At the end of March, hundreds of people gathered in our Nation’s Capital, and it wasn’t just the typical hordes of middle schoolers in matching t-shirts you might be thinking of. Instead, groups of health professionals, advocates for overburdened communities on the frontlines of environmental harm, and concerned citizens were flown in from around the country for the National Public Health Advocacy Week.
As a humanities major at Calvin University, a small private college in the Midwest, I never imagined I’d be participating myself. I attended the advocacy week as a member of the Evangelical Environmental Network, where I served as an intern in the spring. EEN and other groups gathered for the first ever National Public Health Advocacy Week to encourage members of Congress to take action in supporting climate policy changes that directly impact health. Constituents from various states were scheduled to meet with Senators and Representatives, or members of their staff, to discuss specific pollution safeguards.
The first night in Washington D.C., the majority of constituents who’d come to advocate gathered for a training meeting. There, we learned what our meetings with legislators would look like during the next two days and received background information about all of the aspects of the “Solutions For Pollution” Campaign.
During the break in our training that evening, I started up a conversation with a woman next to me. Her name was Sarah, and we had discovered we were both from Milwaukee, so we were chatting about our hometown. Suddenly, she paused, looking hesitant, and politely asked me what the term “Evangelical” included. She had heard earlier from me and the others in our group when we’d introduced ourselves as part of the Evangelical Environmental Network. I explained how Evangelicals are a broad and diverse group made up of many Christian denominations who are Biblically and Christ-centered in living out their faith.
She then proceeded to look even more uncertain as she cautiously inquired, "So, you’re all Christians, but you care about climate change and the environment?”
My first reaction was surprise. I’d been spending so much time working with creation-care minded Christians involved with EEN, that the connection seemed normal to me. I explained to her what EEN believes and how personally, climate action and creation care feels like a natural extension of my Christian faith and my obedience to Christ. God cares about the health and flourishing of his creation and in order to honor Him, we should as well. Sarah was intrigued and excited by my answer. She admired just how many people were there representing EEN and was happily surprised to see us living out our faith in this way. She told me that she had been raised Catholic but is no longer religious. She even turned to her middle-school aged son and directed his attention to me.
“See?” she gestured, “She’s a Christian and she believes in science!” I was a wonder to this woman and her son, a rare sight. It was comical, but at the same time strange and sad. She proceeded to talk about how you don’t often hear about Christians supporting the cause for climate action. She lamented how popular opinion makes it seem like this dual identity of Christian and climate advocate does not or cannot exist. I acknowledged her experience that yes, many Christians are not aware – and some openly against – environmental care and climate action. I empathized with her that while this is true, there are organizations like EEN and a growing number of followers of Christ who are at-the-ready to advocate for commonsense environmental safeguards that defend our health and spread the word about climate change as a response to our Christian faith.
A recent article in TIME Magazine cited a Pew Research survey that revealed Evangelical Protestants as the least likely group to believe in serious, human-caused climate change out of other American Christian groups. The article also acknowledged the sad truth that while many religious people believe that God called them to protect the Earth, climate skepticism and misinformation prevents them from actually taking action. The author writes, “In the past year, about half as many Christians (21%) donated money, attended a protest, contacted an elected official or volunteered in some way for the cause compared with non-Christian religious groups (41%), including Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, and Hindu populations.”
This is a tough pill to swallow and frustrating to comprehend. I was faced firsthand with the impact of these facts when interacting with people like Sarah while in D.C. Despite these numbers, I’m heartened to see more evangelicals taking steps to declare that acting on climate is an important act of faith, including the National Association of Evangelicals who, with the help of EEN, released an update last year to their climate report, which was first published in 2011.
If you’ve been involved in the EEN community for a while, it can be easy to forget that while significant progress has been made, there’s still a lot of room to grow and fruit to be had. Indeed, living and witnessing as a Christian who cares about acting on climate is more important than ever in today’s society. Our presence in D.C. allowed lawmakers to recognize that their evangelical constituents are also concerned about these issues. It’s an important and valuable step for Christians to be welcomed into this space of climate action that healthcare workers and other advocates have occupied for so long. Just existing in this role serves as a powerful witness to the genuine hope and compassion Jesus provides us, and that we in turn can provide to the climate movement.
The reality is this: Christians, especially evangelicals, are slowly and steadily making their way into the climate action space. Organizations made up of health professionals, scientists, and other climate advocates have often championed and furthered this cause for many years now, with a small but dedicated group of Evangelical voices joining them. That said, we are here, we can offer a lot, and our number is growing.
As Sarah affirmed for me, being an Evangelical and a climate advocate is no small thing. We are a strong and necessary voice on the issue, if only we can show up when we’re needed. When I think about Sarah’s, and probably many other people’s reactions to EEN’s presence in D.C., the movie Horton Hears a Who comes to mind. I imagine a group of Christians, perhaps the EEN delegation at Advocacy Week, chanting out to the world like the Who’s in Whoville, proudly and passionately, “We are here! We are here! We are here!”, yearning to be heard by other Christians and non-Christians alike. We are here! We are here! We are here! And we’re ready to do the work.