'We don't own this earth': The Biblical case for protecting the environment
“I don't consider myself an environmentalist.”
That is perhaps an odd statement coming from someone who is an unabashed — you could say devout — leader of a nationwide movement to care for the environment.
Then again, the Rev. Mitch Hescox isn't your typical advocate for environmental causes. He’s a lifelong Republican son of a coal miner, and a man who spent more than a decade working for the coal industry.
But Hescox is also an Evangelical Christian with a message that is at the heart of a growing eco-friendly Christian movement: Scripture says to honor God's creation by caring for the earth.
These days, Hescox travels the country spreading that message to other Evangelical Christians and in doing so is creating common ground among people who on most issues are bitter ideological opponents.
“One of the things that I have found out, in the nine years I've been doing this and probably a 1,000 sermons and presentations, if not more, is that a lot of Evangelicals have not been taught what the Bible says about caring for the earth,” Hescox told IndyStar in a phone conversation.
“We don't own this earth. God does. We are merely supposed to be stewards, caretakers.”
Hescox, who was the featured speaker at the Hoosier Environmental Council’s annual Greening the Statehouse event on Saturday, is far from alone in embracing the environment as a Christian cause.
Over the past decade, several Evangelical leaders and institutions have adopted environmentally conscious resolutions. In 2011, the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization, a global Evangelical organization, adopted the Cape Town Commitment. Among its many goals, the commitment “encourages Christians worldwide” to “persuade governments to put moral imperatives above political expediency” for issues related to the environment and climate change.
The same year, the National Association of Evangelicals released a 56-page paper exploring how environmental changes affect the poor and the biblical arguments for Christian engagement in environmental issues.
“We are concerned when we hear projections that environmental changes threaten the lives of more and more people, particularly the extreme poor,” said NAE president Leith Anderson at the time of the release.
Perhaps one of the largest tours de force for Evangelical environmentalism came in 2006, when 86 Evangelical leaders signed a Climate Initiative that called for the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions. At more than 200 additional leaders have signed on since then. And Hescox’s own Evangelical Environmental Network has been working on advocating for environmental policies since 1993.
Still, Evangelicals are among the demographics that present the largest obstacle for environmental polices. A Pew Research Center survey conducted in August 2015 found that only 28 percent of white Evangelicals believed that the earth was getting warmer because of human activity. That proportion was smaller than any other religious affiliation represented in the poll, which focused on Christian faiths.
According to the same survey, white Evangelicals were also more likely to support allowing offshore oil drilling. That’s a significant number of Americans, considering Evangelical Protestants make up the largest religious affiliation in the United States. In Indiana, they make up a third of the adult population.
And as the United States has become more politically polarized, issues related to fossil fuels or pollution have ended up being married to social issues like abortion and marriage equality, issues that could be considered deal breakers for many Evangelical voters.
That’s something that frustrates Hescox.
“I am and my community are probably never going to be pro-choice,” Hescox said. “The more you lump them together, the more you hurt my ability to communicate, and you exacerbate, and literally fuel, the effort of those who want to keep climate change denial out there.”
A coal-powered past
Hescox grew up in a coal mining town in western Pennsylvania, where the sound a midday fire siren usually announced a mining accident. He came of age during the Vietnam War, a time he called the “God is dead” era, and ran away to Arizona for college. After earning his degree, he settled in Denver and designed equipment for the coal industry, some of which he said you might still find in coal operations around the world. He spent 14 years in the industry before hearing the call to become a pastor.
“(My staff) would jokingly say that becoming president of EEN is your penance job for doing all that. And they remind me of that occasionally,” Hescox said.
Over time he began to understand that caring for the planet was in line with his religious values. He started to find it in the scripture. Look no further than Genesis 2:15, for example: "The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it." Or perhaps Matthew 24:45: "He will reply, 'Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.'"
“I started to understand climate change and its impacts on water scarcity and food scarcity, and that led met look at what happens in the United States,” Hescox said.
What he found is that the way humans treat the environment — and more importantly, the things we extract from it — have a detrimental effect on the health of children and adults, all of whom are God’s children.
Hescox finds evidence of the problem here in Indiana. He points out a 2015 Indiana Finance Authority report that stated that 80 percent of the state’s water utilities surveyed said that water quality sometimes affects the amount of water that they can use from their sources of supply, and the fact that five coal plants operate within 30 miles of Evansville alone.
How we generate energy is of particular concern to Hescox. He thinks of the premature births caused by pollutants from coal burning emissions, and the children with asthma they got from living near fracking operations. And then there’s the actual damage done to the earth during the extraction of these materials, and the devastated lives of the workers left behind when an industry shrinks.
“It's economically, morally wrong to continue promoting the fossil fuel industry,” Hescox said.
“There are these people who want to hang onto their businesses for as long as possible, but the problem is by doing that, they're hurting every single child of God on earth, and hurting us tremendously,” he added.
