Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Sustained by Hope
distributed 7/24/20 - ©2020

Rev. Peter Sawtell will retire on July 31, after 20 years of service as the Executive Director of Eco-Justice Ministries. Eco-Justice Ministries will end all programming at that time, including Eco-Justice Notes. (The full archive of Notes will be saved on our ongoing website.) Peter has gathered some of our recommendations for other agencies that will be helpful to individuals and congregations for church programming and activism, and he has described ways that you can stay in touch after his retirement. You can read those recommendations here.

It was almost exactly 20 years ago that I took a dramatic leap of faith, and founded Eco-Justice Ministries. My vision was to find new ways of working with churches, so that they could bring ecological perspectives into the heart of their mission and ministry. The crisis of global warming was a primary motivator as I made this vocational transition.

The journey to Eco-Justice Ministries started six years earlier, in the summer of 1994. Through a week of intensive reading, the depth and the urgency of the global environmental crisis moved out of my head and into my heart, filling me with grief and fear. The deep pain of that summer's realization triggered a genuine conversion experience for me. It forever changed the way that I viewed the world, and my role in it.

Back in 1994, I became aware that I would have to do something substantial if I was going to be able to live with the knowledge that was deep in my heart and soul. I spent several years engaged in increasingly significant volunteer efforts at the intersection of faith and environmental action. The incorporation of Eco-Justice Ministries in 2000 was my vocational act of commitment to this cause.

As I look back over the last quarter century, my path in ministry is intertwined with the climate emergency. In 1994, when the reality of global warming changed my life, the CO2 levels in the atmosphere were slightly above 365 parts per million. The world's scientists already knew that those were dangerous levels, and it was already clear that governments and industry needed to make big and rapid changes to avoid a catastrophe. Six years later, when Eco-Justice Ministries was born, CO2 was at about 370 ppm. In our early years, we often had to convince church people that the planet really is heating up, and that, yes, humans really could have that kind of impact on Earth.

Well, now it is 2020. This week, CO2 levels are sitting at just a hair below 414 ppm. In the 26 years since 1994, CO2 has increased by almost 50 parts per million. The big and rapid changes by government and industry -- the changes that the experts have long called for -- have not happened at anything like the level needed. Indeed, for more than three years, the current administration of the US government has ignored the science, and persistently tried to reverse and erase any policies which would reduce the nation's greenhouse gas emissions.

The climate crisis could have been addressed with challenging, but not overwhelming, initiatives in 2000, when greenhouse gas levels were much lower, and were rising more slowly. Limiting warming now will require a massive global mobilization, with profound changes to economies and lifestyles. It is possible, but we missed the chance to do it more gently.

Obviously, I have not been doing eco-justice work with churches for the last two decades out of an optimistic belief that it's all going to get better soon. And, on the flip side, I want to say that I'm not retiring (One week! One week!) because of pessimism.

Through two decades, I have been sustained by hope. I expect that I will continue to be sustained by hope in my future witness and advocacy, whatever form that takes.

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In the English language, there are two very different meanings of the word hope.

One of them refers to optimism, to the expectation of a desired outcome at some point in the future. I hope to go camping in the Colorado mountains later this summer. I hope for decisive and transformational results from the election this fall. I hope the pandemic just disappears sometime soon. The more dramatic the expectation, the less likely it is to be achieved, especially without hard and focused work.

The other kind of hope -- the kind that sustains me -- is about values and commitments, and it happens right now. To express it briefly, I place my hope in God, and in the marvelous biblical vision of God's shalom, of a world with peace and justice encompassing all of creation. That's what I firmly believe is good and right, and every day that commitment to shalom shapes the way I perceive the world, and it guides my decisions. It has kept me going for two decades of hard work. The more dramatic this kind of hope, the more powerful it is in sustaining us.

Vaclav Havel -- the writer and transformational Czech president -- wrote about that distinction. Hope "is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out." "It is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart. ... It is an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed."

Hope sustains us. It keeps us oriented toward that which we hold as true and right. It gives us meaning and purpose in life.

But hope also needs to be sustained. We can't just claim a hope once and for all, as an unchanging gift. That's especially true when the world in which we live is profoundly different from the qualities of our hope.

When the world around us constantly deals with us as individual consumers, not as members of a community, and insists that we find meaning in life by acquiring things, then we need to remind ourselves that we are members of Earth community, and that we find our greatest delight in relationship. We have to renew our hope when it is flatly contradicted every day.

When the world around us races along the trajectory of climate devastation, knowingly dumping more pollution into the air every day, every year, because the economy and profits and convenience are more important (we're told) than the rights of future generations and the health of the biosphere -- well, then we need to reinforce our hope, and strengthen our resistance. Activism can renew our hope, just as hope calls us to activism.

For many of the readers of these Notes, one way of sustaining our hope comes from involvement in a community of faith. In those services of worship (even when on-line), there's a chance to be restored in our counter-cultural commitments. Just an hour a week is a booster shot for compassion, simplicity, justice, and our ties to both the past and the future. In the worship of that community, we reaffirm that our faith commitments "make sense," and that they are more true than individualism and reckless "business as usual."

And for the readers of these Notes, perhaps my weekly musings have helped to sustain your hope. On Friday afternoon, perhaps a not-too-long email has helped you to say, "Yes, that's right. That's what I care about." If I have sustained your hope in that way, if I have reinforced and renewed your deepest commitments, then I am very glad. And as I wind down this long series of reflections, I pray that you will have your hope renewed through other readings, and songs, and communities in the months and years ahead. We all will need to be strengthened and encouraged in the challenging times to come.

When we hope for something good, out there in the future, we're being optimistic. When we place our hope in something right now -- hope in God, or shalom, or democracy -- then we are sustained in our deepest commitments. That kind of hope will keep us going in the long and hard work to protect Earth community.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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Eco-Justice Ministries ended all programming on July 31, 2020. This site is an archive of writings and resources.
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