For some United Methodists, taking care of God’s creation is a biblical mandate.
As the Rev. Josh Amerson, associate pastor at Glenn Memorial United Methodist Church in Atlanta, points out, “God's first word to Adam was to till and keep the earth. We humans have done exceedingly well at the tilling, but until recently the keeping has been overlooked.”
While Glenn Memorial is focusing on sustainability through practices like composting and recycling, Amerson added, “We are eager to engage with environmental justice issues that will impact communities around the world.”
This spring, the congregation is lending support to the denomination’s annual creation care conference, "Environmental Resurrection: Let Justice Roll Down Like Waters," which meets in the Atlanta area April 24-25 at Decatur First United Methodist Church.
A free concurrent event for teens, Youth Climate Convergence!, is set for 10:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Saturday, April 25, at the church. A special Saturday dinner in Decatur is planned by seminary students for all seminary student attendees.
“Too often, caring for the environment has been seen as separated from — or even antithetical to — our calling as Christians,” said the Rev. Katy Hinman, associate minister of Decatur First. “My hope is that this conference will help people understand that our care for other people and for justice is intimately tied to our treatment of all of God's creation.”
Lydia Stewart Castle, Glenn Memorial’s environmental committee chair, agreed, noting the importance of making connections between faith and a personal responsibility to care for the earth. “Co-hosting the caring for creation conference furthers this mission because it raises awareness, provides the opportunity to share with like-minded people, strengthens our faith, and encourages us to set examples for others,” she said.
Target audience: people of faith
Now in its eighth year, the creation care conference was started as a mission of the Lake Junaluska Conference and Retreat Center, says Michael Paul Black, a lay member of Decatur First and a faculty member in the neuroscience department at Georgia State University.
Black later volunteered to organize the event in the Atlanta area, where Peachtree Road United Methodist Church was the host last year. Both Decatur First and Glenn Memorial have made larger commitments to this year’s conference, he noted.
For the first time, Caretakers of God’s Creation — a grassroots denominational group now related to the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries — is playing a central role as a conference organizer and sponsor, he said. The Rev. Pat Watkins, a United Methodist missionary who helps guide the organization, is among the speakers.
The theme for this year's national creation care conference, April 24-25 at the campus of Decatur First United Methodist Church near Atlanta, is "Environmental Resurrection: Let Justice Roll Down Like Waters." Find registration information here.
The target audience is all people of faith. The idea was to have a mix of speakers from the fields of science and theology “so that we can have a dialogue,” Black explained.
The April 24 noon keynote address, for example, features Matthew Tejada, director of environmental justice for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and Ellen Ott Marshall, associate professor of Christian Ethics and conflict transformation at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology.
Some speakers will focus on the need for climate-related work in areas where The United Methodist Church already is assisting low-income or disadvantaged communities, Black said.
For example, the denomination’s Imagine No Malaria initiative has helped lower infections in Africa, but climate change also has affected rainfall patterns there. “If we don’t get a handle on climate change, the areas hit by mosquito-borne malaria are going to be much larger,” he explained.
In addition to speakers and panelists, the program includes workshops, environmental justice working groups, and Friday morning tour options of places such as the Atlanta Beltline and historic Fourth Ward Park, which are generating “great case studies” of transforming areas that suffered environmental degradation, Black said.
‘All have a role’
Church members, congregations and The United Methodist Church as a whole “all have a role to play in living responsibly on this Earth in a way that helps to bring peace, justice, and provision to all people,” Hinman pointed out.
At Decatur First, that realization has translated into actions both practical and liturgical, from retrofitting sanctuary lighting and sponsoring a community-wide recycling event to incorporating environmental justice themes into worship.
Their actions could have an impact far beyond the Atlanta area, noted Gary Garrett, a congregation member and senior technical analyst for the Southern States Energy Board.
“Climate change is much more likely to impact and disrupt the lives of millions of marginalized worldwide, and we as people of faith are called upon to act and advocate on behalf of those who do not have a voice — to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from human activity such as burning fossil fuels for electricity and transportation,” he said.
It’s important to understand that looking after the environment is a way of ministering “to the least of these,” said Beth Bond, a member of Decatur First and curator of sustainable news for Southeast Green, which promotes a sustainable economy.
“Whether it's clean water, chemical-free food, or healthy air, millions of disadvantaged populations are affected by these environmental effects,” she explained. “As God's people, part of us taking care of these sensitive populations is taking care of the planet. Creation care is a key component of social justice.”