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Jason Fileta | Faith, Justice, Climate

When Jason Fileta started to hear story after story of how climate change made the lives of people harder it led him understand the deep connection between our caring for the planet and the lives of the poor and hungry around the world. 

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When Jason Fileta started to hear story after story of how climate change made the lives of people harder it led him understand the deep connection between our caring for the planet and the lives of the poor and hungry around the world. 

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Description

A podcast that shows the harmony between Christian faith and current scientific discoveries by sharing the stories of interesting people who have found a better way of understanding science and Christian faith.
  • Originally aired on September 30, 2021
  • With 
    Jim Stump

Jason Fileta didn’t start out as an environmental activist. His first passion was to alleviate the suffering of the poor and hungry. As he met and heard the stories from those struggling with poverty and hunger he often asked them the question: if we could get a million Christians in North America to raise their voices on an issue that impacts your community, what would it be? He was surprised when a farmer in Uganda said climate change. But then he started to hear story after story of how climate change has made the lives of people harder, and this has led Jason to understand the deep connection between our caring for the planet and the lives of the poor and hungry around the world.

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Transcript

Fileta:

We saw the number, the proportion of people experiencing hunger decrease every single year, until 2014. And then it started to increase. And that shift is, in part because of conflict, and in part because of climate change. And so for people who have a compassion for humans experiencing poverty and hunger around the world, to understand that, like, you really can’t respond to those issues without addressing climate change is important. So that’s why I spend so much time really trying to highlight the human impact of climate change.

So my name is Jason Fileta. And I’m the Vice President of advocacy and engagement at Tearfund USA.

Stump:

Welcome to Language of God. I’m Jim Stump. 

This is an episode about climate change and caring for creation. But Jason Fileta, our guest today, didn’t come to be talking about climate and working on solutions to climate change because of passion for animals or plants, or even from a science background at all. Rather, he had a passion for helping the most vulnerable people around the world. When he started his work, he knew about climate change, accepted the science even, but didn’t give it much thought beyond that. It was an issue for someone else with different passions and interests. But as he continued his work in international development, the story he heard over and over was that climate change was making it harder for people to grow food, to find clean water, and make a decent living. And that’s what he really cares about.

In the episode we hear about some of these particular effects of climate change on people around the world and we hear the story of how Jason came to be an advocate for climate solutions and environmental care. Jason was fun to talk to and genuine in his passion to help those who are poor and hungry and I found that passion to be infectious. I hope you do too. 

Let’s get to the conversation

Interview Part One

Stump:

Well, Jason, thanks so much for joining us today. 

Fileta:

Yeah, thank you for having me. 

Stump:

So we want to eventually get talking about the links between justice and poverty and climate change and creation care. Before we get there, though, we’d like to know a little bit about you yourself. So could you maybe start by giving us some autobiography if you would? You’re the son of Egyptian immigrants, maybe start with that. How has that shaped your life and your passions and your values? 

Fileta: 

Definitely, definitely. So, yes, my parents came here from Egypt in 1980. And I was born a few years after that. And so, you know, growing up, I was raised in the suburbs of Chicago. And I always had a very deep awareness that there was so much more world out there than like, what I was exposed to at home and the day to day in my little neighborhood. You know, my parents were deeply passionate about the church in Egypt. And, particularly, really involved in just like trying to support Christians in Egypt, who are experiencing discrimination on a daily basis because of their faith, or, you know, actually, a lot of people don’t realize poverty and persecution really go hand in hand. You know, there’s kind of like, in some weird ways, in the West, there’s like these romanticized ideas around like, persecution or something. But it’s a day to day struggle, like discrimination, you know. Like, if you’re a persecuted minority, you might experience like, having to pay more for goods, not getting good service, or, you know, whatever it is, like being discriminated against in your job, you know, these day to day struggles. And so my parents raised me and my brothers to be deeply aware of these things, to be praying about these things, to be, we were just looped in to, like, hardships, specifically of like family and friends in Egypt, but really, like globally, as well. So from a young age, I just had this very global perspective. And I think for me, that was really, really tied into my understanding of who God was, you know, that God didn’t intend the world to be this way, that the peace and stability I was experiencing in my life wasn’t the norm for so many people around the world, in that for me to go on ignoring that would be wrong, you know?

Stump:  

Did you travel much as a kid to see this firsthand? Or is this only the stories that you’re seeing secondhand?

Fileta:

Yeah, it wasn’t through, like travel. But we did—we always had, like, either people who were seeking asylum, or refugees, or just people immigrating to try to like, find something better or safer, staying with us. And so I felt a lot of exposure in that way. Yeah, and it really imprinted me, you know, at a young age, that there’s deep inequality in the world, that that’s not okay, that that’s not how God intended the world to be. And honestly a huge part of it for my childlike sensibilities, feeling so much grief and anguish about this. Like my comfort was knowing that God was grieved, you know, that, like God was grieved by this, and that God also was the rock, like the comfort, the God was our refuge, and he was the refuge for people experiencing poverty, people experiencing violence. And so it really just shaped me at a very young age. It’s interesting. Now I hear a lot about people who grew up perhaps like in an evangelical environment, having to deconstruct certain things about the things they were raised in. And I think about that, and I think, oh, like, that’s just how I knew God to be, you know, that he was all loving and radically compassionate and loving. 

