After decades of being known for their blinkered vision on saving souls and getting into heaven, evangelical Christians are starting to re-think their stance on the environment, especially in California, where a historic drought is devastating the state. A growing number of California churches are recognizing the difficult situation the state is in and taking steps to do whatever they can to reduce water usage and care for those most affected by the drought.
The term “creation care” was coined in the late 1980s by evangelical leaders to talk about the Christian mandate to be responsible and careful in their treatment of the Earth. The basis for this movement can be found in Genesis 2:15, where we read that God “took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.” That passage, among others, has motivated many Christians toward environmentalism. It’s cited at Billy Graham’s website as a mandate to “watch over [the world] and use it wisely.” And other Christian organizations, like the Salvation Army and Geneva College, understand Genesis 2:15 as a way to honor the world that God created, a way of taking care of what God has given people as you might tend to a gift from a beloved relative.
Where some Christians have lived with an unflagging focus on life in heaven, some are now unable to separate their faith from the need to manage the Earth’s resources wisely.
There is a deep connection between creation care and the Biblical imperative to care for “the least of these” (Matthew 25:40). “Climate change is at bottom a moral issue, and nothing illustrates the point more than how differently the world’s rich and poor are connected to the problem,” says Richard Cizik, the former president of the National Association of Evangelicals and founder of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good. “At the moment, the blameless are suffering the most while the rich avert their eyes and guard their bank accounts.”
There has been a shift in Christianity, especially for those in places like California, where the effects of climate change can no longer be ignored. The drought there is entering its fourth year, and its severity led University of California-Irvine professor Jay Famiglietti to pen an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times arguing that the state has only one year of water left in its reservoirs. Californians are praying for rain, but in lieu of a miracle, Governor Jerry Brown has issued a statewide executive order restricting water use.
Where some Christians have lived with an unflagging focus on life in heaven, some are now unable to separate their faith from the need to manage the Earth’s resources wisely. Agricultural communities in California’s Central Valley are among those hardest hit by the drought, and churches in those areas have responded with fundraisers for the families of those whose livelihoods are at risk. Christ Lutheran Church in Visalia donated 100,000 diapers to families in need, and has been leading congregants in conversation about the stewardship of water.
Don Pedro is a small town just west of Yosemite. One of its nearby reservoirs, Lake McClure, stands at just eight percent capacity, and residents are on a mandatory 50 percent water use reduction. The pastor of Lake Don Pedro Baptist Church, Hans Frei, has asked members to pray for their water board general manager and urges them to attend board meetings. Residents have been given drought buckets in which to catch excess shower water for use outdoors, and are hoping for rain or outside assistance. Without either, the town’s water supply is projected to run out as soon as August. The town has asked the state for help in building a five mile-long overland pipe that would transport water from the deepest part of Lake McClure—an expensive (and time-consuming) project.
Brea Congregational United Church of Christ in Orange County made its campus more eco-friendly back in 2009 when leaders removed part of the church’s grass lawn to make way for a drought-tolerant garden featuring manzanitas, California oaks, and western redbuds, all of which are well-adapted to drought conditions and require relatively little water to grow and thrive. They also replaced their traditional pew Bibles—kept in racks for easy thumbing during a sermon—with The Green Bible, a version made entirely of recycled paper and linen with passages concerning the environment highlighted in green.
Orange County hasn’t been as affected by the drought as the Central Valley, but the UCC is a progressive denomination within the Christian church. They have created a UCC Center for Environmental Justice out of their conviction that “God's creation is groaning under the burden of injustice, greed, and arrogance.” The Center for Environmental Justice hosts ministers from across the country and trains them in justice-related responses to environmental damage, including taking them on “toxic tours” of Seattle, where they show some of the city’s worst environmental offenders.
The earliest Christians were convinced that Jesus was going to return at any moment and usher in a new era, so they didn’t waste much time on environmental concerns.
Another UCC church, Metropolitan Community Church in North Hollywood, has encouraged members to “engage in water conservation as a spiritual practice” during the season of Lent. Leaders have installed solar panels and a water reclamation system on their campus, and are looking to “turn around our recklessness with the Earth,” says the Reverend Dr. Robert Shore-Goss. They’ve even gone so far as to recognize the Earth as a member of their congregation, not out of a pagan sensibility but because Shore-Goss feels “a pastoral responsibility to care for the Earth.”
Churches in Porterville, a town of 55,000 an hour north of Bakersfield, have already taken a lead in battling the loss that comes with drought. Porterville (and its neighboring community of East Porterville), are home to industry agriculture, and have faced hardship in recent years. Many residents depend on domestic wells for their water supply, and when theirs went dry they weren’t sure where to turn.
St. Anne’s parish, a Catholic church in Porterville, started the Drought Food Assistance Program in May 2014 to help families that had lost work. The assistance boxes—which have gone out to over 40 families in the area—contain non-perishable food, but don’t include water, which many residents are going without. Another church has opened its parking lot up to host trailers of portable showers brought in by county officials.
In 1862, the area received so much rain that the nearby Tule River breached its banks and its course was changed, along with some of the local flora and fauna. John Steinbeck wrote about this phenomenon at the Salinas River in East of Eden: “In the winter of wet years the streams ran full-freshet, and they swelled the river until sometimes it raged and boiled, bank full, and then it was a destroyer.” Irrigation came to Porterville that same summer, and locals planted acres of almonds—it takes about a gallon of water to grow one almond, and California grows 99 percent of the almonds in the United States—and citrus.
Now, descendants of those locals are drinking bottled water donated by the caseload by ministries in Ohio. Families have taken out loans to dig deeper wells in hopes of finding groundwater, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America awarded a $2,700 grant for drought relief efforts to the Porterville Area Coordinating Council. The local Lutheran church in Porterville has served as a donation site for bottled water, paper and plastic goods, and cleansing wipes to be used as a way to cut down on water consumption.
The earliest Christians were convinced that Jesus was going to return at any moment and usher in a new era, so they didn’t waste much time on environmental concerns. Then again, the damage they could do was limited by the technology available to them—people who drove donkeys instead of SUVs were polluting very little. But since that time, as the world has continued on without a Second Coming of Christ, Christians have been divided over how to approach the Earth.
Some read Genesis 1 as permission to exploit the Earth’s resources however they see fit, since God gave humans “dominion” over creation. Some remain convinced that we are, finally, at the end times and that we will discard the world like an old coat at that time, so how we treat it is a non-issue. According to a 2014 survey by the Public Religion Research Institute, 77 percent of white evangelical Protestants attribute “the severity of recent natural disasters to the biblical ‘end times.’”
The God of the Bible is often talked about as the source of living water, and billions of people over many centuries have relied on that source. But the real source is running dry, and Californians won’t wait until the world ends before they go looking for more.