I have recently returned from a Creation Care conference in the country of Haiti – an event that provides an exciting glimpse into one possible strategy for ‘mobilizing the church to respond to the environmental crisis’ on a nation-by-nation basis. Let me know what you think.
At Care of Creation our strategy, our goal and our dream has been to “mobilize the church” to respond to environmental challenges. More recently, we’ve grown bolder by saying that we wanted to “mobilize the worldwide church to respond to the global environmental crisis.” That’s a statement that serves well as a branding tool, but as an actual goal? Moving the entire global Christian community in any direction seems like a big stretch, even to us.
That is what makes my recent trip to the country of Haiti so interesting. I don’t need to tell you that Haiti is a country where disasters seem to happen almost on a schedule. Where the level of poverty displayed on city sidewalks can shock even seasoned travelers. And where more than one author has used the word “hopeless” to describe one of the world’s worst environmental situations.
But Haiti also has a church. The people of God are represented in this nation. And it might be that they are actually starting to wake up and to take responsibility for their own country in a way that they have not done before. It is dangerous to proclaim that a particular event is historical when it has only just occurred, particularly when that event is a conference. Can a conference actually accomplish something?
Maybe. Any number of significant historical movements have started with small groups of people talking over problems, even praying in the middle of a thunderstorm. Then they went out and did something.
Time will tell whether the conference I attended was just talk or something more. I have a feeling it was something more.
A Movement to ‘Mobilize the Church’ mobilizes for Creation Care
The story has two points of origin, like a river formed as two streams flow together.
The first, in time at least, is Manila, Philippines, 2009. Early in that year, I received an invitation to come to the Philippines to present the Our Father’s World seminar material to a group of Christian leaders. We wanted to test the concept of using biblical material and scientific teaching about the environmental crisis to mobilize a national church community to develop their own self-sustained creation care movement. We set the date for October, which as it turned out was to be just a month after Typhoon Ondoy made a direct hit on Manila, putting more than half of the city under water. The consequences of what one local leader called ‘sins against God’s creation’ were only too evident, and almost certainly provided some motivation for those attending the seminar to not only listen but to respond. (See here and here for the original posts on the Manila seminars.)
That was a great two-day conference with significant impacts on many individuals and on a number of Christian Filipino organizations like the Philippine Bible Society, but no one would say that it had sparked the ‘national movement’ we were dreaming of.
The second point of origin was a disaster of a different sort in Haiti: A major earthquake in January 2010 killed 300,000, left a million homeless and devastated the infrastructure of a city and nation that was barely functioning already. Behind the massive aid response, a response marked by controversy right up to the present, a group of Haitian Christian leaders decided that it was time to do something different. They formed the Mobilisation autour du Role Prophetique de l’Eglise – roughly translated, The Movement for the Prophetic Role of the Church in Haiti (translated press release) This movement would be a-political and trans-denominational, and would seek to promote the values of justice, integrity, leadership and good governance not only in the Haitian church, but also in Haitian society and politics. Most important, it would be led by Haitians.
Of Haitians, By Haitians, For Haitians
The plan was to use the same teaching material I had used in the Philippines in Haiti. The goal was the same: To lay the foundation for a Christian response to the Haitian environmental crisis. The format was similar to the Filipino conference – two days, with the majority of participant being pastors and church leaders from across the nation. A major difference was language: In Manila I was able to speak and interact in English; here the language would be French or Creole or (most often, I think) a combination of both
I soon learned that I was part of a major effort to communicate to the entire Haitian church. While the conference itself began on Monday, a number of leaders were recruited to preach at a total of eleven different churches in Port au Prince on Sunday. I spoke at a Baptist church to a congregation of about 800, and I had the easiest assignment. Several speakers managed to preach at two different congregations, some meeting as early as 6 am. There was also a media plan: A panel discussion on Day 2 of the conference was broadcast live on a Christian radio network that reaches across the entire nation.
The conference itself was wonderful. No other word for it. In a country that seems to be overrun by outsiders trying to help, this meeting was blessedly free of foreigners and had precious few white faces. (Just two counting my own.) There were approximately 120 Haitians, three Americans, and three Latin Americans (from El Salvador, Peru and Trinidad). There is something about a gathering of local people that has a different flavor from those that are dominated by foreigners. It is possible to speak of “we Haitians” honestly and without self-consciousness. And it is easier, I think, in such a situation, to take ownership of “our challenges” and to confess “our sins.”
Parenthetically, perhaps you wonder how it feels for me – a white American – to be a key speaker at such a gathering. It helps that I grew up in Pakistan, and like many who were raised in cultures not their own, I am often more comfortable in such a setting than where participants are all-white or all-western. And at the very beginning I try to lay the cards on the table: Yes, I look and sound American, though I still think as an Asian in many ways. But the issues before us transcend nationality, etc. A joke or two at the expense of Americans helps, too. (“what do you call a person who speaks three languages? Tri-lingual. Two? Bi-lingual? One? American…”)
I had an idea that the message of the conference was beginning to take root as I circulated among various small groups. These were organized around areas of interest (Children and Schools; Local Church; Theological Education; Youth; Medical; NGOs) and the first afternoon they wrestled with questions related to the present: How is the environmental crisis affecting your area of ministry? The next morning, the questions turned to action: What can you and what will you do in your area in response to this situation?
I don’t have a list of the action items that were proposed, but I heard one group describe a plan that included ‘Near Term’, ‘Mid-term’ and Long-term plans. Another took the main points of my final talk, “Repent! Restore! Prepare!” and built a plan around that.
What was encouraging – and of vital importance – was the fact that all of these ideas and plans came from the participants themselves. The conference strategy was to lay out the problem, to provide solid biblical teaching pointing toward the need for the church to respond, but not to provide answers. I was communicating “Why”, believing that if the “why” message took, the listeners could figure out the “How” by themselves.
As I left, that is exactly what they were starting to do.
Awake or Talking in our Sleep?
I had to leave the conference a couple of hours before the end. As I did so, I wondered: Is this what it appears to be? Is the Haitian church really waking up to its own responsibility to respond to an overwhelming environmental crisis? Or are we just talking in our sleep?
There is no way to know at this stage though I have reason to be hopeful. I have been preaching a biblical response to environmental problems for a number of years now, and I believe this message, grounded in solid Biblical teaching and sound theology, has the potential to grip minds and hearts like no other.
Just as important, this conference was presented as part of a larger effort, The Movement for the Prophetic Role of the Church in Haiti. Unlike many, even most creation care efforts, this one does not stand alone. The creation care theme is giving the larger project a problem to work on, a measurable goal as it were, while the Movement offers creation care a logical and necessary connection to the broader concerns of the Haitian church. This is exactly as it should be. Creation care is not the final purpose of the church – but the church cannot achieve its final purpose without including care for God’s creation high on its ministry agenda.
Only time will tell if this conference was just one more blip on the calendar, or an historic turning point for a church and a nation. Let’s pray that it turns out to be the latter.
We’ll keep you posted!