By: Patrick B. Reyes
April 21, 2020
On April 22, 2020, Earth Day turns 50. During that first celebration in 1970, more than 20 million people, including many religious leaders and young adults, went outside to demand a better world. In that same year, the National Environment Protection Act went into effect establishing the Environmental Protection Agency. There is no doubt that without these protections and further advances like the 2016 Paris Agreement, an agreement under the United Nations for signees to plan and execute solutions to mitigate global warming, the Earth would be in a much worse state. 1
Here we are 50 years later from that first celebration and series of protests in the middle of a global pandemic on a planet that we are collectively destroying.
This matters to the young adults we are serving, who are no longer distinguishing between the environment and the Holy, who see as part of their call from the divine to care for the Earth. This commitment to caring for the planet is largely shared by the more than 50 million young adults in the US today.
Designed and Scaled to Entertain
What does this mean for the future of ministry? How is ministry for the earth being reimagined by future religious leaders?
In the last decade, we have managed to design and scale to entertain ourselves at an unparalleled pace. It is worth reminding ourselves that the first iPhone was just unveiled to the world in 2008. There are countless ways to stream entertainment. Online gaming, for example, has exploded. It is no longer the pastime for bored middle-class children but high schools and colleges alike have gaming teams. The gaming industry amasses more in revenue annually than every professional sports league and streaming service combined. 40 million people tried to gain a spot in the first-ever Fortnite World Cup in 2019 and more than 2.3 million live-streamed the competition. This is on top of the countless ways to stream content from providers like Netflix, Amazon, Disney+, Hulu (owned by Disney), Apple TV, Facebook, Sling, and the countless number of cable and premium cable channels that have gone online. As I write this blog, we are finding new ways to add digital and streaming religious services and ministry to this mix.
While young adults are far more likely to care about the environment, they also have at their disposal a host of solutions to burn non-renewable energy right from the comfort of their home. The millions of square footage required to house our data, to stream our content, and to host our online meetings demands electricity and cooling solutions that emit more pollution than the airline industry. Server farms notoriously waste the majority (and in some cases up to 90%) of the energy they consume from the grid. We have scaled to entertain and, in the age of COVID-19, to work and host all of our meetings, classes, and services online. The US Department of Energy suggests that our data consumes anywhere between 10-20% of our total energy, which is still largely powered by non-renewable energy sources.2 To stream online, to connect and organize the next wave of religious leaders, to reach the “digital natives” as generation Z has been labeled, comes at an environmental cost.
Generation Z and millennials are concerned about this blue planet, but I wonder if the digital landscape – which is largely where these values are played out – has provided vocational pathways for the next generation to fully live into their call, to redefine ministry that is designed and scaled to benefit the earth? If in our attempt to reach young people, are we trying to get into a market that is saturated, that is full of other players vying for their attention? Or as was recently suggested on a call with faith leaders, a partner asked the question, if we know from studies that increased screen time leads to things like depression and feelings of isolation, why are we speeding up to get online?
Designed and Scaled to Manage the Moment
How did this happen? How did we become so acutely aware as a generation about the impact of climate change, and yet, fail to see the impact of the server farms and attention-seeking industries?
If you are like me, it seems as though every religious and faith leader took their events, services, and offerings online. The reflex to COVID-19 was to ask and answer the question “How do we leverage our technology to go online, to broaden our insights, to reach and gain a bigger audience?” FTE’s two primary domains of influence, faith communities and higher education, in a matter of days managed to go live on digital platforms like Facebook, Zoom, Google Hangouts, Youtube, etc. FTE, like so many of our partners, is going online to scale our work to reach the diverse group of young adults and partners who accompany them.
I am a culprit in this increased virtual activity. Since March 13, the first day FTE closed our physical office, I have spent 111 hours in on-line meetings. I have spent nearly 20 of those speaking to classes and Universities about my book Nobody Cries When We Die about vocation as the call to life, as a call to survive. I am clear to point out on all of these calls that as a Latino, I represent the fraction (16%) of Latino/a/x adults who are able to work remotely. My community still labors in the fields and warehouses making sure your food and essential deliveries make it on-time. Our hands are still grounded in the earth. In all of this teaching, I have been pushing each of these conversations to think about the ground beneath our feet, a theology of the soil, an idea I play with in that book.
My claim is that people of color—and in my context, Latinx, Chicano, and inidengeous familia—are already concerned about the earth. We have slowed down to recognize the divine in the land. Partly because of our traditions, stories, and practices are intimately grounded in the soil. More tragically, we care because we seem to be in a perpetual state of grief as the land was literally stolen under our feet. Borders crossed us. Colonization and slavery caused and continues to cause environmental destruction alongside human destruction. We know that the impact of pollution and environmental destruction concentrates in communities of color and in the global south. We know from just the last two years that when catastrophic events like hurricanes, earthquakes, and the environmental challenges that forced a mass exodus and migration that our bodies and land were disregarded.
