A Christian environmentalist: How faith and environmental stewardship work together

Mallory McDuff, professor of environmental education at Warren Wilson College, is a proud Episcopalian and environmental activist. In her newest book, Sacred Acts:  How Churches are Working to Protect Earth’s Climate, McDuff solicited essays by Christian environmentalists across the country to explore what faith-based communities are doing to address climate change.

McDuff, who holds a doctorate in wildlife ecology and conservation, with a focus on environmental education, spent three years researching and compiling stories for the book.

In an interview with Xpress, McDuff discusses her religious upbringing, plus steps that congregations are taking toward environmental stewardship — and the impact they’ve had in our local community. Here is some of what she had to say.

Mountain Xpress: Can you tell me first just a little bit about your history of faith and your personal relationship, as an environmentalist, with your church?
Mallory McDuff: Sure, sure. I grew up in Fairhope, Ala., which is on the Gulf Coast, and my parents integrated their faith with the environment, but they didn’t talk about “Oh, we’re environmentalists!” … but more like our spiritual practices can inform our care for the earth and help us in how we take care of the resources that God has provided.

As a young person, I don’t think I saw that connection very clearly. It really wasn’t until I started the research for [Sacred Acts] that I was then able to reflect on how I’d grown up.

What sorts of faith-based local and national organizations are you regularly involved with?
North Carolina Interfaith Power and Light is a really important one with regard to climate change. The biggest single source of found money, essentially free money, for congregations is decreasing their utilities bills. I mean, you don’t have to find a new member of your congregation, it’s found money that then can be used for outreach, for the reasons that congregations exist. So that is, with the economy, the energy audits, and then implementing those recommendations, has been a really strong action that congregations can take. [Meanwhile, Georgia Interfaith Power & Light has] completed 76 energy audits, 11 of Jewish schools and synagogues, and they have 200 congregations on the list that want to do this. So, that’s just really exciting.

Greenfaith is another one, and they have a great chapter in the book about what are the success factors for congregations around energy leadership. They have a Greenfaith certification program, and there are several congregations in North Carolina that are doing this; it takes a congregation through the process of how do you integrate the environment into your worship and your outreach, and it’s step-wise, and they do provide mentoring for it. So those are two. I could go on!

What moved you to write Sacred Acts and Natural Saints? And what was that process like?
Basically what I did with Natural Saints is travel across the country with my kids, spending time in congregations, documenting their stories. And I saw from that research that many of the actions people were taking were addressing climate change even if people weren’t using that language. I wanted to kind of take the fear out of talking about climate change, because it’s so political, and see how decreasing greenhouse-gas emissions integrates into the mission of the church — essentially, to love your neighbor as yourself.

For Sacred Acts, I wanted the framework to be stewardship, spirituality, advocacy and justice, so I invited specific people to write on specific topics. One of the most useful chapters is by Katharine Hayhoe, a respected climate scientist and also an evangelical. So she writes this chapter about the basic science of climate change, but then she looks at why has climate change become so polarized, and then how can we connect it to faith? Why is it so important for faith communities? I think that the book can be a resource if congregations want to take concrete steps to address climate change and enhance their ministries; that’s the take-home.

What is the most pressing environmental issue that you face at the moment, or what do you find is gaining more attention in religious environments? And what would you say, personally, you’re most passionate about?
Climate change; it’s such a big thing. How do you address it? In terms of looking at stewardship of energy resources and saving money as well, First Congregational United Church of Christ in Asheville installed 42 solar panels, and those folks are now talking with other congregations about how can you do this as well.

To me, personally, the issue that I think has the most potential is around food … because congregations of all faith traditions, feeding is what they do! Feeding is an integral part of faith traditions. But then, the other side of that is nobody can argue that people shouldn’t have access to good, healthy food.

In Western North Carolina, churches are being called on, and congregations of all faith are being called on, to help to meet the food needs, that if we can build a capacity of congregations to grow healthy food, to distribute healthy food, then that’s providing outreach.

Also, congregations have land, typically, or access to land, and they have people, and a moral obligation to feed. And in the connection to climate change, our average food item travels 1,800 miles, maybe 2,000 miles now. So by providing local food and building up the local food economy, we’re decreasing greenhouse-gas emissions. With the obesity epidemic, we’re addressing health and nutrition … it’s such a win-win.

Oakley United Methodist Church has this garden, and so they’ve become more integrated into the community. And it’s young adults who are doing the legwork, and suddenly, they’re integrated into this faith community; it’s not like they have to be a member of the congregation, but the congregation is helping to meet the food needs of the community. So, that’s really exciting to me.

For the full interview, go to mountainx.com/environment.

— Katie Rose Anderson is a senior at Warren Wilson College.

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