Faith Offers Its Own Justification for Climate Action on Campus

Among students and faculty at Eastern Nazarene College, the existence of global climate change has long remained in dispute and environmental activism has been largely absent from the small Christian campus. That, however, may be about to change.

In April, 2009, the Boston-area school was one of six to receive “creation care” grants – stipends from the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities to launch faith-based environmental efforts on campuses. Creation care is a faith-based movement that emphasizes that the environment is God’s creation and that humans have a responsibility to be good stewards of the earth.

The first-time, $5,000 grants mark a shift in attitude toward environmentalism among conservative Christian campuses that have previously steered clear of even widely adopted strategies such as recycling, say faculty and students.

“I’ve been trying to promote creation care here for 10 years,” says Eastern Nazarene biology professor Jonathan Twining. “And there’s been a lot of resistance. Part of the reason is that parents don’t think climate change is for real. People who are prominent in evangelical circles tend to pooh-pooh climate change. But I think there’s a new awareness of the responsibility that we have as Christians to be good stewards of our environment.”

At Eastern Nazarene, the grant will help launch the beginnings of a campus creation care program, which will include purchasing several rain barrels to capture and reuse runoff, recycling photocopied paper, installing recycling can and bottle bins for graduation ceremonies this year, and creating incentives for students to use their own mugs in the cafeteria and snack bar.

Many Christian colleges and universities have long been active in promoting creation care on their campuses. The Council of Christian Colleges and Universities estimates that half of its 111 member schools in the U.S. have some type of initiative. Most are medium or large schools with a theologically diverse student body.

But among smaller, evangelical Christian schools, where the prevailing theology is rooted in the inerrancy – or literal interpretation – of the Bible, the movement – if it exists at all – is marginal.

Many students come to campus from home schooled backgrounds, small Christian academies and conservative homes where environmentalism is considered fringe, liberal or even non-Christian, Twining says. Some believe that climate change is a sign of the end times prophesied in the Bible and therefore should not be interfered with, he says.

The grant program was designed to reach these schools, says Lisa-Jo Baker, director of development and research for the council. “Our idea is to introduce these campuses to real baby step measures that can have really large outcomes to really get them started on this journey,” Baker says.

At Tabor College in Hillsboro, Kansas, a creation care class will create a plan of action for using the grant. At Milligan College in east Tennessee, the grant will be used to expand initial recycling efforts on campus.

All of the recipients – which include Kings College University in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada and Carson-Newman College in Johnson City, Tennessee – will undertake a campus sustainability audit to measure factors such as energy use and identify areas for conservation.

The creation care projects would not have been possible several years ago, says Grant Overstake, communications director for Tabor College. “There’s been a theological 180 that’s occurred among evangelicals over the past few years,” he says.

Evangelical leaders such as Pat Robertson have softened their previous stance that climate change isn’t real. Former Republican candidate and Pastor Mike Huckabee officially allied himself with the creation care movement, giving legitimacy to evangelical political activism on the issue. And as evangelical leaders have embraced creation care, they have articulated a Biblical perspective and a new language that has served as a more persuasive alternative to the vision articulated by those seen as ‘liberals’ on the issue.

At Eastern Nazarene, it was exposure to missionary work in Central America that got student Ashley Jardim, 22, thinking about creation care. The school has a partnership with churches in Nicaragua, and pastors there requested that students help raise money for recycling efforts.

“That really got us thinking,” says Jardim, a social work major, who now serves as a student representative on a creation care team that is overseeing the grant. Jardim says that she and other interested students still meet some resistance about their environmental efforts.

On Earth Day, for example, Jardim and other students organized a small festival. Campus visitors from Nazarene churches questioned their motives, she says. “If we are spending so much effort on creation care, they said that was taking away from our Christian call to care for other people,” Jardim says.

“But I told them I don’t agree,” she continues. “As Christians we strive to live compassionately and care for ‘the least of these’ and creation care is how we can do this.” (The phrase ‘least of these’, from a verse of the New Testament book of Matthew, has been embraced as a rallying point for the creation care movement.)

Jardim remains optimistic about the future of campus creation care efforts: “The negative feedback is really coming from people affiliated with our school, but not students.”

Published: May 26, 2009