Stump:

Tell us a little bit more about your faith background, and particularly in respect to the Egyptian Christianity that you inherited and what you experienced the communities that you were a part of here in the US then.

Fileta:

Yeah so you know, I was baptized in like an evangelical Arabic speaking church, but I did not attend that church growing up. I think it was just when I was really young. I went to just like a non-denominational church with my family growing up in Wheaton, Illinois. But we would also go to the Coptic Orthodox Church once in a while, sometimes for special events or weddings, and sometimes even just to shop. After church, people would like pop their trunks, and you’d have a little bit of like— 

Stump:

Authentic Middle Eastern food.

Fileta:

Yeah, exactly, you’d have a little bit of like a marketplace in the parking lot. And so those are some of my favorite memories, actually, as a kid is like being surrounded by Egyptians, which wasn’t my daily experience where I was growing up, and that being really cool. And also just all the food, you know. And that was kind of my faith life, I guess.

Stump:

So how did these experiences that you had then—your understanding of God and of our calling, as Christians—how did how did this then translate into what you started pursuing in school And then ultimately, career?

Fileta:

Yeah, so I think before I knew what to do with myself, I dealt with so much angst. I was like—in high school and stuff I was in a Christian environment, I went to a Christian High School. And I was like, how can we be so focused on Jesus, yet so unconcerned with what’s going on in the world, with poverty, with violence, with war, with inequality, with disease? Like, I just couldn’t make sense of that. I was like, what Jesus are we following if he says nothing about what’s happening to the least of these in the world? And it made me really bitter, you know? And kind of angry and like, feeling like I just don’t want anything to do with this. And thankfully, my parents were like—I basically wanted to just kind of check out of both faith and just doing anything really significant, you know, like, I just wanted to give up. And my parents were like, “we didn’t come to this country and work super, super hard for you to not go to college and to not like do something that you’re passionate about. So you have to go to school. And if you want help to pay for it has to be a Christian school.” So I landed on Calvin College, now, Calvin University. And when I got there, it was an amazing experience for me, because I started to learn about things that I really wanted to learn about. And I saw an expression of faith, that rather than make people satiated and lulled into apathy, made people like fired up to see justice done, you know, and that just animated my heart. It really captured me, I felt very close to the Lord. It just moved me. So yeah, when I got into school, I studied sociology, which I didn’t even fully understand what it was. I just liked how it sounded, you know. And I knew what some of the books I would get to read would be. And so I was like, I want to study this. And then I also got a minor in international development. And so that was just so immensely helpful. For me, it took a lot of my like, passions and desires, and kind of like broad notions, like I want to do something to save the world. And it really matured them, taught me I can’t save the world, and taught me what I can do, though, you know. It was a gift, like going to that school and learning under the professors I got to learn from, was a huge gift to me. And that really set me up on the my career path, you know,

Stump:

Good. Before we get to your career, because this is BioLogos, I’m obligated to ask you something about science to your background. I’m sure there’ll be this obvious connection when we get to talking about creation care and the environment. But did you have any experiences with the sciences growing up either good or bad or anything that attracted you to science or made you wary of it perhaps?

Fileta:

Okay, I’m going to tell you two quick stories to show you, demonstrate to you, what I just described about how college was a good place for me. Okay, so in high school, and my private Christian high school, they said, “we are going to do what the public schools don’t do. We’re going to teach you evolution. And we are going to teach you creationism. And then you guys decide.” And we spent about a month on creationism. And then we spent one week learning evolution, apparently learning evolution. And we were being taught by watching videos of a famous creationist scientist, an apologist. So we didn’t actually get what they said they were going to give us right? You know, they said, you’re gonna learn both objectively, and then you can choose. No. Being taught evolution, there was actually things like, hearing about the conspiracy where artists who made art for science books were paid money, secretly, to draw monkeys more human like and draw humans more monkey like, just to subconsciously subliminally influence you to believe in evolutionary science, you know. 

And so, I went through that, and I was, you know, I was a smart kid, and I was like, I am not drinking this Kool Aid, I don’t know what Kool Aid I want to drink. I don’t know what flavor I want. But this is like, this whole thing is a sham. And then I got to college at a Christian, deeply Christian, theologically orthodox school, and the first day of biology class, the professor said, who here like, you know, believes that evolution is how we humans came to be, or whatever. And people were really nervous, like, they didn’t know if they should raise their hands, they didn’t know what to do. And then he said, as a scientist, you have to believe in the best theories, we have to, he didn’t say, “you have to,” but he was like, as a scientist, the best theories we have to explain something are the best theories we have. And you can’t be taken seriously, as a scientist, if you ignore some of the best theories we have. You know? And then I was like, ah, I like this, like, you don’t have to turn your brain off, to be a Christian, and engage in science. And then we, you know, in my studies, I ended up reading a book called Biology through the Eyes of Faith. And that was really formative for me. And I read another book called For The Beauty of the Earth by Steven Bouma Prediger, I believe. And both of those books were just these beautiful synthesis of people who were deeply faithful to God in their faith, but also really faithful to science. And finally, seeing the example of that was so inspiring for me. And just really comforting, I guess, after coming out of an environment that really felt like propaganda all the time.

