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Posted on Wed, Nov. 22, 2006

Some evangelical Christians preaching environmentalism

By Linda B. Blackford

McClatchy Newspapers

WILMORE, Ky. - J. Matthew Sleeth is a man of God and a man of science.

He is a physician who believes that the Bible is the literal word of God, that Jesus Christ walked on water, and that our addiction to oil and energy is killing our spiritual lives and violating a sacred pact with God.

As a "born-again" Christian preaching environmentalism, Sleeth is part of a growing phenomenon of evangelical Christians who think protecting the natural world should transcend politics. He spreads that message with his new book, "Serve God, Save the Planet: A Christian Call to Action," and through an incessant speaking schedule before groups and congregations across the country.

Sleeth's tale is a compelling one: A successful Maine doctor chucks his big house and big cars to get real with his spiritual life and his tangible footprint on nature. Because his story is so personal, he thinks he can open a door to other Christians who have been stranded on one side of a historically polarizing issue.

One place he hasn't told his story much is in his new home in Wilmore, Ky., a move he made four months ago because of his awakening.

He left the practice of medicine to devote full time to his environmental cause. His two children attend Asbury College, and he couldn't countenance the fuel that would be used driving and flying back and forth from their previous home.

But he's almost constantly on the road in his hybrid car, and he sometimes flies, as he did last week when he went to San Francisco to address the board of directors of the Sierra Club, one of the first environmental groups to reach out to religious groups.

Sleeth's story helps engage religious people, said Melanie Griffin, the director of environmental partnerships for the national Sierra Club.

"I think that PR firms and lobbyists built a lot of walls around different groups, but after a while we started to see there are a lot of shared values about a higher good and responsibility," she said. Sleeth "is unusual because he's very low-key and soft-spoken. He's not some big preacher, but he really believes in what he's doing."

"The worst thing I can do is back people into a corner," said Sleeth. "It's a process that people don't do overnight."

He has good timing, too; his book came out shortly after a groundbreaking move by 86 evangelical ministers who signed a pact to help lower carbon emissions in the fight against global warming.

More religious leaders are recognizing that environmental issues go beyond the ballot box.

"It's a stewardship issue," said Jon Weece, senior minister of Southland Christian Church in Lexington. "Are we treating the world the way God commands us?"

Conservative Christians have maintained a distance from environmental groups because they are often tied to other, more liberal groups and values. "It's unfortunate that so many important issues get lost in the muck and more of politics," he said.

After six years at Southland, Weece is planning his first sermon on Christians and the environment this spring.

Sleeth started his journey as chief of staff and head of the emergency room at a hospital in Maine. A few years ago, he noticed three women in one month who came in suffering side effects from breast cancer. Then he started noticing the increase in the number of children with asthma.

He turned to the Bible, exploring the nuances of man's God-given "dominion" over the earth.

"Dominion is not the same as license, it's stewardship. ... I was brought up on a dairy farm where care of the land was something you did or you paid for it later," he said. "So I took a long, hard look at our footprint."

He didn't like what he saw. First, the whole family - his wife, Nancy, and children Emma and Clark - became "born-again" Christians. They sold their two SUVs and bought two hybrids, moved to a much smaller house, ditched the clothes dryer and put up a clothesline. They planted an organic garden. They stopped shopping for things and started getting rid of them instead. Sleeth stopped practicing medicine and started writing about his slower, cleaner and, yes, happier lifestyle.

"Seeing the spiritual benefits that went along with our lifestyle changes gave me great optimism," he writes in "Serve God, Save the Planet," which was published in May. "I began to have faith that the church could become a powerful part of the solution to global warming and the degradation of the earth."

"God's beautiful earth will not be saved by words or good intentions. It will be saved by humble, anonymous acts like turning off the lights, hanging clothing on the line, bicycling to work and planting trees. People who are grateful for God's abundant gifts, people of faith who are not afraid to be held accountable for care of his creation, will save it."

