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PC(USA) leaders discuss the church and environmental justice

On the first day of Compassion, Peace & Justice Days, leaders addressed the importance of environmental justice in ministry

by Rich Copley | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Dr. Diane Moffett, president and executive director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency, and Sara Lisherness, director of the PC(USA)’s Compassion, Peace & Justice ministries, shown speaking at CPJ Day in 2019. On Wednesday, they participated in a panel on environmental justice and the church. (Photo by Rich Copley)

LEXINGTON, Kentucky — Discussing environmental justice and the church prompted Sara Lisherness to reflect on her daughter’s childhood.

“‘Mommy,’ she said, ‘the Bible tells us that God created the heavens and the Earth, God created this planet and everything in it,’” said Lisherness, the director of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Compassion, Peace & Justice ministries. “’So God is like an artist, and I love to make art, and it hurts me whenever my art … when something happens to it, when somebody doesn’t care about it, when somebody throws it away.’

“And that may sound like a very simple response from an eight-year-old. But it really got me to thinking about how we defile planet Earth when we do not care for planet Earth in the way that we are called to. It’s an ultimate sin against our Creator, the creator of this planet and the universe.”

After Compassion, Peace & Justice Training Days 2021 opened Wednesday morning with a broad discussion of Creation and the impact of colonialism and capitalism on it, with uncomfortable acknowledgements of the church’s destructive role in that legacy, the virtual event turned to a lunchtime panel focused on the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and environmental justice, where Lisherness was joined by Presbyterian Mission Agency President and Executive Director the Rev. Dr. Diane Moffett and Presbyterian Hunger Program Coordinator the Rev. Rebecca Barnes in a conversation moderated by PC(USA) Associate Director of Advocacy the Rev. Jimmie Hawkins.

Moffett recalled work she had done in churches she served before she came to the PC(USA) national office helping to organize congregations and communities to take on challenges such as a landfill that was proposed in one of the communities she was serving. Working in primarily urban churches, she said she continually saw environmental challenges such as industry and waste, and that it was the work of the church to help oppose them.

“If we remember the saying of Jesus, ‘I’ve come that you might have life, and that to the fullest, or that abundantly,’ that you might have this sense of flourishing, that you might flower and blossom,” Moffett said. “Whenever we don’t create that kind of environment for people to live into their fullness, all of us are diminished. It’s all of life, it’s the Earth and the air that we breathe. It’s the relationships that we have, this is all a part of our work. This is all a part of salvation and liberation.”

The Rev. Rebecca Barnes, coordinator of the Presbyterian Hunger Program, brought a long history with environmental justice to the discussion. (Photo by Rich Copley)

The Presbyterian Hunger Program has been at the forefront of the church’s efforts to advance environmental justice. But Barnes, who has a long history in environmental justice work, noted her ministry had a lot of company throughout the Compassion, Peace & Justice ministries, such as the advocacy of the Office of Public Witness, which hosts CPJ Training Days, the Presbyterian Ministry to the United Nations and Mission Responsibility Through Investment, which works to persuade companies to align with church environmental policy. Most other CPJ ministries deal with environmental justice in one way or another, and Barnes joined Moffett and Lisherness in also connecting it to the Matthew 25 invitation which centers eradicating systemic poverty and dismantling structural racism.

“We do it because it’s biblical, we do it because we’re called to do it, and also because we see that it’s connected to any work we ever want to do about systemic poverty and systemic racism that you can extrapolate environmental concerns from that,” Barnes said. “We’ve been hearing that in the Hunger Program, from our grant partners, especially overseas, since the beginning. What are the issues of hunger you’re dealing with? Climate change, climate change, climate change. You know, it’s just always been a little less politically heavy, I guess, in other places outside the United States — Just to admit this is happening, this impacts us, and this is impoverishing us. And this is making us hungry.”

Lisherness, who is also Interim Director of Presbyterian World Mission, said environmental justice has also become part of the work of almost every Young Adult Volunteer, whether it is urban gardening in the Northeast, wetlands advocacy on the Gulf Coast or climate change impacts in international placements.

The Rev. Jimmie Hawkins, shown speaking at CPJ Day 2019, moderated a panel on environmental justice and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) on April 7, 2021. (Photo by Rich Copley)

“All around the world, young people are really saying, ‘You adults have messed up the world, and you’ve left it to us to fix it,’ and they really are engaged,” Hawkins said, setting up the final section of the discussion to address working with young people in environmental justice.

“I’m always trying to think of different ways in which we can begin to recruit, to come alongside, to learn, to be in partnership with youth and young adults and how their faith gets formed, so that the narrative for what it means to follow Jesus is not just that you go to Sunday school and you go to church once a week, and then you get a real kind of good spirituality. It’s good with you and God, but you do precious little to change the world,” Moffett said. “That’s how we’ve been acting in too many cases.

“So, we’ve got to change the narrative, so that young people can see that in the church, we have been called out to change the world. And that’s why we end up in jail. That’s why we end up in some of these places. And that’s why we stand with the least of these, because in so many cases we become those very persons, because we are doing the work. So, we’ve got to let them know, this is what it means to follow Jesus, to really change the world.”

The Office of Public Witness is one of the PC(USA) Advocacy Offices, which are part of the Compassion, Peace & Justice ministries of the Presbyterian Mission Agency.

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