Stump:

Well, good. I’m glad you had those experiences at Calvin. We know many of the people you’re talking about there and can testify to their ability to show science through the eyes of faith. Yeah, to be faithful to both of those. So good. Well, take us then, what happened after Calvin, what did you do next?

Fileta:

Yeah, so when I was wrapping up at Calvin, I had this pretty transformative experience. My junior year, I did a study abroad in Honduras, studying international development. And I came back from that, and I would—I should also add, I read the Bible for the first time while I was doing that, and that kind of mix of having like amazing professors and amazing experience, amazing education, being an amazing place, and reading the Bible, it was just like a cocktail that set me on fire. I mean— 

Stump:

So let me interrupt you there. So you grew up, went to church, went to a Christian High School, you’ve been immersed in this all your life, but now for the first time you were reading the Bible?

Fileta:

Yes. Yeah. Because in those environments, you kind of, at least In the environments I was in, you know, you just kind of heard the same 50 verses over and over and over. And yeah, I never, you know, I don’t know. I think it was a time when like, discipleship didn’t mean engaging with Scripture and prayer. It meant, like, upright living, holiness, you know. And so like, the practice of a Christian was to not swear, not drink and not smoke, to like steep your mind in the spirit and things of God. And, like, curiosity in Scripture, like it was actually like, what makes you know, this is how you were discipled was to be holy. And that never really, like convinced me because I was like, I mean, all this takes is discipline, like, if that’s all it means to be, if that’s the end goal here, like, why do we need Jesus? Why do we need any of this? Like, if you paid me enough money, I would abstain from cigarettes and swearing for a lifetime. You know, like, I don’t need any kind of spiritual transformation to live that way. And so I was always really skeptical of it, you know?

Stump:

I had observed too, that in that kind of environment, it’s a little easier for the propaganda to take hold that you mentioned earlier, where it’s somebody’s particular spin, or per somebody’s particular interpretation to be more generous, of things, instead of us saying, wait, I’m going to read this thing for myself and see what are the major themes that emerge when I read it. And reading it in Honduras, in the midst of a program like that, I’m sure there are different things that jump off the page that perhaps you hadn’t heard so clearly before.

Fileta:

Yeah, exactly, exactly. And, you know, my parents, even though they, you know, sent me to that school and had me in that environment, for them, they weren’t like in that culture. They just, for them, they’re like, “oh, my gosh, you can go to Christian School, where you like, where you hear the Bible, instead of like public school where you hear the Quran?” Like, they were just amazed at these opportunities. So they were trying to give me the best things, you know, and thankfully, they were not of that culture. So like, that’s not kind of what it was like, at home. So I’m throwing that in there, just to make sure I clarify. But, you know, my dad, one of, something my dad said that I’ll never forget is he said, “the tragedy of the American education system is they don’t teach people how to think. They teach you how to, like, have answers, but they don’t teach you how to use your brain,” you know. And he was a very, he’s a very free thinking person. And he kind of passed that on to me, I guess, of just like, having a deep curiosity and figuring things out, you know? 

And so yeah, when I was in Honduras, and I read the Bible, in that environment, like you were saying, it really just moved me and I felt God’s, like, calling on my life, I felt a lot of clarity. And I also just felt like, I finally knew what I should do, you know, in broad terms, that was just like, work for some kind of justice in this world, you know? And so when I came back from that, I was too anxious to just remain a student and finish out my final year of school. I was like, there’s got to be something else I can do. I can’t just sit here, you know. And so I got very involved in organizing. And that year, there was like a really bad conflict in western Sudan, in the Darfur region. And there was a student movement to try and basically mobilize humanitarian aid for that conflict. And there were a number of other things happening in the world at the time. Yeah, so I got super involved in just organizing and advocacy, and fundraising, and Bible studies and prayer groups, all centered on these broad themes of like, global and local justice issues. And that really just captivated me. So I changed my plans, you know? I was gonna move abroad and be like a theologian farmer in the hills somewhere. And after that year, I was like, “oh, no, I think God has something different for me right now.” Like, I seem to be pretty good at, like lighting a fire under other people to get moving and to use their voice and to feel like they have something to say and that they can have influence. And that, you know, these things matter to them, basically. And so I got involved with an organization that had just launched called the Micah Challenge. And I don’t know if you’re familiar with that, or have ever heard of that.

Stump:

I have heard of it. So I assume Micah from the verse about— 

Fileta:

What does the Lord require of you, to act justly love mercy and walk humbly with God.