Creation care in Indiana
But Indiana also serves another reminder. As Hescox prepared to travel to Indiana, it was not lost on him that he wouldn’t see eye to eye with the state’s highest profile Evangelical.
As governor, now-Vice President Mike Pence railed against the Environmental Protection Agency’s clean power provisions and sat by as the legislature repealed energy efficiency regulations that were reported to have not only reduced energy use but also to have saved consumers money.
“I would love to get him in a room for an hour to talk to him," Hescox said. "I think I could turn him around or at least partially turn him around.”
Members of various religious groups in Indiana are turning towards environmental ways to practice their faith. Though there’s no central effort or state-level version of the Evangelical Environmental Network, grassroots efforts have appeared across the state.
One of those groups is Hoosier Interfaith Power and Light, a network of congregations and religious leaders of all faiths that see caring for the environment as part of their worship.
Rev. Dennis Shock (left) and Rev. T. Wyatt Watkins marched with leaders of Hoosier Interfaith Power and Light (H-IPL), along with members from Indianapolis faith, environmental and citizens groups around Monument Circle in 2013. They gathered to pray for wisdom and justice as the utility pursues raising rates on Hoosier families in order to extend the lives of its aging coal-fired power plants. (Photo: Matt Detrich/The Star )
“At the core of faith is the love of people, the love of planet,” said Mike Oles, organizing director for H-IPL. “That is a spirit and a spirituality that brings together all understandings of faith.”
The group’s name is a non-accidental play on Indianapolis Power and Light, the investor-owned utility that powers Marion County. H-IPL and IPL are no strangers — they’ve met, at least ideologically, on the floor of the general assembly during the fight over Indiana solar policy, and in the chambers of the city-county council in Indianapolis as H-IPL advocated, alongside other faith-based groups, for the shuttering of IPL’s Harding Street coal power plant.
IPL stopped burning coal at the plant last year, a move that made Marion County free from coal burning power plants and earned IPL an award from the Indiana chapter of the American Lung Association.
H-IPL’s activism reaches across the state. As a network, they provide houses of worship with resources to help them become more energy efficient. Oles says that there aren’t a huge number of Evangelical members, but that there is lot of opportunity there.
“If you have megachurch," Oles said, "I don’t know why you wouldn’t have solar panels.”
Englewood Christian Church in Indianapolis isn’t a so-called “megachurch,” but that hasn’t stopped the congregation from installing 80 solar panels on the building’s roof. But the more impressive project sits across the street — nearly 550 solar panels on top of a low-income senior housing facility. Joe Bowling, the co-director for the Englewood Community Development Corporation, says that they are hoping the facility will become the first certified net energy positive multi-family building in Indiana.
Joe Bowling looks over solar panels on the roof of the Englewood Christian Church in 2015. (Photo: Mike Fender/The Star)
The CDC, which is housed within the church, and the solar installations are the work of two decades during which the members of Englewood made moves — literally — to be able to better serve the community. In the 1990s, church members began relocating into the Englewood neighborhood. At the time, about 10 percent of the congregation lived in the neighborhood. Now it’s around 80 to 90 percent.
“The very worst of Christianity is that people want to say that things are rooted in their faith, but those things are not related to their daily life,” Bowling said. “Communities of faith can have a really big impact here but they have to locate themselves where they can live and work in ways that are very much rooted and touch the ground. And I think more and more people are starting to find that.”
Bowling told IndyStar that much of the creation care practiced through Englewood is wrapped into other initiatives to provide walkable and affordable places within the community, and to help those who are the most vulnerable. The neighborhood is part of Great Places 2020, which invests in areas across the city to make them more livable.
“We’re very passionate about creation care and stewardship, but we’re also very passionate that the benefits of stewardship and creation care don’t just go towards people who can afford it, but also to people who are often victims of environmental degradation,” Bowling said.
This is something Rev. Cheryl Rivera has come to understand all too well. As a faith leader and resident of East Chicago, Rivera has spent a lot of her time fighting for her community to have access to things as simple as clean water.
“People of faith have an opportunity and an obligation to get involved outside of synagogue, outside of the mosque", Rivera said. “The majority of the work that Christ did was outside the synagogue. He went among those who were discriminated against, He went among the outcasts, those who were left out.”
Rivera did not always see the value of environmental advocacy or even faith-based organizing. But now, as a Baptist minister and the executive director of the Northwest Indiana Federation of Interfaith Organizations, she sees it as the part of the way she worships. Over the past year, she’s brought East Chicago residents to the floor of the general assembly to testify about their experiences and, with the help of other community groups, has helped secure over 400,000 bottles of water for residents.
“How can I be a person of faith and not be concerned about the environment? The air, the water, the soil, the ground that we walk on," she said. "All of those things are things that have been given to us by God, and we have a responsibility to provide some stewardship over them.”
Emily Hopkins covers the environment for IndyStar. Contact Emily at (317) 444-6409 or email@example.com.