Climate Change | November 5, 2021

Finding our way back to the garden

Teens weeding a garden
Susquehanna garden project, courtesy of FaithX

When I think about the Church of the Brethren, one of the first words that comes to mind is “service.” Motivated by Christ’s example, and his command to love God and neighbor, we understand that caring for one another is an important part of being people of faith.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about one particular act of service that is critical for us to engage in. Creation care, the act of bringing restoration to the earth and healing to communities affected by the climate crisis, is a critical component of advancing God’s kingdom.

From the very beginning of scripture, we are commissioned to tend the natural world. We are beings made from the dust and dirt of the earth and filled with God’s breath of life, and our first calling is to work in the garden of Eden and take care of it (Genesis 2:15). In fact, the Hebrew word translated to “farm” in the Common English Bible is used elsewhere in scripture to mean “serve.” Working on the land is not just a job—it is a spiritual act to be done with nurture and care.

But we have done a poor job tending the garden. We’ve contaminated the ground with our need for expansion, more electricity, faster food, and an obsession with consumerism and single-use products. This is not how we were meant to live upon the earth God gave us.

Caring for creation has never been only about caring for the garden, either. We are not truly serving and loving one another if we allow our neighbors and communities to suffer from climate-related disasters.

The climate crisis is one of the biggest threats to humanity today. In recent years, we have seen hurricanes devastate coastal communities, wildfires scorch the West, and recordbreaking heat waves drive public health emergencies. These weather events are getting more frequent and more intense.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report in August that presents humbling statistics about rapidly increasing global surface temperatures, rising sea levels, and the impact of climate-related disasters around the world. The UN chief called the report “a code red for humanity.” Despite this, the scientists also predicted that it is not too late to mitigate the worst effects of climate change. However, we must act quickly.

Communities of faith are uniquely called to address the climate crisis. By incorporating environmentally friendly practices, congregations can lower their carbon footprint, inspire members to live more sustainable lifestyles, and serve as models for their communities. There are many effective actions that Brethren can take to help mitigate the worst climate impacts, and we must begin now.

Each congregation should establish a Green Team or an environmental committee to help guide climate work in the congregation.

One of the biggest drivers of global warming is greenhouse gas emissions. Congregations can get energy audits to assess their current energy use and receive recommendations for reducing carbon consumption. Making significant cuts to a congregation’s energy use will lower their reliance on fossil fuel energy.

The inefficient use of electricity and natural gas in buildings makes up more than 30 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Energy efficiency retrofits are among the solutions that congregations can implement onsite. These include switching to LED lights, installing wifi thermostats, and improving insulation. These will reduce carbon footprints and also save money.

Congregations can explore solar panel installation to further reduce carbon emissions. Fossil fuels not only produce dangerous levels of greenhouse gas emissions, they also drive environmental and public health disasters in communities where coal and natural gas is sourced.

Congregations that want to go further can install electric vehicle (EV) charging stations in their parking lots. Gas- and diesel-powered vehicles are among the greatest sources of carbon emissions. Electric vehicles offer lower emissions and local air quality improvements. By installing charging stations, congregations can expand EV infrastructure into their communities.

Another major producer of greenhouse gas emissions is the agricultural sector. Throughout scripture, agricultural rules dictate justice for the land and for people. In Leviticus, the land was to lie fallow every seventh year so that it could rest, and farmers were to leave food on the edges of their fields so that widows and orphans could glean. Today, the disconnection many of us have from our food allows us to ignore the effect that large-scale agriculture and the production and transportation of food has on the earth.

Communities of faith can support local, sustainable food and address food inequality through community gardens. By turning an empty plot of land into a fruitful garden, congregations can be faithful stewards of creation. Gardens provide a way for people to access locally sourced food. They also help restore the earth by returning nutrients to the soil and sequestering carbon from the atmosphere through rich plant life.

In addition to planting gardens, communities of faith can work to preserve natural areas, plant trees, and help maintain local parks and forest reserves. This expands natural “carbon sinks,” which help draw carbon out of the atmosphere.

Congregations can conduct a waste audit to evaluate the waste they are generating and where it is going. According to the EPA, food waste made up nearly 25 percent of what ended up in landfills in 2018. When organic materials such as food decompose in landfills, methane—a potent greenhouse gas—is released.

When food is composted, however, it breaks down into a nutrient-rich fertilizer that can be used in gardens and on farms. Congregations that have the space can start composting. A church’s compost pile can even serve as a community drop-off site to encourage community members to compost. Or congregations can contract with a commercial composting company. Many commercial companies accept meat and dairy waste, which you can’t compost on your own. This is an easy way that faith communities can reduce their carbon footprints and divert from landfills the waste from church coffee hours, potlucks, and other events.

Food is not the only waste stream congregations can assess. All communities of faith generate waste in their worship services, office administration, and other activities. Although recycling is good, reducing waste is even better. Congregations can write sustainability policies that consider the environmental impact of the products and services they purchase and set forth guidelines for reusing products so that less waste is produced. For example, congregations can replace disposable paper or Styrofoam coffee cups and plates with ceramic dishes that are washed and reused.

While there are many individual and communal actions Brethren can take, some issues call for change at a larger scale. One of the best ways to improve life for generations to come is to engage in policy work. As justice-seekers, it is our moral responsibility to speak to decision-makers who can establish systems that will protect people and prevent further climate disasters.

Communities of faith can raise a prophetic voice by advocating for legislation that reduces carbon emissions, supports clean energy, and advances environmental justice. Congregations are encouraged to set up meetings with legislators, host letter-writing campaigns, and work with the Office of Peacebuilding and Policy.

We are invited to find our way back to the garden before it’s too late. The biblical call to serve others reminds us to be active players in the inbreaking of God’s kingdom, a kingdom where justice reigns and the earth flourishes. As divinely commissioned caretakers, it is our job to restore human relationships and the earth. The IPCC report urgently awakens us and demands that we ask ourselves: What is it that we are called to do?

Hannah Shultz is program associate for Georgia Interfaith Power and Light, working out of Atlanta. She formerly worked for FaithX and Brethren Volunteer Service.