Stump:

Walk humbly. Yeah. 

Fileta: 

And that movement really captivated me because it was so many Christian leaders from the Global South. And I felt this deep kinship with them. And I loved that this organization hadn’t been launched by some big NGO in America, or Europe or something. It was truly global. It was focused on justice, and they weren’t afraid of advocacy, which was what I was so excited about, because of those experiences I just told you about. And so I got involved with Micah Challenge and started working like kind of as like a stipended volunteer initially, just going around college campuses, talking about global poverty, talking about world hunger, and trying to inspire students to respond through advocacy, to, you know, contact Congress and urge them to fund the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief or contact Congress and, you know, urge them to cancel the debts of the poorest nations in the world. So that’s kind of where I ended up working. And I didn’t know how long I thought maybe this might be a year long gig, something like that. And I ended up being there for 15 years. Yeah. And that’s where I got introduced to climate change.

Stump:

Okay, so tell us that story.

Fileta:

Yeah, so we used to have these meetings of all the different Micah groups. I mean, it really was a movement, it was a messy, it was underfunded, it was wild. There was a lot of bi-vocational people, so many people who were pastors by day and Micah Challenge people by night. And it was beautiful. Like, it really felt like you were part of this movement that was driven by passion, and inspired by God. You know, it was like such an amazing thing to be a part of, despite some of the challenges we had, being such a messy organization or messy movement. And we used to have these gatherings every three years. And we did it only one time in the United States. And then we learned we couldn’t because of visa issues. So many people were not given a Visa to come. And so we started having the gatherings in other parts of the world. And so I went to one in Kenya in 2009. And it was totally focused on creation care, and specifically climate change. And I just heard testimony after testimony of people from all over the world, talking about how climate change is impacting them. And so that like, that really got me thinking, because I hadn’t really thought about climate change much. I mean, I was aware of it. I wasn’t a skeptic, but I was also one of the people who are like, I’m a humanitarian, like I’m thinking about humans. I definitely love the the earth, I love the environment, I care about it. But this isn’t like what moves me, you know. This is for someone else. And then after that meeting, I went over to Uganda to visit some partners of ours. And I met with a Micah Challenge director in Uganda. And he took me around where he was living, and kind of just showed me how difficult the season they were in was. So three years back from when I visited, they lost a season of crops because of drought. And then the second year, they lost a season of crop because of drought. And then the third year, they got rain, but the ground was so unable to absorb the water. And the rainfall was so intense, and in a short burst that actually flooded out their land. So they lost three years of crops in a row. And he just talked to me about how difficult it was to organize an advocacy campaign. With, you know, that was what Micah Challenge was doing at his church when the people next to him on his right and his left hadn’t eaten in like a day or two, or were eating like one small meal a day. So he was talking to me a lot about hunger. And it was devastating. And we went back to his office. And I always did this little interview with my partners in the global south of saying, “hey, if I could if we could get a million Christians in North America to raise their voice on an issue that impacts your community, what would you want them to talk about?” And I asked him the question out of obligation, because it was like, what I always asked people, but I knew the answer already, I knew he was gonna say hunger, because he had just told me all this stuff. And he did not say hunger, he said, climate change. And that was like an eye opening moment for me. And he went on to tell me in detail, like how the overall temperature had changed, how rainfall had changed. He just, he knew all this stuff, because he came from a farming family. And these people would farm the same land for generations, and use the same techniques to farm that land for generations. And now, the only people who were able to grow food, either had irrigation or fertilizer, two things that they and many others couldn’t afford. And that was the beginning for me.

[musical interlude]

BioLogos

Hi listeners. We live in an age of COVID 19 and a climate crisis but also an age of amazing new technologies and scientific discoveries. Either way you look at it, science is a major part of our lives and undoubtedly, questions will arise at the intersection of science and Christian faith. BioLogos is hoping to help you explore those questions faithfully. The BioLogos website has articles and other resources to wade through some of the tough questions. And for students and teachers, we’ve recently released integrate, a resource designed for homeschool parents or Christian school teachers to help Christian young people grow in their faith in Christ as they develop a deeper love and stronger understanding of the world God has made. You can find it all at biologos.org   

Interview Part Two

Stump:

So I want to highlight something here, and maybe have you speak even further to it, because I think many people listening to this might be similar to what I was and it sounds like to some degree to what you were in previous years messaging about climate change and the environment seemed that it was primarily about the sea levels that are going to rise and maybe the loss of habitat for polar bears. And many of us were like, “no, that’s bad.” But it didn’t really feel like it was hitting us. And I don’t like to give the impression that the only reason we should care about this is now that it’s hitting us. But I think also at the same time, it’s becoming increasingly clear that climate change is not going to be just these big spectacular examples of forest fires and hurricanes, but that every one of us is going to be impacted by this. And I would love to hear from you a few more stories about how this is affecting people right now in places around the world that you’re familiar with. Maybe ways that don’t show up on our news feeds quite as much as those big spectacular examples do.