"Serve God, Save the Planet" has sold 5,000 copies and is being reprinted by Chelsea Green, an environmental publishing company. The paperback rights were recently picked up by Christian publishing house Zondervan, a partnership Sleeth described as akin to "Ted Kennedy and Dick Cheney starting a business together."

Sleeth is not the first person to preach about the link between environmental degradation and a soulless, materialistic culture, but he might be one of the few who drives to churches in a car that gets 60 miles a gallon.

And he thinks people respond to the idea that they can do "humble, anonymous acts" rather than wring their hands in despair.

Put another way, Sleeth doesn't make the rounds showing Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth." "People go see that movie and they're so depressed they go shopping," Sleeth exclaims with his trademark enthusiasm. "I've found the worst way to make a religious statement is to say `you're stupid and you need to be more like me.'"

He does perceive that he has to walk the walk before people will even listen to the talk. Hence the big clothesline in the back yard in Wilmore, the newly dug garden, the fruit trees in the front yard, the low-energy washer and the compact fluorescent light bulbs in every socket.

It's not always easy, but Nancy and the children have been willing participants in this huge life experiment.

"I was afraid of taking such a huge leap," Nancy Sleeth admits, "but God provided everything."

J. Matthew Sleeth is eager to learn more about Kentucky and its environmental problems such as coal mining, particularly mountaintop removal. Coal, after all, provides all that electricity we take for granted, and its use releases pollutants into the air.

At an interview, he pulled a well-worn pocket-size Bible out of his back pocket.

"That's a Biblical warning, the mountains being laid low is not a good sign," he said. "When it was written 2,000 years ago, it was impossible to believe."

Sleeth also thinks that his message will resonate with Kentuckians.

"Everybody can afford to put up a clothesline; not everyone in this area can afford a $20,000 hybrid car," he said.

Saving the planet starts with small steps, but it ends up with big ones, he thinks, big steps that are too important to our physical and spiritual lives to be bogged down in politics.

"It can't be about politics," he said. "It can't be if we're going to engage 40 million evangelical Christians, and we have to engage them. We are, like it or not, on this planet together."



Evangelical Christians may be joining the fight against global warming, but in Appalachia, opponents of mountaintop removal have already turned to religion as a resource in their fight.

John Rausch, a Catholic priest in Stanton, has been leading tours of mining sites since 1994. "My perspective is that if people were to see what's going on, they would come away saying there's something morally wrong here," said Rausch, who works with the Catholic Central Committee.

"My job is to take people who have no understanding of mountaintop removal and have my friends tell them how they are powerless when a coal company fills their streams or their tap water comes out orange.

"God gave us a garden, and we're screwing it up."

The stewardship argument is an important one, Rausch said, especially when people see the devastation caused by mountaintop removal, a process in which the tops of mountains are removed to extract coal. The extra dirt and rock are piled into hollows, called valley fill.

A few years ago, Rausch joined with Steve Peake of Corinth Baptist Church to organize a prayer service on a nearby mountain to try to raise awareness of mountaintop removal.

"People need to understand what's going on," Peake said. "This is God's green earth, and we ought to take care of it."

In October, the Mennonite Central Committee in Whitesburg started giving tours of mountaintop removal sites in far Eastern Kentucky.

"This is attracting attention not just inside Christian faith, but inside of many faiths," said Charman Chapman-Crane, a committee member who helped organize the first tour.

Chapman-Crane is also a member of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, which has mountaintop removal as one of its top priorities.

"It's going to take the clout of a number of different segments of the American population to solve this," said KFTC spokesman Jerry Hardt.

One of the newest members of the fight is Allen Johnson of Marlinton, W.Va., who recently founded Christians for the Mountains.

"We're trying to get this issue out as an issue for churches to engage in as a moral issue," Allen said. "Mountaintop removal is a one-shot deal; once it's done, it's ruined the land for any productivity."

Christians for the Mountains recently held a conference in West Virginia and have released a DVD titled Mountain Mourning, about mountaintop removal. Johnson is trying to get churches in Appalachia to show the DVD, and if they get involved, all the better.

"When churches get involved, there is passion, a fervency in the spirit," Johnson said.



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