From a distance, the Lenten display in the chancel of St. John United Lutheran Church in Seattle looks similar to displays installed by churches around the world in the weeks leading up to Easter Sunday. Sunlight streams through stained glass windows. A gothic arch frames a statue of Jesus Christ. A black shroud and a large wooden cross lay across the altar, signaling the coming of Good Friday.
But look closer, and you will spot something new: clear ribbons of plastic, winding their way from a font of holy water to the base of the cross. Members of the St. John United congregation cut the strips from an old plastic drop cloth that they found gathering dust in church storage. The imagery is ancient, but it serves a very modern purpose. This year, the community at St. John United is participating in a single-use plastic fast.
“It’s kind of pretty, but you recognize that it’s plastic,” Reverend Anna Rieke, who leads the congregation, says of the design. “It’s a conflicted experience.”
A new kind of fasting
So, too, is the experience of trying to abstain from single-use plastic. Rieke, for example, discovered tofu in her fridge that she needed to eat before its expiration date. She added the tofu packaging to a bag of her fasting lapses, and other church members are doing the same. On Easter Sunday, they are envisioning a new sanctuary display—made out of their collective plastic waste.
The season of Lent, which begins on Ash Wednesday and ends 40 days later with Easter celebrations, is in many Christian traditions a time of fasting. Following his baptism, Gospel accounts say that Jesus fasted for 40 days in the desert while being tempted by Satan. Christians view Lenten sacrifice—like giving up meat, or candy, or fasting from trolling, per Pope Francis’s recent admonition against “verbal violence . . . amplified by the internet”—as a time of spiritual cleansing to prepare for Easter.
But this year some churches are inviting their members to make Lenten sacrifices that raise awareness about caring for the Earth in an era of potentially catastrophic global warming. The hope is to both change consumer-culture habits and address climate anxiety. While some churches deny the reality of climate change, others are discovering that their members want to take action. There is also a growing network of climate activists working to convince their Christian brothers and sisters that loving your neighbor, in 2020, has to include lowering your carbon footprint. (Lent began before the coronavirus crisis became a global threat; some people’s commitments may have changed as they were forced into isolation).
The largest of these efforts is being organized by the Church of England, which has made “Care for God’s Creation” this year’s Lenten theme for the 1 million members who attend services at least once a month. “Many Christians use Lent as an opportunity to give something up, to remember that Christ went without during his time in the wilderness,” Archbishop Justin Welby and Archbishop Jon Sentamu write in their introduction to the church’s devotional guide. “Perhaps you could consider giving something up as well to help the environment.” Among the practical suggestions they pair with Bible verses and reflections: removing trash from local waterways, switching to a renewable energy provider, or commuting by bike or public transit.
The devotional guide is available in two forms, mobile app and printed booklet. The church also commissioned theologian Ruth Valerio, director of global advocacy for Tearfund, a Christian anti-poverty organization, to write a book. Titled Saying Yes to Life, it is currently a bestseller in the U.K.—despite church attendance rates that have been below 5% for years.
“In recent years there’s been a huge shift,” Valerio says. “We’re seeing the church wake up all around the world.” Through her work at Tearfund, she has seen climate change affect the lives of people in poverty for decades, motivating her to make changes to how she lives; last year and the year before, she fasted from plastic during Lent. “I’ve been reducing the amount of plastic I use for years, but it made me take some further steps,” she says. After examining her bathroom, for example, she realized that she could swap shampoo bottled in plastic for shampoo bars. This year, her daughters are going vegan.
The book, Valerio’s third, is organized around the days of creation as outlined Genesis. “Lent is a great opportunity for us to consider seriously how we’re living,” she says. “It’s a period of fasting, it’s a period of repentance, and it’s a period of grief and lament. As we look at the world around us, I think it’s entirely appropriate that we take time to grieve and lament and repent for the mess that we’ve made. But it’s really important that we don’t stop there.”
In February, the Church of England’s General Synod voted to make the organization net-zero on carbon emissions by 2030. Salisbury Cathedral, which boasts the U.K.’s highest church spire, won approval earlier this month to install 92 solar panels on the southern roof of its Cloisters.
