dominion

Called to Lead, Bank Accounts Be Damned

 

SHE WAS MAD—fuming.

Thirteen black evangelical leaders rolled across Southern states on a speaking tour of historic black colleges and universities. On a mission to call forth the next generation of black leaders, we traversed the land where our ancestors had worked fingers to bone, drank from separate fountains, and cut loved ones down from trees like dead fruit.

But this is not what made Vera mad.

For the last hour a crowd of black leaders sat, stood, and leaned in as we shared our stories of barriers to advancement within white evangelical organizations. It wasn’t a mean-spirited conversation. It was a needed one—a healing one. Our stories were strikingly similar, even though none of us had worked in the same organization.

Within well-meaning white evangelical missions agencies, we had all been told that confirmation of our call to leadership would be discerned in part by our ability to raise money for the organization. Mind you, most of us had taken on debt to accept the low salaries offered by the white agencies. And most of us suffered economic isolation as we watched our white peers accept the same salaries but somehow take vacations and buy homes while we scrimped to pay rent.

Now, as our chartered bus eased its way through the narrow, tree-lined lanes at Dillard University in New Orleans, Vera said: “I’m mad at this conversation.”

Vera (we’ll call her that) was new to our traveling village, so I didn’t know how to read her anger. Did she feel our gripes were unjustified?

“I’m mad that this is exactly what I have been experiencing inside my own organization,” she continued. “I’ve tried to explain it to our leaders, but no one has heard me.”

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The Expectation Deficit

RECENTLY, the U.S. celebrated the 60th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court case Brown vs. Board of Education that declared unconstitutional state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students. By winning the Brown case, Thurgood Marshall broke the rock-hard foundation of racial barriers between black and white schools in the U.S.

But the civil right of equal opportunity for equal education never ensured the human right of equal access to it. Thus the explicitly racial divide, reinforced by law, was replaced by a close kin: the poverty divide, reinforced by economic blight entrenched by white flight to the suburbs.

Ten years later President Lyndon B. Johnson took a bulldozer to that new economic divide by declaring, in his January 1964 State of the Union address, an unconditional “War on Poverty.” He said, “Let this session of Congress be known as the session which did more for civil rights than the last hundred sessions combined.” And it did.

EVERY WAR HAS multiple fronts. Johnson’s fight against poverty was a legislative one, which played out in states, cities, and school districts across the country. Within two years Congress had passed the Civil Rights Act, the Food Stamp Act, the Economic Opportunity Act, and the Social Security Act. Each act was a legislative beachhead in the assault against U.S. poverty.

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 represented a major shift in the way the U.S. conceived public education. In this act, Johnson took direct aim at the economic infrastructure that barred blacks and other impoverished people from accessing equal education.

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Saving What We Love

I MET MARKKU and Leah Kostamo of A Rocha, an international Christian environmental organization, on the set of a television show in Toronto. The show was Context, hosted by the welcoming Lorna Dueck. This show explores the stories behind the news from a frankly Christian viewpoint.

I had been invited to talk with Dueck about my MaddAddam future-time book trilogy, and in particular about characters in the second book, The Year of the Flood, called the “God’s Gardeners,” a green religious group that raises vegetables and bees on flat rooftops in slums. It is headed by a man called Adam One and includes a number of ex-scientists and ex-doctors who have withdrawn from a too powerful, greedy corporate world in which they can no longer function ethically. The God’s Gardeners group represents the position—probably true—that if the physical world is going to remain possible for human life, religious movements of many kinds will be an important element. We don’t save what we don’t love, and we don’t make sacrifices unless “called” in some way to make them by what AA refers to as “a higher authority.”

Dueck and I talked a little about that, and then—surprise—right before me were two people who closely resembled the God’s Gardeners of my fiction. Leah and Markku Kostamo are walking the God’s Gardeners walk—through A Rocha, a hands-on creation-care organization. A Rocha’s origins go back to the Christian Bird Observatory (cf. St. Francis) founded on the coast of Portugal by Peter and Miranda Harris in 1983. Leah met the Harrises in 1996 when she took a class they were teaching at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia, and A Rocha Canada was born. It was soon augmented by Markku, an environmental scientist. A Rocha is now running 20 projects around the globe, engaged in everything from habitat restoration to organic community farming.

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A Tropical Quest

A FEW YEARS before American naturalist John Muir heeded the call of the California mountains, the boggy swamps and towering palm trees of a much flatter territory beckoned him south to the Gulf Coast states. As for many young travelers before and since, a journey into exotic lands was a path toward vocational and spiritual enlightenment for Muir.

In Restless Fires: Young John Muir's Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf in 1867-68, Whitworth University emeritus professor James B. Hunt explores how that trip forever changed Muir's perspectives on humans' relationship to the natural environment. Digging deep into Muir's childhood, Hunt details how Muir's theological transformation shaped his environmental stewardship.

It's a wonder Muir maintained any divine belief system. Muir's Scottish father, a strict practitioner of Campbellite Christianity, nearly beat faith out of him, combining forced Bible memorization with harsh physical punishment. Hunt contends an unfortunate twist of fate may have opened the door to Muir's escape from suffocating under zealous religion and monotonous factory life. He lost an eye while working as a machinist, which caused temporary sympathetic blindness in his other eye. As soon as Muir was able to see again, he left the Midwest in a southward walk toward what he imagined was North America's Eden.

Hunt's appreciation for Muir is reflected in his writing style which, much like his subject's own journal entries, is academic but poetic, philosophical but purposeful: "The walk gave him the time and experience to define life in his own terms rather than to subscribe to the ones prescribed by society. In so doing, he helped the American public and his readership to see nature as he did, with new eyes," writes Hunt.

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Big Brain. Big Heart?

Climate change background, B. Calkins / Shutterstock.com

IN EARLY JUNE, a team of prominent biologists, ecologists, paleontologists, and climatologists published a long article in our most important scientific journal, Nature. It concluded that people have so disturbed the operations of the planet that it is nearing—perhaps within decades—a “state shift” to a new biological paradigm unlike any human civilization has ever encountered.

“It really will be a new world, biologically, at that point,” warns Anthony Barnosky, professor of integrative biology at the University of California, Berkeley, and lead author of the study. “The data suggests that there will be a reduction in biodiversity and severe impacts on much of what we depend on to sustain our quality of life, including, for example, fisheries, agriculture, forest products, and clean water. This could happen within just a few generations.”

For many of us who have long studied these questions, there’s nothing that surprising in the conclusions. I mean, we’ve already put enough carbon in the atmosphere to melt 40 percent of the summer sea ice in the Arctic, to make the ocean 30 percent more acidic, and to turn the atmosphere 5 percent wetter, thus loading the dice for drought and flood.

What’s surprising is not the science. It’s the endless lack of reaction to it. The secular press barely covered the Nature study—The New York Times discussed it in a blog post, not in the paper. And I didn’t hear any reaction at all from the nation’s clerics, though it strikes me this kind of story strikes much closer to the heart of our theology than most of the things we do hear clerics opining about. Contraception? Okay, sort of, you can kind of find something about it in the Bible. Homosexuality? The occasional passing reference. But the whole first page of the thing is about nothing but creation, the fact that God made everything around us, pronounced it good, and told us to take care of it.

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