Fileta:

Yeah, absolutely. And, yeah, I’m with you. I don’t think we need to humanize climate change for us to care. You’re right. Like if even if it was just affecting polar bear habitat, we should care. But the reason why I think the human impact of climate change is so important to highlight is because so many people already care about people in poverty specifically, like especially Christians. Christians are really involved in international development, international relief, international aid, and to understand that like, all you know—I mean, we saw rates of people experiencing hunger decrease every—you know, I said I was involved at Micah for 15-16 years—we saw the number, the proportion of people experiencing hunger decrease every single year, until 2014. And then it started to increase. And that shift is, in part because of conflict, and in part because of climate change. And so for people who have a compassion for, like humans experiencing poverty and hunger around the world, to understand that, like, you really can’t respond to those issues without addressing climate change is important. So that’s why I spend so much time really trying to highlight the human impact of climate change.

Stump:

You have any more stories of that? So the farmer in Uganda, three years in a row of no crops, what else is going on? I just want I don’t want to somehow glamorize this. But for people to hear these are actual things happening in the world right now because of climate change. 

Fileta:

Yeah. So you know, another story from that same time period that really struck me was talking to a WASH engineer, so someone who works on water and sanitation hygiene, who was building wells in East Africa. And he talked about how they had three wells get washed out because of flooding in a region where they had—the whole reason they built the wells where they built them is because it was a place that never flooded. And so you had a major, like access to clean water issues suddenly for this rural community, who, you know, previously had these wells. So you hear stories like that pretty frequently of like, just infrastructure damage. I would say also, right now, one of the biggest things that we’re hearing about in the news in last five years is all the migration from Central America. 

Stump:

I was going to ask specifically about that, yeah. 

Fileta:

So a lot of migration from Central America, it’s very complex, obviously, you’ve got a lot of people who are fleeing violence or insecurity of some kind. But you also have a lot of people fleeing, because there is no, they haven’t been able to grow food. There’s been deep droughts in much of the Northern triangle. And a lot of farmers, subsistence farmers, have been struggling to produce crops. And that’s true of farmers in many places in the world. So I think migration is an issue that anytime you hear about a refugee crisis, or you hear about any kind of just displacement of people, there’s usually going to be some kind of connection to climate change. In Bangladesh, I mean, there is so much flooding now, that for like, half the year, there are large portions of the country that are underwater, and that’s forcing people to be removed from their homes, they have to go somewhere else. We respond to— 

Stump:

Have you seen any forecasts for the future of what these migration patterns are going to be? I mean, what are we expecting to have to deal with here in the next decade? 

Fileta:

Yeah, so there, you know, the refugee crisis in our world is definitely something that has been exacerbated by climate change. And I think that’s really important for people to recognize. And, you know, there’s been a lot of conflict, too. I mentioned earlier when I was in college, being a part of this Save Darfur student movement, you know, to like respond to this conflict in Sudan. Well, what I didn’t know at the time, was that desertification due to increasing temperatures and lack of rainfall, meant that the Sahara Desert in that region was expanding one mile every year. It was getting harder and harder for people to grow food and harder and harder for people who have livestock to like graze them, you know. And so that conflict, I’m not saying it was caused by climate change, but it was very exact, very much exacerbated by it. And as someone who was really involved in trying to drum up humanitarian aid in that conflict, I never once heard climate change mentioned, not even once, you know, it wasn’t on the radar.

Stump:

We’ve just talked with Katharine Hayhoe recently on an episode and she uses the phrase that climate change is a threat multiplier for all of these. So maybe climate wasn’t the original cause of conflict. But you know, climate changing is going to multiply the threats that are already there, it just raises the stakes on all of these things, right?

Fileta:

Absolutely, yeah. And it just exacerbates existing issues. And Katharine, by the way, played a significant role in me, kind of knowing what to do with some of the learning I had. So I described being in Uganda and seeing or hearing from my colleague there about climate change, and farming, etc. And then it was a couple years later, I actually heard a presentation from her on the science of it. And that was really my true conversion moment to action. When I was like, okay, I’ve got the stories. I’ve heard the science now. I trust her. She’s brilliant. I feel like I got to do something, you know. So I have so much respect for her. And I’m so glad to hear that you had her on this podcast.

Stump:

Yeah. Let’s connect this work, then a little more explicitly to Christian faith and Christian motivations. I think, in the US, particularly the evangelical Christians have, have been among the resistors to these messages. In the past, at least, I have seen other data that at least younger generations of evangelicals are a little bit more on board. But I’m curious about your experience. You’ve talked to a lot of Christian groups about this, what kind of response do you get? What are the messages that have the most traction?

Fileta:

Yeah, that’s a really good question. And I think it’s so fascinating to people, even secular researchers, that you have, not just like science, about climate change, there’s an entire science about climate change perception, like perceptions of climate change. And everybody’s so fascinated by these evangelical Christians who have been so resistant. But you’re right, it is changing with a younger generation. And I have the, depending on how you look at it, either fortunate or unfortunate, like calling, to have spent a lot of time talking to people about climate change, and being the first time they’re hearing about it, you know, for at least the first time they’re hearing about it from someone within their worldview, culture, you know, like, they might have— 

Stump:

Trusted voice, right?

