“This land is our church.” This response surprised me. On second thought, it made perfect sense. I was sitting and chatting at Tent of Nations farm in Palestine, just outside of Bethlehem. The farm is owned by the Nassars, a Palestinian Christian family. Where they live, checkpoints and restricted roads make it incredibly difficult to get into town. I knew how important their faith convictions were to their philosophy of creative non-violence and resistance to the occupation of their lands, which included sustainable stewardship of that land. As I worked clearing dried brush on their farm, I absentmindedly asked what church they went to. To my surprise, they replied, “This land is our church.”
Of course, the church is the body of Christ, a community of believers. However, I was so used to thinking of the church as a building that I had never stopped to consider how other communities of creation, like the trees, insects, and even soil microbes, could be the conduits of holy communion. At home, I noticed that my evangelical faith community liked to make distinctions and separate things out: the body is separate from the spirit, science is separate from faith, and liberation is separate from salvation. Yet, I was learning more and more, as Pope Francis writes in his encyclical On Care for Our Common Home, that everything is interconnected.
Counter to the “culture wars” that pitted the worldly against the spiritual, this interconnected approach acknowledged the deep relationships between humanity, spirituality, and the Earth itself. Reading texts like Laudato Si in class, engaging in environmental movements around the world, and joining communities like Young Evangelicals for Climate Action helped me to discover that we are bound up in a shared reliance on the Earth. Our extractive ideologies and over-consumptive lifestyles have direct impacts on our neighbors, both locally and globally. When I flew to Jerusalem, I contributed to the release of greenhouse gases that continue to warm the planet and exacerbate existing water insecurity in the Middle East. When I use coal-generated electricity to power my comfortable lifestyle in Indiana, I am contributing to sea level rise that might displace my brothers and sisters in coastal regions. When I shop for a closet that far outweighs my daily need for clothing, I am creating waste that will build up, often in the backyards of the most disadvantaged communities around the world. Our actions are intertwined with the wellbeing of our global ecosystem.
As a person of faith, I perceive environmental and climate action as the fulfillment of a dual calling: on the one hand to care for and steward creation, and on the other hand to love our neighbor, particularly the “least of these” who are most vulnerable. It’s impossible to arrive at perfection in this calling. I have plans to continue traveling abroad, I will continue to heat my apartment, even with its bad insulation, and I will probably go shopping one too many times. However, Christ never demands perfection, but rather a desire for relationship that comes out of a place of honest vulnerability. When I choose to bike to class, eat plant-based meals, or stop myself from buying something I don’t need, I do so in joy, knowing that my decisions are affirming my love and care for my neighbor, the environment, and God.
Our actions are intertwined with the wellbeing of our global ecosystem.
These personal choices are ways to practice what I preach and tap into relationships with the ecological and human communities around me. However, we also live within systems and structures in drastic need of reform. As I previously mentioned, I can’t stop heating my apartment amidst the fury of a midwestern winter, but I can advocate that the power company provides electricity from renewable sources. Or, I can advocate for legislation to facilitate the transition away from fossil fuels. I don’t get to decide where power plants or waste dumps are located, but I can educate myself about the unjust allocation of these environmental burdens to BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) and poor communities. I can support community organizations or legislation that will invest into these communities’ environmental health and climate resilience. I can’t single-handedly stop sea-level rise from displacing communities from their homes, but I can consider migrants with compassion, acknowledging their humanity and need for safety. There are many pathways towards positive change.
One path I have chosen has been working to integrate environmental initiatives into the work of DePaul Academy. DePaul is a local organization in South Bend that offers an alternative to incarceration for youth and emphasizes education, trauma healing, and community building over punishment. In collaboration with Karli Siefker, a friend and fellow student at the University of Notre Dame, I designed and co-taught a supplementary curriculum for DePaul students around sustainability that focused particularly on access to nature and environmental justice. Our goal is to bring hands-on activities and green spaces into DePaul Academy to foster the experiences of peace, healing, and spiritual connection that come when we encounter the natural world. While the class has nothing to do with faith in a religious sense, each week in class I experience the presence of Christ and am reminded of the affirmation, “I was in prison and you came to me,” and “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good” (Matt. 25:36, Gen. 1:31)
There is such joy in the interconnectedness of our world: the mixing of spirit and soil, heaven and earth. Protecting and stewarding creation means living in relationship with it. After all, the church is not a building, but rather a network—one that expands across the world and yearns to bring healing to the brokenness of our world. Climate change is one major illustration of our brokenness, brokenness that is spiraling out of control amidst a culture that values extravagance over wholeness. To return to the church of the land is to begin the process of healing.