Assisting the Gardener (Scott Sabin)
As a young volunteer at Plant With Purpose, nearly twenty-five years ago, I was at best a reluctant environmentalist. Plant With Purpose, a Christian nonprofit agency, has the mission of transforming the lives of the rural poor by reversing deforestation and poverty. I was volunteering because of the poverty alleviation part of the mission. The reforestation was something I didn’t really get. When I was finally hired by the organization, my father was dismayed. “Planting trees for Jesus? That has to be about the most marginal thing you could possibly do with your life.”
I wasn’t entirely sure he was wrong, but I thought the job would give me good experience on the way to working for a more established organization that helped poor people. However, my first visit to Haiti made the connection between human and environmental problems crystal clear. I met hard-working farmers whose only assets were their topsoil and whatever rain happened to fall on it. With eloquence that I have rarely heard matched by US-based scientists, they explained to me how the loss of forests had impacted the rain, dried up the wells, and turned life-giving rivers into flood-prone dry washes. They told me how their soil had eroded, leaving them with nothing but rocks. Almost always they would conclude by confiding that there was nothing they could do about it. They needed to cut trees to sell firewood or to have a place to farm. They needed to feed their kids.
Our local staff in Haiti and the Dominican Republic also taught me how God has gifted us with an amazingly resilient and diverse creation full of tools that we have only begun to discover. There are ways of farming some of the steep, degraded hillsides, which not only increase productivity, but also provide many ecosystem services that were lost when the original trees were cut. In short, the tiny barren plots of land could be turned into something verdant, fruitful and productive, using techniques that incorporate trees such as agroforestry and agroecology.
Around that time I met with a potential funder, the director of a very conservative foundation. His first comment to me was, “I hope you are not here to tell me God cares as much about trees as he does about people.”
“No. What I will tell you is people need the trees,” I said. Today, I still will not attempt to speak for God’s hierarchy, but what I have learned in the years since is that I had a very narrow, utilitarian perspective. God cares about creation for its own sake.
This is evident throughout Scripture, from the creation account in Genesis, where God pronounces all that has been created good, to the Psalms, many of which talk of the majesty of creation and the testimony it provides to God’s goodness. See for example Psalm 24 or Psalm 104. Paul, in Romans 1:20 talks about God’s eternal power and divine nature being evident in creation. In the book of Job, after Job’s friends presumptuously offer their explanations for God, God responds by pointing to the mysteries of creation. In this passage we clearly see God’s love for all that has been made and begin to understand that it is not all about us. God has a relationship with creation, independent of providing humans with resources. Coming to understand this has been one of the unexpected benefits of my work.
Another has been the opportunity to rub shoulders with the amazing naturalists and pastors who have long championed Christian concern for the environment. Through them, I have had the opportunity to discover much about the beauty of the earth. It feels analogous to being invited to the home of someone you thought you knew well; only to discover that there was a whole side to them that you never knew existed. Perhaps you knew them only from the workplace, but on arriving for dinner you discover they are also an incredibly talented painter.
I have felt that way, as I have thought, “Lord, I didn’t know you made so many species of birds!” And each one has its own story. There are species of plants and animals of amazing variety, all with complex relationships with each other. I have always appreciated breathtaking mountain views, but have begun to realize that by focusing on the wide-open vistas I am missing the millions of stories being told in every square foot of earth.
It has also become increasingly evident that this beautiful planet, which I am just beginning to appreciate, is in deep trouble. News comes in fragments, so it can be easy to miss the larger trends, but it is not just the hills of Haiti that are degraded. In every direction we are losing irreplaceable examples of God’s creativity as a result of our own greed and mismanagement. After several years of working in some of the most deforested and degraded places in the world, I began to long for pristine ecosystems. It didn’t take long to discover that there are none – every place has been damaged. It can be easy to get discouraged.
The good news is that while creation is hurting, it is not forgotten in God’s plan of redemption. Colossians 1:20 tells us that Jesus is reconciling all things to God, “whether things on earth or things in heaven.” Furthermore, as humans we have been given a role to play. Jesus has given us the ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:18) and, of course, we most often apply that to people. But what if we really are to be involved in reconciling all things? That was a possibility I had never considered until my brothers and sisters in Haiti began to teach me that reconciliation is indeed possible, as the watersheds they inhabit come to life once again.
Of course I have no illusions that we can bring heaven on earth or create God’s kingdom here, but I do know that as we verbally proclaim the Good News of the kingdom to all creation, we have a choice as to how we relate to all that God loves and has made. To this end, I have been tremendously inspired by the examples I am seeing in village after village in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Tanzania and elsewhere, as farmers have come to see restoration of creation as part of their vocation and a witness to their faith.