Featured Contributor: Rev. Silvia Purdie
The church is called by God to care for creation. This conviction motivates me to help people of faith to engage with environmental sustainability and climate change. But what do I mean by ‘called by God to care for creation’?
The gift of academic study, research, and writing is the space and discipline to push into our assumptions. After a decade as a parish minister, I have taken the last 18 months as an extended sabbatical to dig deeper and explore wider into creation care. Without the routines of church life, and within the vast strangeness of the ‘COVID-19 world’, I asked: How does God call the church to care for creation? What specifically does this look like? How do people experience this?
This work began within an academic frame: a dissertation to complete my Post Graduate Diploma in Theology through the University of Otago. My topic was ‘motivation for eco mission’, and my research involved interviews with local church groups who were engaged in environmental projects. I am currently collating a book, with interviews and contributions from Christian women around Aotearoa from a range of cultures. Writing this Logia blog is a good opportunity for me to reflect: what have I noticed about these stories?
What I notice depends on where I sit. I am a middle-class, middle-aged Pakeha (white NZer) woman. My perceptions filter through my reactions, which themselves are complex: my love for the natural world, especially the beauty of Aotearoa, and my love for God, nurtured in diverse Christian contexts. I am keenly aware of having benefited from a high carbon lifestyle, and my mix of gratitude, guilt, and fear for the future. I am pained by the multi-layered injustice of climate change, exacerbating inequality. As I choose the role of collator of the stories of others I run the risk of imposing my own agenda. I work to be open about where I come from and respectful of difference. In passionately promoting faith-based environmental action I seek to honour the experience of Christians who share a sense of calling to care for the natural world. I wish to highlight four threads that I hear coming through the interviews.
First I heard each person articulate a belief that God calls all Christians to care for the created world, and I heard them describe this call as a personal experience. There may be Christians out there who work to protect the natural environment from purely rational or financial reasons, but I have not met any. Those I know care deeply about the created world and talk about this as an integration of emotional, spiritual, biblical, moral, and practical elements.
Here are just a few of their responses:
“My motivation to get involved is because I do believe that it’s the right thing to do and a natural expression of faith in God.”
“The beauty of creation is something I just adore. I just can’t get over how absolutely incredible it all is!”
“This call for active involvement in conservation is actually not an option. It’s a command that God gave us. Our focus and our priority is sharing that concept and embodying that in our lives as a community.”
The second common thread I noticed was the conviction that caring for creation is also caring for people. Faith-based eco mission strongly connects environment and justice issues. The interviewees were all keenly aware that how we live in New Zealand has a direct impact on vulnerable communities. They challenge their churches to be proactive in preventing poverty caused by climate change rather than just responding to disasters.
At a local level, growing food together is one way to meet human need as well as care for the environment. One woman shared a story of two young brothers coming to the community garden in a small town impacted by methamphetamine addiction:
“Because their grandfather had shown them how to garden, that was for them the start of their journey to give up meth, and we supported them. That was two years ago, and they have both been meth-free. And now they tell their stories, share and help people, and dig the garden! Thank you God!”
Third, I was struck by the diversity of eco mission. Even within the small local groups here in Christchurch there is an astonishing range of projects. Environmental mission can look like: weeding around native plantings in a public reserve and children’s craft activities; taking young people rafting and setting predator traps; writing reports and bike rides; global mission partnerships and prayer vigils before a climate march; writing worship resources or church picnics. These are merely a few of so many ways to participate in environmental mission. Creation care is not a set programme. Each person’s unique gifts enable opportunities to care for the environment as an expression of faith. This was described by those I interviewed as a vital component of church mission.
“Environmental concern and a more responsible attitude to looking after the earth has got to be one of our new modern tools in the church for engaging with our society. This is a perfect opportunity for the church to show that we care.”
Finally, I noticed the interviewees crediting God with sustaining their motivation through challenges. In each interview I heard both ‘fire in the belly’ energy, but I also heard struggle and disappointment. I share a similar experience, in that creation care is often a ‘2-steps-forward-1-step-back’ process, of making progress and having setbacks—especially with a global pandemic. Lockdowns have forced us all to sit more lightly with our plans! Those I interviewed described having hope not in their own actions but in God.
“There is a lot of hopelessness about the environment, but we do have hope, because we have an all powerful God, that it can actually make a difference. Jesus is going to redeem everything.”
Some described experiences they interpreted as hearing God’s voice.
“I go through moments of incredible doubt: should I still be doing this? I was out surfing and I felt God say “It matters to me.” What I am doing matters to God. But also beyond me, this creation matters to God. That word kept me going.”
Sadly, Christians are not well-known for environmental action. However, what I see is a growing movement of people of faith who believe that God is calling them personally and collectively to care for creation. I interpret this as God at work raising people up to care for the world, both the natural environment and human community. I am inspired by how individual Christians experience this, how it sparks motivation and sustains effort across a surprising diversity of projects. My own testimony is of God stirring my heart and pushing me into wide-open spaces. I sense the Spirit throwing me crazy questions such as “What if all our Christian academic institutions integrated environmental sustainability into every department?”, or “How could social service agencies be encouraged to develop their own green practice?” These are far too big for me, but that is how I believe God works. As we respond to God’s call to care for creation motivation grows and fresh opportunities emerge. The world’s problems seem to multiply, but faith and hope and love rise to meet the challenge.
Silvia is a counsellor, supervisor, sustainability consultant and ordained Presbyterian minister. She convenes the Christchurch group of A Rocha Aotearoa New Zealand (link: www.arocha.org.nz ). She currently lives on the Burnham army base, with her army chaplain husband. Her resources for sustainability, faith, and worship include Psalms reimagined in contemporary terms and a Bible study on waste: www.conversations.net.nz. ‘Let’s Say A Psalm’ is her published collection for children and all-age worship (link: https://pgpl.co.nz/ebooks/lets-say-a-psalm-ebooks). Current writing projects include a book on ministry transitions and grief, studies for Christian young people on climate change, and celebrating Kiwi women active in creation care. She has established Place Consultancy to resource the community sector in environmental sustainability: www.place.net.nz.