Fileta:

Exactly. And, personally, I really enjoy it. I’ve certainly had experiences where while I’m talking, somebody is on their phone, looking up bad science coming up with bad, you know, just sort of like some of the typical like, responses you hear. And then during the Q&A time, you know, you see them looking at their phone and reading verbatim from some kind of like, blog or something. And what I’ve learned to do in these situations, is to just be really honest, and say, “I’m not a scientist. And I’m not even going to try to debate the science. But what I do know is that I have heard firsthand, from farmer, after farmer, pastor after pastor all over the global south, that climate change is destroying livelihoods. And there is no part of me that is too arrogant to believe that. There is no way that all these conservative evangelical leaders from around the world are all in on it. There is no way that George Soros or whoever you think, paid them all. You know what I mean? Like they are not in on anything. They are just telling the truth. And I’m, you know, we have to be humble enough to believe them.” And when I say that in an audience or at a college campus or at a conference or something, the shocking thing for me was, it really works, it moves people. I will have so many people afterwards say, “look I don’t know about all the science, I don’t know about whether or not humans caused this,” which, personally, I’m actually comfortable if someone’s not there immediately, you know, but I know others in the climate movement are really, really like intense about people kind of owning the human cause. For me, it’s like people saying, “I don’t know about the science. I don’t know if humans causes but I do believe you. I believe there are communities experiencing hunger, and I want to do something about it. What can I do?” And I think that’s an amazing start. You know, it’s an incredible start. And I have just seen, so many people tell me like, this is an issue I kind of ignored or always feels alarmist, or, you know, just feels a little too intense, have stayed away. But you really helped me see, like, man, this matters to people right now, like, the body of Christ is suffering right now because of climate change, I need to do something. So I feel like I’ve, I have a really cool job in the sense that I get these experiences, you know, it gives me so much hope. I’ll tell you what, it gives me a lot of hope.

Stump:

So how do you then go on to connect these actions, perhaps for groups like this, or maybe just for your own life, how do you connect this to the bigger Christian story, right? So often, Christians who are working in climate change are motivated by the theology that says, look, we’re created in the image of God, we’re assigned the role of being stewards of creation. Is there a time for groups like this, or a time in your own life where you said, “yep, here’s that connection. Here’s why this is motivated now.” And maybe this is skipping over the justice part, because I get that for you, the on-ramp was bigger issues of justice. But is there a way for some people maybe, that it’s seeing the connection to our stewarding, our tending creation, and the people who live in it as part of our Christian calling? 

Fileta:

Yeah, absolutely. And you’re right, for me, the theological piece that brought me here was the justice piece. And just seeing that, like, there’s no way to care for people who are experiencing oppression or suffering injustice, without also like tending to matters related to climate change. There’s also a deep injustice about climate change, you know, the fact that the people—like the the nations and kind of powers that contributed the most to this problem, are not the ones suffering the most. And I’m not saying they should. I’m just saying that there’s an injustice that the people who did the least, those farmers I told you about in Uganda, people who did the least to contribute to this are experiencing the worst impact at this stage. And so there is an injustice to climate change. And so yeah, that’s what drew me in, I think, that we could do a lot, theologically, to dig into what our role in creation is, you know. And I think some of it is theological. And some of it is also practical, like helping people recognize just how deeply connected we are to the rest of creation. You know, we are part of creation, we are also creation. Like, God created us. 

Stump:

We are creatures

Fileta:

We are creatures. And, you know, I was actually, I was giving a talk earlier this year, and I was trying to do some research to like, highlight just how interconnected we all we are. And I found myself googling, “what would the world be like without trees?” And I know this sounds silly. But I was just really curious. And I was like, “Yeah, what would the world be like without trees?” And what I discovered is that like, if suddenly, you know, the trillions of trees on this planet were gone, it would turn into an absolute hellscape. The air pollution would just skyrocket. There were to be an immediate mass extinction event, you know, of humans and creatures and other animals, plants, just biodiversity would just disappear. The oceans would get so hot that they would boil and be so acidic that everything except jellyfish would die. And I was like all this because you take out trees, you know? And maybe that sounds super obvious to like any scientist who might be listening to this, but someone like me, I knew it would be bad, but I didn’t know it’d be that bad. And I just think that we’ve lost this like, sense of how deeply connected we are. And there’s also,I think there’s a lie out there being perpetuated that human flourishing has to come at the expense of the environment. And protecting the environment has to come at the expense of human flourishing. And that’s a lie. That’s not true. That’s a lie that’s perpetuated in a lot of different spaces. But even in Christian spaces, where it’s like, you know, oh, if you care about that, then you don’t care about these people who need jobs or something. You know, and there’s, like, always this, it’s a lie being told, and the reality and it’s also not just reality, it’s the beauty of how God created this world is that like, our flourishing and the flourishing of the rest of creation is so deeply intertwined. It’s just gorgeous. You know, it’s a beautiful design. And, yeah, I think that that is something we need to rediscover.

