I’m fairly sure the first rule of blogging is to choose your topic and stick to it.
With that advice in mind, and with apologies to anyone who follows this blog for recipes, or for bread, or for songs, or for sermons, or for anything else that I’ve posted on in the past I’m now going to throw yet another topic into the mix!
More and more the focus of my thinking is turning to environmental issues, and in particular the theological/spiritual aspects of the current crises ( intentional plural!). I am in the middle (or, to put it more realistically, near the beginning…) of writing my dissertation on the different images we can use to think about how humans relate to the rest of the natural world – are we ‘stewards’ or ‘priests’ or ‘masters’ or simply ‘creatures’? I will probably write a bit more about that another time but for now I want to share a few reflections on a conference I went to yesterday.
I have recently become an Associate Member of the John Ray Initiative, a sort of ‘think-tank’ organisation connecting the environment, science and the Christian faith. Amongst other things they (we?) produce briefing papers on a range of topics from “Protecting the Soil Resource” and “British and American Attitudes to Nature” to ” Working with Australian Church Youth to Respond to Climate Change: Improvisational Drama as an Educational Tool” so as you can see the topics are quite varied! They also organise an annual Environment Conference in association with A Rocha (A Christian conservation charity) and Redcliffe College in Gloucester. This year’s conference was held yesterday on the topic of “Churches and Sustainable Communities”, over the next few days I’d like to offer a few reflections on the day.
1 – To change a community you’ve got to change its story.
After the initial welcomes the day began with an excellent talk from Ruth Valerio on her experiences of building community on the estate where she and her family live. She began with the all-too-familiar story of a church trying to set up a church plant on the estate by sending several families to live there but, after a couple of years without any tangible ‘results’, the church pulled out again. She then described the ups and downs of nearly two decades of trying to make a difference in the community, through practical things like putting a fence round the local green to stop cars driving across it, structural things like setting up a community association, and relational things like building friendships with the initially wary neighbours.
She made a number of good points, particularly about the importance of being in it for the long haul. This reminded me of a story my brother-in-law, who is a missionary in Niger, told me about when he first moved out there and started to build relationships with the Tuareg community. He said that after the first time he got malaria and left for treatment they were surprised when he returned. The second time it happened they were very surprised when he returned, and after he had left for malaria treatment and returned again a third time they began to treat him differently because they could see that he was really serious about being part of their community.
The point that really jumped out at me was, I think, more of a passing comment about the importance of changing the story a community tells about itself. If a community has always been told that there is no point building a nice park because it will just get trashed then it starts to believe it. If a community has always been told that it is not worth spending money on then it will believe it. If a community has always been told that it is an unsafe, unpleasant and undesirable place to live then it will believe that and fall deeper into that behaviour. In order to change that mindset in their community they made a point of always reporting any good news stories to the local press and sticking the cuttings up on the community noticeboard. Gradually people began to see that there were good things happening on their estate and they began to think and behave differently.
The stories we tell ourselves about who we are play a huge part in influencing our behaviour.
This is important because the story we often tell ourselves is that the problems of climate change are too great to be addressed by little old me, that the politicians are far too worried about getting re-elected to do anything so unpopular as to actually address this issue. We tell ourselves that ‘sustainability’ is really just a middle class concern and that we’ve got too many other problems to deal with. It’s so easy to look at the facts of climate change and just buy into that hope-less story.
We need to begin to change our story, to see that another world is possible. We need to see that planting a few vegetables or switching to a renewable energy supplier isn’t just baling out the titanic with a teacup. That taking the kids to the local, rusty play park and hunting for bugs instead of driving to the big indoor soft play area isn’t just eco-martyrdom. These are small steps in reframing our story into one which recognises our place within God’s great ecosystem and as we begin to change our story so we begin to change our behaviour.
Last summer our garden was suddenly filled with thousands of black and yellow stripy caterpillars. At first we thought about trying to get rid of them because they were all over the grass, the toys, the vegetables etc. but a week or two later some yellow ragwort began to grow very rapidly until after just a few days it was well over a metre high. Again we thought about chopping it down but we soon realised that these caterpillars had all migrated onto the ragwort and before long they had eaten it all right down to the ground. Once the ragwort had gone the caterpillars began disappearing too and by the end of the summer you would never know that either of them had been there.
Our initial reaction to the appearance of both the caterpillars and the ragwort was that they were intruding onto ‘our’ space, that they were a problem that needed dealing with. But by ‘letting nature take its course’ we learned a valuable lesson about ourselves. Who are we to decide whether these creatures should survive? Who are we to say that this plant is valued and that plant is a weed? Is the value of nature to be found in how useful it is to us? Our view was broadened and our story was changed and our relationship with our garden has been fundamentally changed for the better.
That is one small personal example. To deal with the problems facing our planet we need to reframe our story on a personal, community, national and global level and the Church has a responsibility to help do that. I’m in, how about you?!
[This series reflecting on the conference will continue throughout this week. Next up: How can the Church engage with other groups working towards sustainable communities?]