The Connection Between Creation Care and Human Care
Written by Plant With Purpose on August 15, 2013 in General
This September, executive director Scott Sabin will be acting as a Guide at Idea Camp’s gathering taking place in Austin, TX. The theme of this weekend is human care with the conversation focusing on caring for Orphaned & Vulnerable Children, Empowering Women, Organizational Health, and Leadership.
From Idea Camp:
We want to engage in fresh, honest and transformative conversations with leading thinkers and practitioners on topics including how the people of the church care for the poor, the vulnerable, the other and self while unpacking how differences of gender, race, mental health, world view, and age influence our approach. Our desire is to live life as God’s loving expressions of grace and hope to our world through tangible acts of care for all of humanity. We need your voice, your experience, and your presence in this lifelong pursuit.
“Planting trees for Jesus? That is about the most marginal thing I can think of to do with your life!” My father let me know just what he thought of my career choice.
I wasn’t so sure he was wrong, either.
Plant With Purpose, a small Christian nonprofit organization, known primarily for its reforestation efforts, had recently hired me.
It was early 1993, and I had become interested in serving the poor after a summer in Latin America, during which God opened my eyes to issues of social justice. Perhaps more importantly, he introduced me to an exciting breed of Christians who were giving their lives to right the wrongs that they saw. With a year to go in grad school, I returned home looking for a place to volunteer. Plant With Purpose was the closest thing I could find. I knew that they worked with poor farmers, and poverty alleviation was at least a part of what they did, so I was willing to put up with the strange environmental side of their work until I could find an organization that more closely aligned with caring for human beings.
Twenty years later I still have not found a place that more closely aligns with how I believe we should serve the poor.
What I didn’t realize at the time was the dramatic connection between human well-being and a healthy environment. It is easy to forget here in the US, where we have built many layers of insulation between ourselves and environmental factors like drought, contaminated water, soil erosion, food production and soil fertility.
For a rural farm family in the developing world with only a few acres of mountainside on which to make their living, their soil and whatever rain falls on it are often their only assets. Deforestation robs them of both of these, as it dramatically increases soil erosion and prevents rain from soaking in to the ground to replenish the aquifers. The impacts on the water resources are particularly profound. Trees act a sponge, moistening the land, and without them rivers and streams dry up. Wells run dry. When the rain does come, catastrophic flooding often results. Once verdant land becomes a desert. Trees are a natural filter. Without forests, waterborne illness increases. Environmental degradation makes growing food impossible.
As a result, the rural poor make up almost 80% of the 840 million chronically hungry people in the world, and rank lower than the urban poor on almost every measure of human development.
Even urban poverty is often rooted in the deterioration of rural lands. Time and time again as I have talked to families living in the slums and shantytowns around the world, I have heard of their rural roots, and the impossibility of making a living on exhausted land. The city provided the illusion of opportunity. A similar thing happened here in the United States, by the way. I was recently reminded of this as I reread The Grapes of Wrath. Steinbeck does a remarkable job of capturing the frustration and dehumanization of those who are forced to leave the land to seek often non-existent opportunity. A similar story is playing out thousands of times a day in countries around the world.
Happily, the degradation can be reversed. God’s creation is remarkably resilient. There are ways to plant that increase production, while restoring the land and returning fruitfulness to hillsides and farms. We have worked with communities to plant trees upstream and seen waterborne illness reduced by 50% or more, as a result. Over the years we have learned that one of the best ways of offering a cup of cold water in Jesus’ name is to restore the watershed from which it flows. It is only a small part of an integrated program that included watershed restoration, sustainable agriculture, savings-led microfinance, and Christian discipleship. But it is an important part.
I have also learned that God values his creation for its own sake. There are more reasons to restore and care for watersheds than merely the utilitarian reason. But human care was the first reason I got involved. We plant trees because the people need the trees.
By the way, my father has also come around, and has even traveled with me on several occasions as we have worked alongside farmers around the world to plant trees for Jesus.