Stump:

Yeah. That’s been one of the things that has been particularly encouraging to me, as we look toward practical steps and solutions for climate change is that, in many ways, it’s not this big sacrifice. It’s doing things that are better for us anyway. When you talk about this flourishing, that those practical steps we can take are really going to give us better lives too. We don’t have to play the martyr and say, ”I’m gonna give up all the good stuff in life in order to do this thing that I ought to do,” right? 

Fileta:

Absolutely. I want to breathe clean air, you know? I love living where I live in the northwest, because the air just feels good, you know, but it doesn’t feel good about once a year during wildfire season. But I want to breathe clean air, I want my kids to breathe clean air, like, I want our water to be clean, like, even if the only payoff from reducing carbon emissions and other greenhouse gas emissions, is that we have less pollution, less asthma, less, you know, just air pollution, isn’t that worth it? You know? Isn’t that worth it? I’m with you, like, these things are good for us. And so I think, yeah, in the first stage of my work, I felt like a lot of my work was just bringing awareness to climate change, the human impact of climate change, helping people see that it’s like, deeply, deeply rooted, like, justice issue. But I feel like now I’m in this new phase, where it’s exactly what you were talking about getting the message out that like, the actions that we need to take individually in society, like as a society are going to help us too. They’re not just that, you know, they’re not going to harm us, they’re going to help us. And yeah, I think there’s a lot of people who are looking to be more mindful and more aware. And even just generally, like reducing their consumption of goods, you know, just small things like that. Like, there’s a whole generation that’s, like, inspired by minimalism all the sudden. I don’t think it has anything to do with climate change. But man, it really helps, you know. And so, I’ve been encouraged, honestly, like, there are people who sometimes say, you must get so discouraged being in these skeptic environments all the time. And the truth is, I’m really encouraged. I mean, I just meet people so often, who are really interested in doing something and it’s beautiful.

Stump:

So maybe talk a little bit more about that and that hopefulness you indicate there. As I’ve gotten further into this community, I’ve come across more people who call themselves realists, other people call themselves doomsday-ers. And even just this latest IPCC report that came out that says, “look, if we stopped carbon emissions today, we’ve got 30 years of climate getting worse because of what we’ve already done.” So given the sort of facts of what we know is coming, how do you maintain that kind of hopefulness and cheery attitude that you just described there?

Fileta:

I’ve never been called cheery and it feels really, it feels really cool, actually. I’m like, Whoa, 

Stump:

You sounded cheery when you were just talking. 

Fileta:

I’m Jason Fileta and I’m cheery. No, it’s okay. Here’s the deal. I think I get—I am privileged to feel some hope because, one, I like I said, I get to see people have like, open their eyes and and really like, wanting to take action on climate, and that’s just like, kind of infectious, you know? It makes you feel like okay, things can change, people can be moved to new positions, you know, which feels like, nearly impossible in our current climate, you know. And so that gives me hope. But the other thing gives me hope is like, through my job at Tearfund, I get to see transformation happen in very amazing ways. And there’s one story that always I think of when it comes to climate, is this woman named Polly. And she was a farmer in Malawi. And, you know, using the same agricultural methods she’d always use, she generally would produce 18 bags of maize a year, that’s what she was growing. But because of climate change, and just the you know, community becoming hotter, drier, less rainfall, when it would rain it would run off because the land was too dry to soak it up, there were less trees to absorb the water, etc. So rain wasn’t helping when it would come. Because of climate change, she was generally only producing three bags of maize. So like they went down from 16 a year to three. And her family was experiencing hunger. They were—it was a difficult, difficult time. So she went through this program that Tearfund did with her local church called Farming God’s Way. And it’s just a simple agricultural training that also uses scripture to like teach methods of caring for the land, and gives these farmers like tools that they can use that don’t require a lot of money like because not everybody can afford fertilizer or irrigation. So the method of farming is called conservation agriculture. And a lot of different communities use this method. But it’s basically a way to trap some moisture and be more successful at yielding some crops. So a few years into using conservation agriculture methods, she was able to grow 16 bags of maize. And it was a very rapid transformation for her. And she used that money, or the excess maize to earn a little money. And she used that money to buy livestock. And then the livestock like, had babies. And she used the money from selling them to buy, like she started a donut making business. And she started making donuts. And then she used the money from making donuts to pay for her husband to get a teaching certification in school training. And then from his new job as a teacher in her various enterprises, they were able to like expand their home. 

