Peter Illyn is executive director of Restoring Eden, a nonprofit working to make environmental stewardship a core Christian value.

Monday, 10 Mar 2003

HAINES, Alaska

I’m a Christian environmental evangelist!

This definition is loaded with stereotypes, both positive and negative, but it best describes what I do — traveling around the country preaching in churches and colleges about the goodness of nature and our sacred duty to love, serve, and protect God’s creation.

My message is simple: “God is a good God, God made a good earth, God calls us to be good stewards.” I use the Bible to encourage Bible-believing Christians to become strong and vocal environmentalists.

And it’s working.

It’s early Monday morning and I’m cold, colder than I’ve been in a long time. It’s a frozen 13 degrees here in Haines, Alaska, with the wind blowing through the cracks of the 100-year-old army hospital where I am staying. I’m here with 11 college students from Palm Beach Atlantic, a university in West Palm Beach, Florida, with historic Baptist roots.

Tlingit totem art.

The students are here in southeast Alaska to restore Tlingit (“klink-it”) totem poles. Starting this morning, we will scrape weathered totem poles to protect them for future generations. Our goal is to honor the Tlingit culture and to learn about their traditional deep respect for the land.

We are working with the Alaskan Indian Arts Center, which for 50 years has been striving to preserve and pass on the traditional Tlingit arts before they are lost forever. Early Christian missionaries, uninformed and ignorant about the Tlingit people, worked to end what they thought was a “heathen” culture. Totems, long houses, masks, and blankets were stolen or destroyed.

But these college students, in a small way, want to apologize for the spiritual arrogance of the earlier missionaries. They are part of a growing movement on college campuses to use alternative spring breaks as an opportunity to serve communities instead of partying on the beach.

But the students are also here to be inspired by the wonder, the wisdom, and the whimsy of God as revealed in nature. They are being touched by the Divine as they watch the bald eagles soar above the tree lines, or see the Alpine-glow sunset on snow-covered peaks, or wait for the migrating whales to break through the turbulent sea. Some of the students have never seen snow before — but before you laugh, how many of you have watched a manatee graze on the sea grass in south Florida?

Restoring Eden is a new nonprofit group working to make environmental stewardship a core value of the Christian community. Our mission is defined by Proverb 31:8, which says we are to “speak out for those who cannot speak for themselves.” For us, this means we promote the right of wild species, native habitats, and indigenous cultures to thrive in a wild, natural world.

These students, the focus of Restoring Eden’s outreach efforts, represent the next generation of Christians. They are youthful, holistic, humble, and willing to see a connection to nature that many of their church elders will never understand. More importantly, they are willing to integrate their faith and their love of the creation into visible advocacy. For them, this translates into both lifestyle changes and political activism.

In fact, last week over 20 college students from seven Christian colleges came to Washington, D.C., to stand with the Gwich’in tribal Christians of Alaska in an effort to protect the Arctic Refuge from oil drilling. These students see the immorality of destroying a miraculous place in nature just to keep feeding our nation’s insatiable addiction to oil. They see the hand of God in the migration of the caribou to the birthing grounds at the refuge and in the simple lives of the Gwich’in people who depend upon them.

I’ve been on the road traveling for almost five weeks now. My soul is road-weary and tired, but the energy I see on the college campuses is renewing and refreshing. This work is reaching a new generation of Christians and in time will change the entire institution of the church. I predict that in 10 years the evangelical church will look back with shame at their silence and inaction while watching the relentless destruction of the wild.

For too long we have allowed people to define the value of nature solely in economic and utilitarian terms. The church, while claiming to love the Creator, has not loved the creation. We have lost the ability to see the intrinsic value of nature — the beauty, solitude, peace, and humility in the world around us.

We have lost sight of the fact that we are simply a part of nature — not the point of nature.

But there is a growing group of Christians who see the hand of God in yearly migrations of geese flying south, or in millions of monarch butterflies landing in a forest grove in Mexico, or in the caribou herds walking steadfastly to their birthing grounds in the Arctic Refuge. Our souls need the wild.