I called it “The Giving Tree,” partly because of my affection for Shel Silverstein’s book of the same name, but mostly because it gave me a sacred place for spiritual rest. A bulky beech tree with huge low branches, it grew magnificently on the edge of a creek running through our camp property. A perfect home-in-the-woods setting and a sacred place for those who sought respite beneath its branches. Then it was gone. A raging rainstorm sent its runoff rushing down the creek bed, undercutting at the turn where the Giving Tree had found its strength to grow so perfectly. My heart sank when I discovered it. My favorite sacred place would never be the same.
The theory of global climate change was beginning to make its way into the consciousness of nature-loving persons, but it seemed distant from the mission of the churches in the southeast. I fumed. The annual conference had a work area on just about everything you could think of at the time. Everything that is, except caring for God’s creation. God called it “good.” God placed the man in the garden to “tend it and keep it”, yet the church had no one assigned to give leadership in caring for it. “WHAT’S UP WITH THAT?” was my outcry.
As I fumed over my self-induced nature lover’s indignation at the church’s lack of ecological faithfulness, God whispered to me. “You’re the camp guy, dummy. You know – the one called to outdoor ministry. The church has its leader. What are YOU going to do about that?” Ouch! Previously, I had understood my calling as the Caretaker of Sacred Ground. It was how I came to understand my role in Camp and Retreat ministry early in my career. Suddenly, guided by an environmental conscience I believed to be the work of the Creator’s Spirit, I would now add the role of leading the Memphis Annual Conference as a voice for doing ministry with ecological integrity.
As should be true of all leadership, it begins at home. Leading with integrity means leading from experience and by example. My heart was moved to be more environmentally aware and active in preparing my own site to be an example ecological integrity in ministry. Lakeshore would become a standing witness to the call to care for creation, or bust.
We still have a long way to go, but we have come to be recognized by our Annual Conference as a leader in this area over the years since the loss of my beloved Giving Tree. There have been many battles in my faith community as I have sought to be a witness. Resistance to change is always an obstacle when presenting a longstanding culture with new ideas. During a 45 minute debate on the Annual Conference floor over a resolution I wrote to establish a Creation Care Task Force, a woman stood up and announced her love for nature and called herself an “original nature mother.” But she argued that environmental concerns had no business in the church. The church, she believed, should only concern itself with saving souls. It took us two years and two 45-minute debates to establish a Creation Care Task Force.
We who lead in calling the church to care for God’s gift of creation, especially those of us blessed to be in an outdoor ministry, must persevere in the face of resistance. We have to keep recycling, even when guests continue to throw trash in the recycle containers. We must stay steadfast in washing mugs for coffee, even when Styrofoam remains coffee’s best friend. When we are faced with the argument that the cost of being environmentally friendly is too high, we have to persist in the reality that the cost of not caring for God’s creation is much, much higher.
Among my many efforts to lead was to eliminate the sale of water in plastic bottles. Such a simple measure was apparently a big deal to our guests who prefer plastic over the water fountain and a reusable bottle as their vessel of choice. We now offer donated reusable water bottles that say “Harlem Globetrotters” on them, and fruit flavored ice water from a dispenser for their drinking pleasure.
My latest effort was to initiate Meatless Mondays into the life of summer camp. Oh my! For many of the summer staff and campers, you would think I had declared an 8 pm lights out. We are, after all, a meat eating people. If I hadn’t told them it was meatless Monday, they would probably not have noticed, but then there would have been no witness to the meat industry’s huge impact on our environment.
From the spirit-led witness of my Giving Tree to the simple installation of Meatless Mondays, the battle to be faithful wages on. Even my own resistance to change requires a lot of grace sometimes. I am certainly a long way from Wesleyan perfection. I want to invite all my brothers and sisters in outdoor ministry to join in, or faithfully persevere in, the work of caring for the Creation. We (especially we!) see God at work in the natural world more than most. We are caretakers of sacred ground. What a glorious witness it can be!
The Reverend Gary D. Lawson, Sr. has served 21 years as Executive Director of Lakeshore United Methodist Assembly (TN). Gary is an ordained Elder in the Memphis Conference. Gary and his wife Vickie share six children and are expecting their eleventh grandchild in December. Gary currently serves on the UMCRM Governance Board.