As headlines communicate prophetic pronouncements about the future of planet earth, United Methodists celebrate the season of Advent as a time for making peace with all creation.
Senior Content Editor
“While fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains repeat the sounding joy!” Isaac Watts made it plain, in the words of his much-loved Christmas hymn, that God sent Jesus Christ not only to men and women but to the earth itself.
As Thomas Kemper, General Secretary of the Board of Global Ministries (GBGM) said at the commissioning of the first class of Earthkeepers in December 2016, “God’s love does not proclaim human salvation separate from the renewal of the whole creation.”
At no time do we need that message of global salvation more than we do today, 300 years after Watts’ lyrics were penned.
Where do we start when we read the United Nations’ report released in October? The study was edited by 90 scientists in 40 countries and was commissioned by world leaders under the Paris Climate Accord. It states that we face a strong risk of environmental catastrophe by 2040.
In a perspective published on December 14 in United Methodist Insight, Editor Cynthia B. Astle includes a list of efforts that need to be made on the corporate and political level to address the threats to life on this planet. These actions mentioned in, “The Fire Next Time,” do not constitute a mere “program” but rather a radical change in culture, business and lifestyle.
Whether out of greed, inertia, or denial, many people do not take the U.N. report seriously. At least not seriously enough to change their behavior in the ways Astle suggests is necessary. Such is not the case, however, for ten persons in Michigan, who were commissioned as Earthkeepers by the General Board of Global Ministries on November 12, 2018.
Earthkeepers was started by GBGM in 2016 to recognize creation care and environmental justice as an essential part of Christian discipleship. The goal was to commission 500 Earthkeepers to serve as short-term, volunteer missionaries focused on living out God’s mandate to care for the earth. Earthkeepers engage the root causes of environmental degradation that lead to climate change and a host of other toxic problems.
Rev. Jenny Phillips, UMCOR Creation Care program manager who oversees the Earthkeeper initiative, notes, “This training empowers United Methodists to harness biblical, theological and denominational resources to develop bold initiatives to address the grave environmental challenges of today.” She continues, “Participants build relationships and skills that strengthen their leadership as stewards of creation.”
The ten Michigan Earthkeepers were part of a group of 44 who trained in Detroit, September 27-30,2018. With their commissioning, the Earthkeeper Movement is now 132 strong.
“I have cared about the environment since I was a child spending time on Lake Michigan,” says Marilee Woodworth. Marilee has a degree in natural resources from the University of Michigan. Her involvement with United Methodist Women’s focus on climate justice led her to start an environment awareness group at her church, Ann Arbor: First United Methodist Church.
“When I learned that Earthkeepers training was happening in Detroit,” Marilee reflects, “I thought it would be a great opportunity for me to learn more and connect with others.” The group in her congregation is now offering educational events and is investigating solar installations and other energy saving possibilities for the church facility.
Flint resident, Tom Allen, says, he is “grateful for the training and wishes to be productive.” Tom believes that he can contribute to a breakthrough in climate awareness and stewardship through music focused on nature. “I’ve cared about the outdoors and the natural world since I was a kid,” Tom shares, “and I’ve written a lot of music where love of the earth and faith intersect.” He reports that St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Flint recently hosted a concert featuring his, “Earth Te Deum,” in which recorded bird songs mingle with voices, and instruments. He also performed at an East Winds District event with an emphasis on justice.
Three new Earthkeepers are at work at Sunnyside United Methodist Church in Kalamazoo. The Growing Community Garden has been on the grounds for some time. But the goals of the garden were broadened when Emily Burns, David and Christy Newhouse attended Earthkeeper training.
“We began thinking the Growing Community Garden could be better connected with the surrounding community, thinking about what a permaculture approach would be like,” David explains. The training helped the team focus on “food insecurity” in households surrounding the church. “Our project moved from the garden to getting a better understanding of how, when and where households in the neighborhood get their food resources and what keeps them from having adequate levels of nutritional food.”
Sunnyside hosts a Free Store and a Food Pantry. Emily is connecting with those guests to learn more about food resourcing, which could lead to food supply adjustments. A broader survey is being made with East Side Kalamazoo residents, as well. In addition to service as an Earthkeeper, Emily is a Global Mission Fellow US-2 assigned to Sunnyside UMC by the General Board of Global Ministries.
David is working with a new partner, Fresh Fire African Methodist Episcopal Church, on the expansion of the Growing Community Garden to best serve households within easy distance from the two congregations. Christy will take feedback from neighbors and develop a curriculum for nutrition and gardening to be offered in the local elementary school in an after-school format.
“Ever since the first Earth Day in 1970, I have had a passion for protecting the environment,” says M. Rene Johnson, a member of Midland: First UMC. “As the years went by my passion was fed more by my faith than my politics. The scriptures are filled with awe for God’s creation!” When Rene committed to Earthkeeper training and began research she was “struck by the number of news reports about PFAS.” She has educated herself about this emerging health concern caused by substances contaminating Michigan’s water sources. Rene is an officer with the Central Bay District United Methodist Women. “I plan to offer presentations to local UMW units over the course of the next year,” she says.
In 2014 Stuart Jacobson earned an associates degree in environmental science. “I learned in class what damage humankind is causing to the environment, and I made a commitment to make a positive impact to benefit my young daughters and future generations,” he says. Stuart moved to Detroit in 2015 and “experienced a rapid spiritual transformation” as a member of Central United Methodist Church and as a developer of a business building green sustainable homes.
“While attending seminary and urban planning classes, the opportunity to become an Earthkeeper appeared out of nowhere,” he adds. Being an Earthkeeper helps fulfill Stuart’s commitment as a steward of the planet. He is pursuing ways to promote solar power initiatives with the Greater Detroit District. His future goal is to honor his late mother and her devotion to non-profit work. “I will bring my experience in sustainable building and as an Earthkeeper to disaster relief theaters around the world through UMCOR.”
Three other Michigan residents were commissioned as Earthkeepers on November 12: Philip Harrington (Holland, MI), Robert Prud’homme (Royal Oak: First UMC) and Asti White (US-2 assigned to Kalamazoo Wesley Foundation).
The General Board of Global Ministries describes the Earthkeeper initiative this way: “EarthKeepers serves as both a launchpad for those looking to turn an idea into action and an incubator for those who want to deepen an existing creation care ministry. Participants develop plans in conversation with their peers, through troubleshooting strategies and by sharing wisdom.”
A report such as the one issued by the U.N. can be paralyzing. I can also be persuasive. Be persuaded this Advent to care for God’s creation in some new ways.
“Let heaven and nature sing!”