And I look at that all that stuff I just described happened in just like a handful of years you know, and it just speaks to like the resilience of people. And just how, you know, quickly things can change. And so you’re right, the IPCC report was devastating. And there is a lot of trouble coming our way. We were going to see a lot of suffering. There’s going to be just some really harsh realities about our world, you know, but I think in the midst of that, I’ve been fortunate to see just so many people change their own lives, like Polly did that herself. We didn’t really do any of it. You know, Tearfund was involved in providing the training and some tools and some seeds, but like, just seeing how strong people are inspires me. And yeah, so I feel cheery, I guess, or at least I feel hopeful. You know, I feel hopeful because I see these like stories of transformation regularly alongside the stories of devastation, you know. And I find a lot of peace, just resting in knowing that God is present in everything. And that in the end, whenever that is, or whatever that is, like, I know what his plans are for us and for our earth. And I know that he will renew all things, and I trust that and I rest in that. And so that really helps me, you know?

Stump:

Well, just in closing here, fast forward in your own career here, however far you’d like to go, what kind of markers do you hope to see that would qualify as success for the the work that you have done, what would count as as success and that you devoted your career to something important and worthwhile and that the objectives were achieved?

Fileta:

That is a really hard question to just answer off the tongue. That is like, yeah, you know, I think that I see what I’m doing is such a tiny, tiny part of what God is doing broadly. And so in some ways, it’s hard to answer that. With such a like, micro measure of my impact, I think, more broadly, I feel like what I’m doing in the work I do, and it’s just this teeny tiny part of this bigger work God is doing. And one of the markers of success, I hope to see of that, I guess, is that there’s a new generation that doesn’t feel a conflict between their faith in science, that there’s a new generation that doesn’t feel like caring for the earth is somehow idol worship, or whatever, you know, like that there’s a new generation that believes people when they testify that climate change is destroying their livelihoods that there’s a new generation that feels like God is glorified when they restore creation, even if it’s simply planting some trees, you know. And so that’s like, what I’m looking for is like, what becomes this, like, default Christian worldview in culture in the next 20 years, like when my kids grow up? Are they going to be radicals for caring about, like climate change and climate justice? Or is that just going to be the standard? And I really hope and pray that it’s like the standard, you know. But again, I would never pretend that I think my work is going to cause it. I think it’s a teeny tiny part of something that God is doing. It’s just much bigger, you know? 

Stump:

Well, good. Let’s do it together. 

Fileta:

Amen. 

Stump:

For people listening who have been inspired, where can you point them to? What should they do next? How could they get further involved and get on the Jason Fileta bus here, join with everybody to make this happen?

Fileta:

Yeah, I definitely would encourage people to check out Tearfund. That’s tearfundUSA.org. And you can obviously, there are people who want to give you know, they want to hear more stories, like the woman I just described Polly and Malawi, like they can give their but also that you’re going to find great resources. We really do think that like, it’s not appropriate to like talk about injustice, and stir people’s hearts, and then just ask them to make a donation, like, we need to help disciple people into a lifestyle, you know. And so we’ve got some good tools on there even about like, you know, right now, we’re working on a whole new resource all about, like consumption in like, when you’re going to buy household products, or clothes or a car, or you’re choosing a bank to keep your money, like, how do you think about those things, in a way that honors, like God and His children, you know, in a way that honors creation in a way that like, you know, you don’t want to invest money, for example, in a bank that’s going to use that money to like extract minerals in some really horrible process somewhere halfway around the world and poison water, air, in a community, you know what I mean? So, like, we’re trying to create resources that help people like actually put into practice how they might want to live in their values, but also just prayer resources, scripture resources to just help people who feel compelled to do something about climate change or creation care. So I would definitely encourage people to check out to Tearfund. Yeah, and get involved with us there.

Stump:

Well, thanks so much for talking to us. We’ll need to do this again sometime. And we need to get you to a BioLogos event sometime when we start meeting together in person.

Fileta:

I would love to. Thank you so much. You’ve been such an easy person to talk to. And I was so intimidated, to be honest, because I think of you all, as like really brilliant. And I just felt out of my league. And you’ve been, you’ve made it so easy. And I’ve really enjoyed it, Jim. So I appreciate it.

Stump:

Well, we too, are just one small piece of everything that’s going on. So we’re glad to bring you into the fold in that way. 

Fileta:

Amen. 

Stump:

All right. Thanks, Jason. 

Fileta:      

Yep, thank you. 

Credits

BioLogos:

Language of God is produced by BioLogos. It has been funded in part by the John Templeton Foundation, the Fetzer Institute and by individual donors who contribute to BioLogos. Language of God is produced and mixed by Colin Hoogerwerf. That’s me. Our theme song is by Breakmaster Cylinder. 

BioLogos offices are located in Grand Rapids, Michigan in the Grand River watershed on the ancestral land of the Anishinaabe people.

If you have questions or want to join in a conversation about this episode find a link in the show notes for the BioLogos forum or visit our website, biologos.org, where you will find articles, videos and other resources on faith and science. Thanks for listening. 


Featured guest

Jason Fileta

Jason Fileta

Jason Fileta is Vice President of Engagement at Tearfund USA. Jason graduated from Calvin University and began a career working to alleviate the suffering of poor and hungry people around the world. He spent 15 years as the Director of Micah Challenge USA. He is the editor of Live Justly, a scriptural and practical study for living justly.


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