Walk the walk: Christian bring accountability to creation care movement
By Kathy Chaffin
Dr. J. Matthew Sleeth was vacationing with his family a few years ago when his wife asked a question that would change his life.
What is the biggest problem facing the world? Nancy Sleeth wanted to know.
“I said, ‘The world is dying,’ ” he responded, “and it shocked me what I said.”
As an emergency room doctor and chief of staff at a hospital in Maine, Sleeth said he knew something about dying. “Most people never see it that personally today … but it’s a real thing to me,” he said. “I thought, ‘Why do I say that?’ ”
One of the keynote speakers at the Faith, Spirituality and Environmental Stewardship conference held recently at Catawba College, Sleeth said he realized he had based his response on observations.
As a boy, he would lie on the ground and watch birds migrate for hours. “They’re not there anymore,” he said.
When Sleeth was preparing to propose to Nancy, he drove her to a ford in a stream near his childhood home. On their 20th anniversary, they went back to try to find it, but the stream was gone.
Sleeth said enough trees to fill a forest the size of Washington State are cut down every year. “We cannot survive.”
Yet, “how many of you have cried?” Sleeth asked the people of all faiths gathered in Hedrick Theatre for his May 30 evening keynote address.
“We can cry about Lassie dying,” he said. “We can cry about the dumbest movie and then forget it the next day.
“An entire planet is dying, and it’s hard to cry about it. It’s so overwhelming. It’s unfathomable.”
Returning to the life-changing conversation, Sleeth said his wife didn’t get away with pronouncing the earth’s demise.
“What are you going to do about it, Matthew?” she asked.
He did not have an answer.
When they got back home, Sleeth returned to his job at the hospital. “God would not let me, even though I didn’t believe in God at the time,” he said, “God would not let me get away from this.”
He began to notice more and more diseases that appeared to be caused by the environment. “These things worked on me,” he said, “and I got depressed.”
A former patient began stalking Sleeth and ended up trying to kill him. Then his wife’s brother drowned in front of their children.
“That sucked,” Sleeth said, becoming visibly emotional. Searching for answers, he said he took Gandhi’s advice and began reading about the world’s religions.
Though they all contained profound truths, Sleeth said none touched him like the Gideons Bible he stole from the hospital lounge. “I have since found out that that’s their plan,” he said.
In that Bible, Sleeth found the answers he was seeking. “I found God,” he said. “I found Jesus.”
Sleeth said his favorite scripture is Matthew 7, where Jesus talks about not judging and casting the beam out of one’s own eye before attempting to take the speck out of someone else’s.
Gandhi rewrote the passage, Sleeth said, when he wrote, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”
After studying the Bible, Sleeth said he went back to his wife and said, “I know what we’ve got to do. I’ve taken an energy audit of our house …”
What he found was that their energy use ranked in the average category for the United States. “For my income level, I was better than anybody in my neighborhood,” he said. “But Christ sets the standard, and it isn’t ‘Be better than your neighbor. It’s be like me.’ ”
Sleeth convinced his wife that they needed to change their lifestyle, and they ended up selling their big house, giving away half of what they owned and moving into a smaller, more energy-efficient home with their two children.
He also gave up his job at the hospital, wrote “Serve God, Save the Planet: A Christian Call to Action” and began traveling around the country speaking to churches about the importance of “creation care.”
What people of faith bring to the climate change crisis, he said, is accountability.
In a question-and-answer session with him and the Rev. Canon Sally Bingham, another keynote speaker at the conference sponsored by the Center for the Environment, he elaborated on the accountability issue.
The minister of a church with several thousand members, for example, Sleeth said, called him after reading his book two times and said he was in the process of selling his house and changing his lifestyle. “To me, that’s accountability,” he said.
“Along those lines,” Bingham said, “I do have to practice what I preach. It’s pretty hard to make the kind of statements I make if I were not adhering to … some of the things that I want others to do.”
But getting others to join their efforts happens slowly, Bingham said.
“I think I mentioned that war and terrorism and certainly crime on the streets are major, serious problems for people,” she said. “But if we can’t breathe the air and we can’t drink the water and people are dying from heat waves and storms are destroying property and whole cities, all of a sudden, those (other) issues look small.”
It took 10 years, for example, for Bingham to convince one religious leader to look at what is happening to the environment. She talked to him over and over again, she said, but it wasn’t until he went to see “An Inconvenient Truth” and shook hands with former Vice President Al Gore that the message hit home.
“The next morning, he preached one of the most eloquent sermons on climate change that I’ve ever heard,” she said.
Bingham compared the environmental crisis to the country’s response to the danger of cigarettes. After 20 years of talking about how cigarettes are bad for us, she said, “One day, enough people understood, and we stopped smoking almost overnight.”
In answer to another question, Sleeth said when he first decided to start preaching about creation care, “I couldn’t get into the pulpit of my own church.”
“The only people that would let me into the pulpit were the Unitarian Universalists,” he said, “and they’ll let anybody into the pulpit, including Jesus. He would have a real hard time getting in a lot of pulpits today.”
Since then, Sleeth said more and more doors have opened to him. “That’s a tremendous change in a few year’s time,” he said, “but I think we’re indebted to many people who have gone before us and who have struggled in isolation and some of whom have died without seeing much progress.”
So why the public misconception that scientists are divided about global warming, one person asked Bingham.
“I think if we wanted to blame anyone for folks thinking it’s somehow a divided issue, we have to blame the media,” she responded.
Reporters, in trying to present both sides of the story, take, for example, an environmental report presented by 3,000 scientists from 55 countries, and “then they’ll search for some other scientist somewhere to argue with it so that they can present a balanced report,” she said. “That in itself has been almost an immoral thing.”
Quoting a scientist, Bingham said it is very, very difficult for scientists to agree on anything, so to get 3,000 to come up with the same conclusion is unprecedented.