” including in the West, he said. He paused and knelt to pick up a can that was left on the side of the road and brandished it above him. “No other creature makes trash,” he said. “So what’s progress?” The people gazed past him, staring at the dusty lakebed, where patches of dry grass swayed in the heat.

Correspondent Sarah Tory writes from Paonia, Colorado. She covers Utah, environmental justice and water issues.

High Country News Classifieds
  • GRAND CANYON DIRECTOR
    The Grand Canyon director, with the Grand Canyon manager, conservation director, and other staff, envisions, prioritizes, and implements strategies for the Grand Canyon Trust's work...
  • ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a part-time Administrative Assistant to support the organization's general operations. This includes phone and email communications, office correspondence and...
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • ONE WILL: THREE WIVES
    by Edith Tarbescu. "One Will: Three Wives" is packed with a large array of interesting suspects, all of whom could be a murderer ... a...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR, SALAZAR CENTER FOR NORTH AMERICAN CONSERVATION
    The Program Director will oversee the programmatic initiatives of The Salazar Center, working closely with the Center's Director and staff to engage the world's leading...
  • WILDEARTH GUARDIANS - WILD PLACES PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Salary Range: $70,000-$80,000. Location: Denver, CO, Portland, OR, Seattle, WA, Missoula, MT or potentially elsewhere for the right person. Application Review: on a rolling basis....
  • RIVER EDUCATOR/GUIDE + TRIP LEADER
    Position Description: Full-time seasonal positions (mid-March through October) Organizational Background: Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a 10 year old nonprofit organization fostering community stewardship of...
  • BOOKKEEPER/ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT
    Position Description: Part-time, year-round bookkeeping and administration position (12 - 16 hours/week) $16 - $18/hour DOE Organizational Background: Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a 10...
  • LAND STEWARD
    San Isabel Land Protection Trust seeks a full-time Land Steward to manage and oversee its conservation easement monitoring and stewardship program for 42,437 acres in...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Ventana Wilderness Alliance is seeking an experienced forward-facing public land conservation leader to serve as its Executive Director. The mission of the Ventana Wilderness Alliance...
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    The Quivira Coalition (www.quiviracoaltion.org) is a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education,...
  • GRANT WRITER
    "We all love this place we call Montana. We believe that land and water and air are not ours to despoil, but ours to steward...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    The Development Director is responsible for organizing and launching a coherent set of development activities to build support for the Natural History Institute's programs and...
  • WILDLIFE PROJECT COORDINATOR
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF or Federation) is America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 53 state/territorial affiliates and more...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Cinnabar Foundation helps protect and conserve water, wildlife and wild lands in Montana and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem by supporting organizations and people who...
  • TRUSTEE AND PHILANTHROPY RELATIONS MANGER,
    Come experience Work You Can Believe In! The Nature Conservancy in Alaska is seeking a Trustee and Philanthropy Relations Manager. This position is critical to...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR AT FRIENDS OF CEDAR MESA
    -The Land, History, and People of the Bears Ears Region- The Bears Ears and Cedar Mesa region is one of the most beautiful, complex, diverse,...
  • CONSERVATION SPECIALIST
    Position will remain open until January 31, 2021 Join Our Team! The New Mexico Land Conservancy (NMLC) is a non-profit land trust organization dedicated to...
  • OLIVERBRANCH CONSULTING
    Non-Profit Management Professional specializing in Transitional Leadership, Strategic Collaborations, Communications and Grant Management/Writing.
  • GREAT VIEWS, SMALL FOOTPRINT
    Close to town but with a secluded feel, this eco-friendly home includes solar panels, a graywater reuse system, tankless hot water, solar tubes, and rainwater...