Stewards of the Earth
Christian environmental activism in the U.S. is less mainstream and less centrally organized. Earth Ministry, one of the earliest U.S. organizations dedicated to creation care, was founded in 1992 by a group of Episcopal congregants in Washington State after they helped clean birds oiled by a devastating trio of Texaco refinery spills. Today, Earth Ministry considers itself ecumenical and provides a “greening” program for congregations interested in taking steps to address their environmental practices, as well as a variety of published guides (“Care More, Car Less”) and a workshop for people interested in becoming environmental advocates.
The goal of the advocacy workshop is to train Christians to “bring the heart back into the conversation” by learning to tell a personal story about climate change that reflects their values, says Jessica Zimmerle, Earth Ministry’s program and outreach director. So far, she has seen results both big and small. Earth Ministry trainees played a role in the 2019 passage of the Safer Products for Washington Act, for example, the country’s strongest law governing toxic chemicals. Zimmerle also notes that a Washington lawmaker, who happens to be a Christian, joined a handful of other Republicans in voting against arctic drilling after Earth Ministry met with him and followed up with a letter reminding him of the faith-based values that they share. “It’s just a different entry point,” she says.
For Lent, Earth Ministry has developed an action guide for fasting from carbon. The idea is to spur progress, not punish lack of perfection. “[Martin] Luther said that we are all saints and sinners,” says Zimmerle. “So when you are looking at your environmental footprint, you too are going to be a saint and sinner. We’re part of something bigger and we don’t have to do it all.”
Climate Caretakers, a nondenominational organization founded in 2015, is spurring Christian advocacy on climate change through its 1,000-subscriber email list. Director Brian Webb, who works by day as director of the center for sustainability at Houghton College, is leading the Climate Caretakers community in a carbon fast this Lent that highlights a different source of emissions each week. Last week, for example, is focused on fasting from meat. Webb sends daily Bible verses and tips over email to those participating. During the second week, he highlighted a passage from 1 Chronicles: “Everything in the heavens and on earth is yours, O Lord.” The verse is a reminder that in Christian theology, humanity is stewards of the Earth, not owners.
Webb and his family are following along with Climate Caretakers’ carbon fast, though they have already reduced their climate footprint, starting a few years ago with reusable bags. “I’m at a point now where there’s not a lot left that I can afford,” he says. “I’d love to put solar panels on my house, but I don’t have the money to do that. So organizing is my role.”
Like non-religious organizations focused on fighting global warming, Climate Caretakers is trying to strike the right balance between individual and systemic action. “If we’re advocating for change but not doing things in our personal lives, we’re hypocrites. If we’re only doing things in our personal lives, we’ll never see the kind of large-scale change that our society needs. We have to have both,” Webb says. In the weekly emails he sends year-round, he offers readers three escalating action steps, in recognition of the fact that not everyone is using LED lightbulbs or ready to join a protest.
“Humans are finite”
Some Christians, however, are ready to protest. At this year’s National Prayer Breakfast, a dozen people from Young Evangelicals for Climate Action (YECA) held a prayer vigil outside and published an open letter to the attendees. “The tone was very much one of gratitude for the heritage they had handed down to us, calling on them to recognize that it was precisely the values they had taught us that were calling us to stand up and speak out on this issue,” says YECA organizer and national spokesperson Kyle Meyaard-Schaap.
Over 20,000 young evangelicals have engaged with YECA since its founding, and momentum is growing. “When we started in 2012, we had to work really, really hard to make the case for why Christians should care about this, why our faith had something to say about it, why we weren’t communists or atheists,” Meyaard-Schaap says. “And now almost any student we engage with gets it. They understand the climate is changing and that we’re largely responsible.” As a result, the obstacles to progress have shifted as well. The challenge today, he says, “is cynicism and apathy in the face of a really daunting problem.”
Along with his family, Meyaard-Schaap is reading a book called Wild Hope: Stories for Lent from the Vanishing in the days leading up to Easter. (Some Christians adopt a new spiritual discipline for Lent, rather than give something up.) The book highlights the stories of animals that are endangered as a result of climate change, from polar bears to olms, a species of aquatic salamander. As the title indicates, Wild Hope is designed to awaken a sense of optimism. But the book also suggests that our way of living is in conflict with the carefully balanced ecological systems designed by a higher power.
“We have a culture predicated on unlimited growth, but humans are finite,” Meyaard-Schaap says. “We have limits, and actually limits are really, really good, because that’s the way God made us. A church season that encourages us to slow down and reflect on our limits has a direct benefit to what we’re trying to do in the climate movement.”