Caring for Creation is Service to the Poor
The link between Summit Stewards and Evangelic Expeditions
By Jim Doenges
It is amazing how God connects people. Last May I was blessed to be at 14,700 feet on Mount McKinley’s West Buttress as part of Mission: Denali 2007. That’s where I met Cindy Outlaw, who serves on the Board of Director for a ministry called Floresta. Both Climbing For Christ and Floresta, it turns out, believe that caring for creation, sharing the Gospel, and serving the poor all go hand in hand. We may work together to serve people in Haiti.
Haitian youth on the deforested hills. (Photo by Brian Arnold)
God’s creation is important for the well being and even the very lives of the poor who depend on it for sustenance. Throughout the world, environmental degradation and poverty go hand in hand. Biblical direction to serve the poor is well known to Christians, but the biblical call to care for creation (what we call being Summit Stewards) is not as well known. Climbing For Christ seeks to model Christ in our Evangelic Expeditions by meeting both spiritual and physical needs of the poor in the mountains of the world.
The lives of the poor – and all of us – are directly connected to the health of the land.
In the area around the village of Gentilhomme, Haiti, where God has used Climbing For Christ to come alongside poor people to build a church and school, part of the local economy comes from making charcoal and people are dependant on wood fuels for cooking and heating. Once cleared of most vegetation and trees, the soil on the steep mountains quickly erodes, making it difficult to grow anything.
In the U.S., a frequent assumption is that people, like those in Haiti, don’t know any better – or they lack education. While indeed some may not know any better and certainly education is valuable, desperation trumps education. For the most part, poor farmers and makers of charcoal know exactly what they are doing, but have no choice.
Scott Sabin, the executive director of Floresta, relates the story of a Haitian man with a grove of mango trees. Faced with a drought and famine, this man was forced to cut down his trees and sell them as firewood, rather than wait just a few more weeks for the fruit to ripen. He knew exactly the choice he was making. He was trading his future for the present, and no amount of environmental education would have changed that. The man with the mango trees was trapped in a vicious cycle. The poorer he was, the more he needed to take from the land just to survive. The more he took from the land, the poorer he became.
A girl walks barefoot through Gentilhomme as a hillside behind her burns. Haitians burn trees to make charcoal and to clear the land for farming.
(Photo by Gary Fallesen)
The deforestation around Gentilhomme has greater impact on the wealth of the region than merely the loss of timber. Often the only assets a poor Haitian can count on are the soil and water on the land he or she works. Deforestation dramatically affects both of these. The nutrients in soil are the wealth of the land, and the basic building blocks for nutrition. Soil erosion in the mountains of Haiti is profound and widespread. I have seen horrendous soil erosion in Nepal, Ethiopia, Argentina, Thailand, and American Indian reservations in the U.S. In many mountainous areas of the world, topsoil is the most precious export, but one for which the people receive no compensation. In his essay titled, “A Handful of Mud,” the great medical missionary Paul Brand wrote:
“I would gladly give up medicine tomorrow if by so doing I could have some influence on policy with regard to mud and soil. The world will die from lack of pure water and soil long before it will die from a lack of antibiotics or surgical skill and knowledge.”
Natural resources created by God provide many free services to people. Trees and other vegetation don’t just hold the soil in place on mountainsides. They help protect the quantity and quality of water. Many scientific studies have shown a direct correlation between the absence of forest cover and the presence of E. coli and other contaminants. Watersheds denuded of trees also have dramatically altered patterns of hydrology. More water runs off during precipitation events, so flooding becomes more frequent, and intense. A flood near Gentilhomme in 2004 killed thousands of people.
In addition, streams and springs are more likely to run dry in the summer since less water infiltrates the land. In poor places like Haiti, people – especially women – often walk hours to fetch water and additional hours to fetch the firewood necessary to purify water by boiling it. As firewood becomes more scarce, people are less likely to boil their water or adequately cook their food, increasing health risks. Like a negative feedback loop, vicious downward cycles intensify.
Even though creation is in a fallen state, we can begin to help the poor in mountainous areas reverse vicious cycles, such as the cycle of deforestation and poverty. Vicious cycles can be transformed into what Floresta calls “victorious cycles,” where each change makes the next change more effective. This can only occur when the Holy Spirit is involved and Kingdom relationships are modeled.
Being part of the solution
Studies and experience have demonstrated the critical nature of involving local people in the planning, participation, and ownership of solutions to the problems of environmental degradation. Rather than being seen as a source of problems, we need to see the poor as the key resource in overcoming poverty. If as missionaries we think we can “fix” poverty or “fix” a degraded environment without involving the poor we are in effect telling the poor, “You have nothing to offer.” People might even believe it and say to themselves, “We cannot do anything because we are poor.” Jesus does not say that to anyone; it is the lie of Satan and of the world.
An exciting thing about the work of creating victorious cycles is that the very people who are so often blamed for the problems – the poor – are the ones who will do most of the work and themselves become summit stewards. Our desire is for Climbing For Christ to act as a catalyst for Christ to make this happen.
Deforestation, Haiti style. (Photo by Gary Fallesen)
The land is where poor people extract their entire subsistence. Therefore, improving agriculture radically improves diet, nutrition, health, and income. The cycle of deforestation and poverty can best be broken by providing opportunities at the source of the problem: degraded lands. One day in the Gentilhomme area, fast-growing species of trees may help solve the fuelwood crisis and fruit trees may provide economically viable forest cover. Nitrogen-fixing species may help to restore degraded land, making the soil productive again and providing opportunities for subsistence farmers.
None of the physical and environmental changes will last if the fundamental relationships between people and God, people and their neighbors, and people and their land don’t change. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is what allows this all to occur. Discipleship is the glue. Christ commands us to go into all the world and make disciples, not converts. Because Climbing For Christ seeks long-term relationships with the people we serve, we have a great opportunity to make disciples.
The poor in the mountains of Haiti – and other places in the world – are suffering. They are suffering not just from living in darkness spiritually, but also from a lack of soil and water. However, God plants trees and causes springs to flow for the poor (Isaiah 41:17-20), and Jesus offers living water free of charge.
Information in this article is adapted from a paper written by Scott Sabin, Floresta’s executive director. This story originally appeared in The Climbing Way (Volume 9, Winter 2007-2008).
Posted Aug. 25, 2008