I follow the work of one of our Fellows who says the fallout from this destruction of our environment lives in our bodies. Aminah Al-Attas Bradford at Duke University researches how human beings are the microbiomes inside us. Biomes are communities of distinct living communities, normally observable to the naked eye like a rain forest or the Great Plains of Africa. Microbiomes, as you can imagine, are the little living communities inside us, like through microscope little. All of this stuff is swimming around, living, and replicating in our bodies, to the point that many researchers do not know where the tiny stuff ends and the human stuff begins. The human body is a system defined by the things that live and enter our bodies. Environmental racism is expressed literally in our intestines and bodies. We have internalized our external world. The world inside us reflects the pain of the broader environment.
We heard the cries of the earth because they echoed our own. Generational trauma and neglect seeped into Latino communities as we survived and suffered on desecrated landscapes, further entrenching our marginalized status as literally and figuratively on islands and borders.
Designed and Scaled to Save
My family lives in one of the poorest, least-educated, and lowest opportunity communities in the country. Bakersfield, California, has one of the worst air qualities in the entire country because of its proximity to Los Angeles, whose pollutants are mixed with the pesticides of the central valley. You have poor Brown folks in an environmental war zone.
And in this space, I learned the power of ministry and care for the earth. I learned the pacing necessary for a moment such as this. On my grandparents’ front porch, we would sit all day and talk to our neighbors, often yelling from the porch which was farther than six feet to the street. We would care for the roses and desert plants that could grow in the dry and arid soil. My grandma told me to slow down and pay attention to the little homes each of her rose bushes created. Sitting below my grandma’s statue of the Virgin Mary, I would overhear her calling her friends and family just to see how they were doing. Long conversations, often with long periods of silence, between my grandparents and our community.
Ministry took place every day, at a pace that was slow, off-line (though I recognize that online was not an option). When we needed to fill our minds, we turned to books and naps. During the day I learned my grandma’s recipes, which were passed on from her parents and family before them. She would tell me about her faith and spiritual practices, passing on the sacred wisdom that helped her and previous generations survive.
These were designed and scaled solutions that required no degrees, no specialized skills, and no registrations or sign-ups. The design and scale matched the work and title of E.F. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered. My grandparents did not compete for attention, but they had it from anyone they spoke to. They had it because what they offered was an authentic relationship rooted in love and faith. The environmental impact of their ministry was positive. The environment that was their street off Haley Street was better because of their presence.
Everyone we know will mourn the loss of loved ones because of this global pandemic. I have missed two funerals to date and have already accompanied two family and friends through this virus. I wonder how our young adults pursuing ministry or doctoral students seeking a career in the academy are feeling about the speed up to move online? How has their internal environment dealt with the permanence of the blue light of the screen always on and always plugged in? Many of the students and young adults we serve were already living online, so I wonder how we minister with the internal and external environments that stir with pain and grief?
Given what we know about the environmental impact of our online activities and perhaps more poignantly the fact that we find ourselves in a moment of collective grief, how might we honor what is happening on this planet?
What I think is a more important question for this Earth Day is can we slow down enough to hear the sacred wisdom of our communities, human and non-human alike? Will we slow down enough to give people the time and space to feel the love and ministry my grandparents offered me? As FTE’s President Stephen Lewis reminds us in Another Way, how do we respond to our call and vocation in this moment as we sit under trees we did not plant and drink from wells we did not dig? To put his words in sharper relief for this moment, how do we respond to our call when forests are being cut down and our wells poisoned?
What would a technology sabbath on this Earth Day do for this generation, if even for a day? What if the young adults we serve, all refused to go online for just one day? I am not arguing for a complete reversal of the pace and scale of the last ten years. I am also not denying that the young adults and doctoral students we serve live online. In the very least, I am making a plea on Earth Day for a biblical sabbath, rooted in the rhythms of the environmental systems that are our internal and external environments. A simple reminder that when we work, to keep Holy the Sabbath and rest.
I also am arguing for more than just a sabbath. I am calling for us to return to practices of biblical grief. It is okay for us to mourn and grieve this moment as Aaron did, as Joseph did, as Amos did, turning feasts into mourning and songs into lamentations. This is a moment to pause, reflect, be still so that we might know ourselves just a little bit better. This is precisely the time to remind ourselves of the wisdom of Howard Thurman:
There is no argument needed for the necessity of taking time out for being alone, for withdrawal, for being quiet without and still within. The sheer physical necessity is urgent because the body and the entire nervous system cry out for the healing waters of silence…one has to get used to the stillness even after it has been achieved. The time may be used for taking stock, for examining one’s life direction, one’s plans, one’s relations, and the like. This in itself is most profitable…The time may be used for focusing and re-focusing one’s purposes.
I am hoping we slow down enough to pay attention to the wonder around us, to grieve the loss we are experiencing collectively. If you feel like you are missing out on your friends and families, pick up the phone and check on each other. If you feel like you need to be productive, return to pen and paper.
On this Earth Day, I encourage each of us to slow down enough to focus on our many purposes, our many callings, and our many communities.
The pace we choose, both for ourselves and our environments, will have lasting impacts on generations to come.
At FTE, we are praying for you and sending our love in these times.
1. The Paris Agreement is the same plan that President Trump announced in 2017 that the US would withdraw from in November 2020. 2. https://www.eia.gov/totalenergy/data/monthly/