Lauren Kras spent the spring of her junior year at Messiah College planting a garden. "We really wanted to put forward eating locally," she says. "You could do something in your own backyard that could cut down your energy usage and put you back in touch with the earth."
The garden project was the creation of Earthkeepers, a small environmental club on this evangelical college campus in central Pennsylvania. Just six students regularly attended Earthkeepers meetings when the club began working on the garden in the winter of 2007. But 75 volunteers showed up when they broke ground that spring, logging 2,000 volunteer hours. "We started with grass and within three weeks everything was planted," Kras remembers. "You could just work and find God there in your own way."
Kras is one of a growing number of young leaders building the movement known as "creation care" among younger Christians. This faith-based environmentalism was marginal—and quite controversial—in the evangelical community when Kras started at Messiah in 2004. But now roughly half of the colleges affiliated with the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities have some kind of initiative, according to CCCU media relations manager Mike Plunkett. This fall, Kras and a dozen other campus creation care leaders helped launch renewingcreation.org’s “Renewal: A Student Creation Care Network” to build ties between student activists.
The organization announced its formation with a leadership summit held at Pennsylvania’s Eastern University in late October, which drew more than 50 students from Christian schools across the country. The three-day conference is a model of what they hope will become an annual event on campuses around the country, encompassing a day of prayer, a day of service, and a day of advocacy focused on the environment.
Evening activities focused largely on the spiritual. The conference kicked off with a keynote address by Messiah College biology professor Erik Lundquist on the way “creation groans under the weight of the curse of our sin.” The following evening, Kara Ball of the National Wildlife Federation—wife of Evangelical Environmental Network President Jim Ball—spoke about “vocation” and “God’s calling” in environmental work.
The daytime was focused largely on workshops to develop concrete skills. Lauren Kras spoke on working with university administrations. EEN’s Rusty Pritchard coached participants on ways to talk to people skeptical of creation care. Melanie Griffin and Christina Yagjian of the Sierra Club gave advice on public advocacy.
“There were so many beautiful things about that gathering,” says Renewal Coordinator Anna Jane Joyner. Even more important than the trainings, she suggests, was simply the sense of community the conference gave students who sometimes feel very isolated on their campuses. Even though creation care is catching on at Christian schools, there are still many places where evangelical environmentalists feel very isolated. Some students, Joyner says, may "have a handful of students on their campuses that have made that connection [to each other], but a lot of them feel very lonely."
Recent Wheaton College graduate Ben Lowe, a founder of Renewal and the outreach director of the Christian conservation group A Rocha, explains that creation care “has a lot of baggage, probably left over from the last environmental movement.” When he started as a freshman, he remembers, “it was considered fringe—they were [regarded] as ‘granolas.’” But he helped bring about a “sea change” in the four years he was there. Wheaton’s president signed onto the Evangelical Climate Initiative calling for the Church to combat global warming, the school created a sustainability task force, and they hosted a creation care summit featuring the former chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Sir John Houghton.
Older Christians are especially skeptical of creation care, Kras says, and freshmen often arrive on campus with their parents’ prejudices. She grew up Catholic, and so came to the issue without the baggage that weighs on many of her peers. But she remembers often hearing comments from adults that amounted to, "I’m glad you care about the earth, but clearly humans aren’t influencing climate. Why aren’t you caring about unborn babies?"
Freshmen, who may have come from very conservative homes, can be a tough audience as well. “It can be very hard to bring something like climate change to a freshman class,” Kras explains. “Some of them are just dealing with [learning about] things like evolution.”
But Kras and Lowe both say the political climate is changing on Christian college campuses. “I think there are increasing numbers of voters my age … who want to be much broader focused voters, so they would be willing to consider other issues [beyond abortion and gay marriage] and consider a bigger picture,” says Lowe. While support for George W. Bush dominated her campus in 2004, Kras reflects that during the primaries her senior year, “everything was Clinton or Obama. It was a huge deal about issues of climate change, issues of poverty, issues of social justice.”
Though a majority of evangelicals voted for Republican presidential nominee John McCain in 2008, twice as many evangelicals under 30 voted for Democrat Barack Obama than for the 2004 Democratic nominee, John Kerry.
Renewal and other creation care activities on college campuses are made possible in part by the support of the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities and a handful of evangelical environmental organizations. Lowe is a tie between Renewal’s Student Leadership Team and his employer, A Rocha, and Kras serves as a liason to the Au Sable Institute for Environmental Studies, where she studied during her summers. Other board members include Alexei Laushkin and Kendra Langdon Juskus of the Evangelical Environmental Network, and Matthew Anderson-Stembridge of the Creation Care Fund. Also active on college campuses is Restoring Eden, which maintains a relationship with the Creation Care Study Program, a program that sends students to study theology, ecology, and anthropology at campuses in New Zealand and Belize.
“This is something that has been in the making for quite some time,” says CCCU’s Mike Plunkett. “You definitely see the excitement [about creation care]. It’s very palpable … from the student’s point of view. Renewal, currently run by a single employee, is planning to launch a fellowship program to support environmental initiatives on college campuses.
Lester Feder is a freelance journalist covering conservative politics and popular culture. He is currently working on a book about the evangelical environmental movement.