Seven years ago, during this springtime season of rebirth, fellow filmmaker Terry Kay Rockefeller and I set out on a voyage of discovery that would result in RENEWAL, the first feature-length documentary about America’s religious-environmental movement. This was a period of relative national disinterest in the environment (pre-Katrina, pre-An Inconvenient Truth), but through the resources of The Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale, we became aware of clusters of people, from many faith traditions, who were taking action for the earth. It was an exciting and inspiring story that the popular media had persistently missed or ignored: the birth of a movement that was only starting to become known to itself.
The men, women and children we met were using teachings of faith as directives to care for the environment, and they were courageously confronting the central questions of what it means to be human in the midst of a culture of profligacy and consumption: What is our relationship and responsibility to all life on this planet, and to our Creator? How can we become better stewards of the environment and build a sustainable future?
RENEWAL presents eight grassroots stories about people who have been spiritually called to environmental action. Each story is set in a different faith tradition, addressing a different environmental concern. The film includes several Christian stories with one focusing on Evangelicals bearing witness to the sin of mountaintop removal coal mining that is decimating Appalachia and has been denounced in formal resolutions by the Lutheran, United Methodist, Presbyterian, and Episcopal churches. While the entire film runs 90-minutes, each story on the RENEWAL DVD is easily accessible as a short stand-alone film.
The emerging religious-environmental movement has been thrilling to document for its potential to bring about deep and lasting changes that can impact the earth. Addressing issues of consumption, pollution and stewardship, the religious movement promises to make a difference and motivate action in ways that the secular environmental movement has not yet been able to do.
One of RENEWAL’s stories, about the Reformed Church of Highland Park, NJ, portrays church members motivated by their faith to make changes at every level, to reduce their waste and become more low-impact stewards of the earth. This is typical of what is happening now in many houses of worship across America as people are becoming part of the religious-environmental movement.
It makes an enormous difference once you look at environmental protection in more than political, economic or scientific terms – once you understand it’s essentially a personal moral, ethical and spiritual issue. Today many people are discovering that caring for the environment is not only about endangered fish or imperiled birds or wilderness areas that most of us will never see. It’s about our deepest connection with the entire web of life, and with our Creator. And it’s about the choices that each of us makes, day to day.
In our early days of filming, the most striking thing we discovered was the lack of communication among groups who profoundly understood the deep bond between human beings and the earth – and who were already doing faith-inspired work to protect the environment. Most people assumed they were alone in taking action and that they wouldn’t be able to accomplish much – but they were acting anyway, out of a sense of spiritual calling to create a more mutually enhancing way of living with the planet. When we told them about others like them whom we'd met, they were usually surprised and delighted; the news provided a sense of strength and solidarity. We hoped the film would do that on a larger scale: offering a mirror to others whose faith inspired them to creation care across the country, showing them an image of their own good work and assuring them that they were not alone.
It’s been gratifying to watch the growth of this movement and to see the expanding role that Evangelicals are now playing in it. More and more are stepping forward to say that their faith in God has compelled them to find new ways of living with the planet, God’s gift to us. They’re doing it at home, in their churches and in the arena of public policy. Motivated by faith and by Scripture, Evangelicals are taking an active stand to strive for environmental awareness and build a more sustainable future.
Today, the religious-environmental movement – known as creation care to some – is emerging on the map of American consciousness, thanks in part to the continuing growth of Evangelical organizations and individuals who have discovered a calling in their biblical faith tradition to be stewards of the earth.
These include Allen Johnson and Christians for the Mountains (working to save Appalachia from the devastation of mountaintop removal coal mining); Peter Illyn and Restoring Eden (helping Christians, especially youth, rediscover the biblical call to environmental stewardship); the Evangelical Environmental Network (offering biblically inspired education and advocacy that relates to the moral aspects of public policies on energy and the environment); the Au Sable Institute of Environmental Studies (integrating environmental studies with biblical principles to bring the Christian community and the general public a better understanding of the stewardship of God’s creation); Matthew Sleeth, MD (author of Serve God, Save the Planet: A Christian Call to Action, a personal account of how Christian faith inspired significant changes in the way he and his family were living); Susan Emmerich, environmental activist / filmmaker (When Heaven Meets Earth, telling the story about the positive work-practices impact her faith-based stewardship approach has had in several Christian communities) and many others.
These exemplary Christian individuals and organizations have turned their faith into action, heeding the words that The earth is the Lord's, and everything in it (Ps. 24:1), that we have a responsibility to Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves (Prov. 31:8) and that the sanctity of nature comes from God, for There is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live. (I Cor. 8:6b)
Today, as our nation faces the most daunting ecological challenges of human history, it is increasingly evident that religious communities have a critical leadership role to play by raising their voices to speak out for peace and better stewardship of the earth. Christians have a brilliant opportunity to lead the way at the personal, community and political level.
As filmmakers, we’re proud that RENEWAL has become a positive and powerful influence in the growth of creation care throughout the nation. As a recent article explained, RENEWAL aims to help people “recognize they’re part of a moral and spiritual movement to save the earth and discover a new relationship with the planet.”
The inspiring stories in RENEWAL (which you can learn more about here) are typical of many stories that are now multiplying in religious communities across the nation. These are not only stories about renewal of the earth; they are stories about renewal of the soul and the experience of reinforced faith for those who become engaged in this great work of our time.
Perhaps, then, it is fitting that Earth Day, a day celebrating environmental renewal, falls so close to Easter, the season of spiritual renewal, this year. It is a perfect time to spread the word and celebrate that creation care, the religious-environmental movement, is truly here!