Something curious is happening in evangelical churches and colleges across the country. Beneath the media radar, thousands of deeply conservative Christian youth are reimagining Jesus as a Leatherman-toting, wilderness-tramping eco-crusader. They’re hitting the trail, joining anti-coal marches, and professing a green theology that breaks with centuries of church dogma. But can this fledgling movement succeed? Tracy Ross examines the odds, and tells us why the next great environmental leader might be a backpacking fundamentalist who believes the true path to personal salvation lies in nature—and in the actions one takes after encountering God there.
There’s a bend in a trail in a forest in West Virginia where a hiker can gaze out over Eden—miles of lush, green mountains thrumming with black bears and bobcats, lungless salamanders and limb-regenerating newts.
There’s another view, just beyond the bend, that opens up on Armageddon: mountains stripped of their summits, resembling great piles of ash; huge lakes of toxic sludge; and mile upon mile of poisoned orange-and-green rivers.
When Sage Vekasi-Phillips passes the big elm at the corner of the bend, his slight shoulders tense. He’s witnessed this devastation a thousand times or more while surveying the 470 mountains in Appalachia that have been pulverized for coal.
Where the top of Cherry Pond Mountain once stood, the 29-year-old Mennonite seminary student and spiritual director for the Eco-Chaplaincy Initiative now sees the surface of a moon he never wished to imagine. Where Brushy Fork used to burble, he looks at local rivers filled with seven billion gallons of arsenic- and cadmium-infused coal slurry. In the hollows fanning out from the mountains, men and women breathe coal dust and drink diseased water. Teeth rot and gallbladders malfunction. Babies develop tumors, and girls who haven’t yet ovulated suffer ovarian cancer.
More times than he can recall, Vekasi-Phillips has gazed upon this destruction, and the sight still makes him shudder. But his reaction isn’t simply the embodied rage of a nature lover, backpacker, and environmental activist—all of which he is. The ravaged landscape registers at a deeper level, because Vekasi-Phillips is also a child of the church, one whose fathers described Armageddon much differently to its sons.
The preachers of Vekasi-Phillips’s deeply held evangelical faith said that the sun would turn black and the moon would bleed and a swarm of locusts would devour the Earth. Instead, colossal machines the size of tall buildings have pushed poisoned dirt into pristine valleys, creating fish with scabs and violent, unnatural floods.
The preachers also said that God would wreak this vengeance, as a punishment for the sins of men. But man clearly made this mess, with technologies on a scale Old Testament writers never could
“We did this,” Vekasi-Phillips tells me, “and we have to stop it.” Which, if you know anything about the church of his fathers, is a radical proclamation. In the fundamentalist theology of Vekasi-Phillips’s tradition, God is all-powerful, and man is impotent, with no strength to impact—or improve—the natural world. God will bring the end of times, and man should tend to his own personal salvation.
Though he’s studying to be an evangelical minister, Vekasi-Phillips doesn’t believe humans are powerless, not after witnessing mountaintop removal (MTR). Neither do a growing body of conservative pastors and youth. And that is big news.
Under the media radar, tens of thousands of young Christians have flocked to “creation care,” an emerging theology that calls believers to walk in closer harmony with nature. If their ranks continue growing at the rapid pace of the last five years, they might inspire one of the most significant shifts in evangelical history, one that has the potential to lead organizations like the Christian Coalition into battles over global warming and wildlands conservation.
Such a shift would be revolutionary, in part because of the forces arrayed against theological change, and in part because of the extraordinary leverage conservative churches would bring to the fight against climate change. As Vekasi-Phillips kneels down to pray, I realize that these young radicals possess the kind of passion that chased the moneylenders out of the temple. Led by a cadre of unconventional eco-theologians, they fervently believe that true salvation can only be found in communion with nature. The path to heaven, they say, is one part backpacking and one part Earth activism.
But passion, as a long line of martyrs can attest, doesn’t always win the day. What I’ve come to Appalachia to ask, and what I’ll spend two years investigating, is whether David can turn Goliath green.