In the meantime four days of enjoying the western North Carolina mountain environment were packed with learning, strategizing and planning for a future of advancing the care of the planet.
A grassroots network promoting the green movement among people of faith and their congregations, this year’s conference was aiming to build upon a new momentum for environmental care that is pulsating all around the nation and especially among Christian churches.
That momentum is felt particularly in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) after resolutions prepared by fellow activists led to presbytery overtures and, eventually, to the decision by the 2008 General Assembly to revive the Environmental Ministries Office in the denominational headquarters, which had been phased out due to budget constraints. Now overseen by Bill Somplatsky-Jarman and administered by the recently hired Katie Holmes, who formerly worked with Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, the office is housed in the Social Witness Ministries within the Department of Compassion, Peace and Justice.
The conference theme, “Embracing God’s Call to be Green,” co-sponsored by Montreat Conference Center, which hosted it, brought together over 200 participants. They came to meet the new leadership of the denomination’s now official ministry, and to contemplate how they could work in a less official, more networked way.
The setting provided an almost perfect setting for the meeting. As participant David Brookman reflected, “In spite of development in the form of roads and buildings Montreat was deliciously dripping with rainfall and made invigorating by the coolness of mountain air. What better place to encounter the glory of God’s imagination expressed through the natural order of plants and creatures each of which was bound together through subtle rings of interdependence?”
The matter of first importance for them was to embrace the name change to make simple and clear what their network is all about: Presbyterians for Earth Care (PEC). They also met a new part-time staff member, Julie Lehman, who also serves as Director of Church and Interfaith Relations at Warren Wilson College – a PC(USA)-related college renowned for its environmental leadership and activism.
Equipping for their work came from a series of lectures and workshops. Ellen Davis, who began service this past July 1 as the Amos Ragan Kearns Distinguished Professor of Bible and Practical Theology at Duke Divinity School (succeeding David Steinmetz upon his retirement), engaged participants in intense Scripture study.
She invited the participants to read Scripture through agrarian eyes, “something I’ve been trying to do for about 15 years,” she said. “I can’t overstate how much my understanding of the Bible has been transformed” by reading in that way. “The Biblical writers were agrarian theologians,” she explained, “who believed that God had placed them in that land, and sustained them in that fragile land, but did so on certain conditions, the most basic condition being obedience.”
The very first sin, she reminded the group, had to do with eating – the most basic social act among humans. When it comes to eating, everyone has to discover the limits and observe those limits, she warned, “or they’re out of Eden. They die.”
Such violations of God’s law also damage the environment, as was the case when God cursed the soil on account of the first humans’ sin. “I think it’s fair to say that from Genesis 3 on, the condition of the earth is the best index of the health of the relationship between God and Israel, and between God and humankind,” she asserted. “When humans are out of sync with God, the world suffers drought.” She further explained that in Hebrew the word for drought is the same word for mourn.
Six participants gained particular training to become Stewardship of Creation Enablers, each of whom will work with a cluster of presbyteries, providing training and facilitating projects to promote the green movement. These six new stewards join a cadre of 24 continuing ones.
Also several college students were trained to work in the eco-stewards program. They will provide environmental leadership and education at youth summer camps in partnership with the Presbyterian Camp and Conference Center Association.
During the conference, PEC awarded the William Gibson Lifetime Achievement Award to Linda Gray Sonner, of Batavia, Ill., who has worked on environmental issues in her home community for decades and played an instrumental role in the early years of developing PRC.
The organization also presented the Restoring Creation Award to Montreat Conference Center for the initiatives taken by the center, including setting aside a 2,500 acre wilderness conservation easement, the use of more local foods and a healthier menu for guests, and the purchase of an electric golf cart for transportation needs within the conference center.
At the conference, attendees heard a presentation and discussed the 350 Campaign, an international movement to address the climate crisis by working together to decrease the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere to 350 parts per million. A consensus of scientists has identified that amount as the safe upper limit. The CO2 concentration presently is about 385.
The movement www.350.org is coordinating “a planetary day of action” on Oct. 24, in order to influence a December meeting of world leaders in Copenhagan, Denmark. PEC endorsed the movement.
Much time was spent in the conference contemplating the crises and deterioration befalling the environment. Nevertheless Brookman, a retired minister active in the eco-justice movement for years, was upbeat. “Despite the serious and seemingly intractable problems that now confront humankind, I am hopeful for the future of life as it is and as it may yet become.”
The empowered and commissioned Presbyterians for Earth Care hope they can play a co-creative role with God toward such a future.