Is faith-based action something that anyone can do?
Recently Hope for Creation communications assistant Tanai Dawson sat down with Cybelle Shattuck, WMU faculty and author of Faith, Hope, and Sustainability: The Greening of US Faith Communities, to learn more about her story. Cybelle is an Associate Professor with a joint position in the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability and the Department of Comparative Religion at Western Michigan University. We'll share segments of her interview over the next few days, in anticipation of her talk on February 18.
We have people who are spiritual but not religious, and many of them actually have a very strong concern about the environment, because that's part of who's in that SBNR cohort. Spiritual but not religious is a middle class thing, there's a strong concern for the environment and environmental issues among educated people. Anybody who has an interest in spirituality or a faith tradition will find resources if they want them, the theology is out there. That's true for all of the world religions, there are statements on climate change, there are people who are writing about what teachings exist within Hinduism, within Buddhism, within Indigenous traditions, Confucianism, Taoism, Shinto, Christianity, Judaism, Islam. What does it mean for humans to be in the right relationship with the environment? What does our creation story tell us about how we fit into the world? What are our ethics? How do those apply to the environment and social justice? The resources are there. There are manuals for greening synagogues, manuals for greening churches, and a whole bunch of books prescribing environmental actions for faith communities have been published, especially in 2006. They explain what you can do as a person of faith. The harder thing is if you're an individual and you're not part of the congregation, how do you sustain your efforts? You need a community of accountability to sustain you. There's also the possibility that you do belong to a community and it's one that for some reason doesn’t see care for the environment as part of its mission. Then how you frame things matters.
Usually, if you take time to have conversations with people in the congregation, you'll discover other people actually share an interest in environmental justice or climate action, particularly the young people. There is such a generational divide in conservative congregations. Those who are under 30, almost across the board, see care for the environment as important. But those who are over 60 may see it as a political act as opposed to a faith act. The number of people who are participating in religious organizations in this country has declined sharply. That includes both liberal and conservative denominations; the number of people participating in evangelical churches has declined for the last 25-30 years, just like it has in others. Why are congregations losing members? Why are faith communities losing the younger generations? One reason is that they're not seen as addressing modern issues, that they are fighting the wrong cultural battles. They're not connecting to the issues that are of importance to the lives of the young people. If the climate crisis is one issue that young people say is most important to them, maybe faith communities should pay attention to it. Religion has always adapted to address the issues that people care about. So, here's an issue, climate change, that people care about. Faith communities need to pay attention to it.
Yes, faith-based action is something that anybody can do. But it is easier if you're in a community where people can hold each other accountable. But even if care for the environment is not a preexisting emphasis in your community, you can frame it in ways that will resonate with your religion’s teachings about social justice or honoring the Creator or concern for your children and find people who share your concerns. You can also form groups outside of congregations. I've seen this with Young Evangelicals for Climate Action, an organization that is, as its name implies, dominated by younger people, mostly college students. When I asked them, “Are you doing this climate action in your congregations?” They said, “No, we do it in college.” People are forming groups with others who share their interests outside of the congregation, and that's another way to do this either by creating your own group or getting involved with a non-denominational group, like Interfaith Power and Light, or denominational group that exists outside a specific congregation, like the Catholic Climate Covenant. You could get involved with that even if your parish wasn't interested. Green the Church is an African American movement to leverage the power of the Black churches to change society and address climate change. So even if your congregation isn't that interested, you can get involved through one of the other groups out there and become a climate ambassador or a climate champion who brings that message back to your congregation.
Find out more from Cybelle Shattuck in her compelling interview on faith and sustainability daily in anticipation for her event on February 18th!