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Back to the land

Tech-savvy young adults are reconnecting to nature—and taking their faith outdoors.

By Victoria Machado
Illustration by Kathleen Murphy

Eco Stewards biking

It is spring, and I follow Daniel Loya, 28, beyond the grasslands to a trodden path, a high ground in the overflowing wetlands of northern Florida. At the top of an outlook tower, we gaze toward the horizon and he tells me, “This is where I come to worship; this is my church.” Loya, a Presbyterian eco-steward, is part of a growing movement of Christians whose love for the natural world pervades their faith.

As technology fragments our world and drives us into an ever-quickening pace, these young Christians are returning to the rhythms and gifts of nature to reconnect with a better way.

Journalist Richard Louv’s 2005 book, Last Child in the Woods, laments the worrisome disconnection between children and the natural environment and highlights our culture’s failure to immerse them in the hands-on learning experiences offered by the natural world. This “nature-deficit disorder,” described by Timothy Egan of the New York Times as a “divorce between human and habitat,” is the focus also of the 2010 documentary Play Again. The film features a group of children isolated from their high-tech gadgets and placed in a camp-like setting. They are bewildered, not understanding the purpose of a hike or the importance of imagination-based learning.

Though far from new, this disconnection from the natural world is one of my generation’s greatest challenges. Consumed with the latest gadgets and innovations, many people treat nature as a place to visit for summer vacation—or worse, as a distraction from their phones.

Illustration by Kathleen Murphy

Rising diy culture

Many young adults long for something more than what they can find on Google. This desire has given rise to a do-it-yourself (DIY) culture, a
movement that reclaims skills of past generations. Young people are gardening, baking bread, knitting and crocheting, and learning carpentry skills. This resurgence might be comparable to the back-to-the-land movements of the 1970s, and it is at the heart of the millennial generation—though many are still sorting out the details.

Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in the Presbyterian Hunger Program’s food justice fellows. This national voluntary group, comprised largely of young adults, meets once a month on conference calls to discuss issues of food, faith, and the environment. Many fellows also partake in monthly learning webinars in an effort to reinforce and inspire their local projects. Local initiatives include everything from farmers’ markets to permaculture farming. While they may meet online, they connect to nature in their local areas through their work with food and the land.

As many young adults seek simpler ways of living, they are experimenting with growing their own food, communal living, and philanthropic work. They are bringing agriculture to the city through rooftop farming, hydroponics (growing plants in water, not soil), and vertical growing.

While others explore virtual worlds, these young people invest time and energy in three-dimensional space. They are rethinking the American dream by creating or joining intentional communities or living in houses of hospitality. They are taking up small farming, a practice nearly lost a decade ago. They camp, hike, and do other outdoor activities to connect to local ecosystems.

But they are not fully off the grid. They are connecting these skills with virtual communities. Their farms, communities, events, and creations are publicized on social networking sites. A project, for instance, is now under way to create an online organizing platform for Fresh Stops, community markets that offer farm-direct, sustainably grown fruits and vegetables to people at sliding-scale prices.


A movement deep and wide

Unlike some of their predecessors in the environmental movement, these young adults are often acutely aware of issues of race and class. After all, there is a good deal of privilege involved in choosing to do it yourself or having the time to go hiking. But as communities living in poverty face waste dumping and a lack of fresh food and safe green space, many are taking it upon themselves to “green” their neighborhoods for the sake of their children’s health and well-being.

This rediscovery movement is taking place across the nation, particularly among young people of faith. While it’s hard to go a single day without hearing about a postdenominational world or the lack of young adults in our congregations, there is a solid group of young people who are far from renouncing their beliefs. They are not inside church walls but outdoors, in the world, being the church.

A handful of Christian collectives recognize both the importance of the church as a body of believers and its relevance for human relationship with the natural world. They draw from authors and activists such as Wendell Berry, Joanna Macy, Dorothy Day, Peter Maurin, and Thomas Berry. These groups are arising across the nation and taking many forms. Most of all, they are attracting 18- to 30-year-olds in search of DIY skills, community, and faith.

The Wild Goose Festival is a prime example. Drawing upon the Celtic metaphor for the Holy Spirit, Wild Goose is a four-day summer festival in the woods of North Carolina. The event was founded by many who identify with the emerging church and embrace its hallmarks: communal living, strong identification with the life of Jesus, and motivation to transform the secular realm. Wild Goose defines itself as a “community gathered at the intersection of justice, spirituality, music and the arts.” Participants camp, partake in workshops and art installations, listen to speakers, and dance the night away to bands. Speakers discuss economic inequality, race, social injustice, the environment, art, spiritual discipline, sexuality, and more—all within a broad context of faith.

Similarly, the Eco-Stewards Program, supported in part by the Presbyterian Church Camp and Conference Association and Presbyterians for Earth Care, offers weeklong, place-based trips that cater to young adults, highlighting the intersection of faith and environmental issues. This grassroots ecumenical initiative gathers a small group of 20- to 30-year-olds from across the country to learn how people put their beliefs into action. After a week of talks, outdoor activities, and service work, young adults are invited to share their own ecojourneys. They depart with a new sense of community and reinvigorated to continue the work of Christ in their congregations and communities.

Individually and collectively, young adults like Daniel Loya are inspired to rethink the future. But only through the rediscovery of their faith traditions, supported by surrounding communities, can young people find the solace of a future where nature and technology work together as partners.

Victoria Machado recently graduated from the University of Florida, where she received a master of arts in religion and nature.

May 2014 cover

order the special issue Guide to Young adult ministry and read more articles like this one

Become an eco-steward

A Christian community of young adults responding to God’s call through applied eco-stewardship, the Eco-Stewards Program hosts place-based learning programs and paid summer internships at PC(USA) summer camps and organic farms.

Read Rob Mark’s article, “Glimpses of creative resistance: eco-stewards,” on Unbound.

PC(USA) Environmental Ministries exists to equip and connect you, your congregation, and your presbytery for earthcare ministry.


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