"It's just common sense that we ought to...do everything within our power to protect this fragile planet that we all live on."
- Pat Robertson
"Then the tongue of the mute shall sing, for waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert...the ransomed shall return to Zion with singing."
- Isaiah 35:6
Each spring, baptisms proliferate in our mountain churches. My favorites take place outdoors along our various cold creeks or the one ancient river into which they flow.
Presbyterians, Pentecostals, Baptists, Methodists, Church of the Brethren, Apostolic-their members gather on gritty banks, a dank mineral updraft lifting people's hair and the hymnbook pages. A preacher stands waist-deep in the chilly flow, wearing old sneakers for traction and waiting with unperturbed faith for the new believer to plunge forward.
When stumbling across these baptisms on Sunday afternoon river walks, I've sometimes joined the gathering to "sing the almighty power of God that made the mountains rise...that spread the flowing seas abroad and built the lofty skies!" Or "Lo, at thy word the waters were formed." Or simply "Shall we gather by the river?"
Although I'm an Episcopalian from an indoor, "sprinkle" tradition, these other Christians happily share hymnals with me, for no stranger is unwelcome on the riverbank. Visitors are all assumed kin somehow to the person in the water. The usual fears that separate strangers in our dry-shod, daily survival mode have no meaning by a flowing river, where people have come on purpose to drown-at least, symbolically-and faith is the whole point.
People of many religions or none might agree that it requires faith to dunk oneself into any river flowing through the eastern United States today. Americans cringe to hear of India's religious devotees bathing in the polluted Ganges, as few of us would consider a daily dip in our own concentrations of the runoff, chemicals and sediment that cause mysterious fish kills in such places as the Shenandoah and James rivers and which continue to degrade Chesapeake Bay.
But maybe a faith dunk would help us, I sometimes think at these baptisms. Surely the survival of this ancient submersion rite-not to mention our native aquatic life-will require nothing less than a human conversion.
That conversion seems to have begun working in the Christian church, lately.
Pope Benedict XVI has vocalized regret that "Earth's treasures no longer serve to build God's garden for all to live in." He has called for world leaders to address climate change. So has Katherine Jefferts Schori, a scientist trained in oceanography-and presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church. Meanwhile, more than 100 influential evangelical leaders have signed the Evangelical Climate Initiative calling for action to reduce global warming.
These events indicate a major turn. Fifteen years ago, few Christian leaders ever mentioned the environment. Several Christian broadcasters even condemned the "cult of environmentalism" for implying that endangered species had a right to life.
I know this because my personal search for direction, as a Christian conservationist, turned up dry in my own church tradition, 15 years ago, and sent me to the Christian broadcasters with hopes of guidance. What should be our response to findings that we humans were helping to dismantle God's creation?
Aside from photos of pretty waterfalls and butterflies, to accompany hymns like "This is My Father's World," none of these programs even hinted at anything amiss out there in creation.
I especially recall one broadcast of "The 700 Club," where a conservative guest assured Pat Robertson's viewers that global warming was hype. Besides, Robertson concluded, "man has been affecting the climate ever since he stepped out of a cave," so why worry?
That broadcast aired 15 years ago. In the meantime, the climate has indeed changed-as have religious leaders.
Today, U.S. Catholic bishops, the National Association of Evangelicals, National Council of Churches and Union for Reform Judaism are all pushing Congress and the Bush administration to address climate change-"a cause that reaches across all faiths," says Keith Mainhart, co-chairman of the Long Island Interfaith Environmental Network.
Meanwhile, the current plight of creation has inspired one unexpected benefit: The typically divisive Christians-along with many of other faiths-are finally working together to protect an Earth they commonly agree is "the Lord's."
Recently, Al Gore aired a TV ad featuring Pat Robertson and Al Sharpton sitting together by the Atlantic. "Let's face it; we're polar opposites," they admit-"Except on one issue...Our planet. We all need to take care of it."
Surely if these opposite poles can meet together by one ocean on this globe, the planet is small enough-and human faith big enough-to keep both alive.