Peter Illyn looks more like a hard-living, grizzly-fighting mountain man than a leader of the movement that’s birthing pious young reformers like Vekasi-Phillips. A bearlike 6’1” and 280 pounds, Illyn sports a snakeskin eye patch that hides what he lost in 2002 to ocular cancer—and hikes with a trekking pole to offset depth-perception issues. The 52-year-old’s face is large and expressive, but weatherworn and flecked with the pockmarks left by a childhood bout with spinal meningitis. Months after meeting him in Charleston, West Virginia, I decide that he most resembles an itinerant preacher who’s ridden the frontier so long he now wears the miles in his facial creases and stiff-legged walk.
Since 1989, when Illyn experienced a conversion in the wilderness that inspired him to start preaching the green gospel, the La Center, Washington, pastor has spent untold hours converting young evangelicals to creation care. In its simplest definition, creation care is a movement in which a growing number of Christians believe that they are directed by God and mandated by the Bible to be stewards of the Earth and its creatures. (Genesis 2:15 is a favorite passage: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to dress it and keep it.”) They’ve chosen “creation care” over “environmentalism” to emphasize that they’re talking about something divine, not just the planet’s physical carpet of lakes and trees—and to separate themselves from liberals whose abortion and gay marriage politics they don’t share.
As a group, their numbers are growing: In a 2008 Barna poll, 90 percent of evangelicals said they would like all Christians to take a more active role in caring for the planet, while a 2009 poll taken by Public Religion found that 64 percent of white evangelicals believe in global warming. In those polls, it’s the “younger, more moderate evangelicals who are experiencing the greatest shift when it comes to the environment,” says Alexei Laushkin, senior communications director for the Evangelical Environmental Network, “but even the right is changing.”
Their leaders include a small but stalwart subset of conservative evangelicals that is combining traditional theology with hands-on-the-earth environmental protection, including the fight against climate change. These leaders are preachers like Reverend Jim Ball, a Baptist and president of the creation care ministry, the Evangelical Environmental Network; Joel Hunter, a megachurch pastor in Lakeland, Florida, and spokesman for the Evangelical Climate Initiative; and Tri Robinson, the cowboy pastor of a 9,000-member megachurch called The Vineyard, in Boise, Idaho, whose followers camp on Sundays and farm a 22-acre community garden from which they feed the homeless.
To hear Illyn tell it, outdoorsy pastors like Robinson have discovered a secret—take your congregation camping—that it took Illyn three decades, too many drugs, a failed ministry, and an extraordinary walk in the wilderness to realize. (Hey, no one’s perfect.) Born in Georgia to Russian Orthodox parents, Illyn’s path to environmental crusader has been—to put it mildly—circuitous. Struggling with drug abuse through his teenage years, Illyn journeyed west, landed in a Christian commune, cleaned up at age 33, and, in 1979, headed to Oklahoma to study at ultraconservative Oral Roberts University.
Upon graduation, Illyn landed a job as an associate pastor at a Four Square church in Yakima, Washington. Part of the Pentecostal wing of evangelicalism, Four Square congregations tend to be fundamentalist in their doctrine and charismatic in their worship; many practice healing, prophesying, and speaking in tongues, which they consider evidence of the Holy Spirit’s presence in one’s body. In the 1970s and 1980s, it was the fastest-growing strain of Pentecostalism in the West, a trend that mirrored the emergence of the Christian right as a cultural and political force in the public sphere.
For Illyn, though, the rise of the Reagan evangelicals coincided with a period of growing hypocrisy in the church. Drunk on the gospel of prosperity and Jerry Falwell’s Q rating, Illyn says, his colleagues and parishioners forgot about charity and community. “Keep praying and come back next week,” he remembers them telling the jobless and hurting.
Another casualty was tolerance for theological deviation, and it soured one of Illyn’s favorite duties: leading his church’s youth group. A fan of the outdoors since his early childhood, the young pastor would take his charges backpacking, and they’d sit around the campfire discussing Russian mystics, men and women with a long tradition of encountering God in the wild. They’d also talk about the paradoxes of faith and how to make one’s belief real in a conflicted world. When word of these conversations drifted back to the church, though, Illyn got the congregational cold shoulder.
After 10 years at the church, and feeling like a minor heretic, Illyn fell into a depression. He had a family to support—a wife and two kids—but he had lost his soul and didn’t know how to find it. “What do you do when your calling doesn’t work out?” he asked me as we sat in a coffee shop in Winter Park, Colorado. “I knew I wanted to find God again and that I had always felt closest to Him in the wild. I decided to resign from the church and go on a journey into the wilderness for as long as it took to find Him.”
So, in early 1990, he bought a pair of llamas and planned what would become the longest llama-supported hike of the Pacific Crest Trail: a 1,000-mile journey from the California/Oregon border to Canada. In June, he kissed his five-year-old daughter and three-year-old son goodbye, promising his wife he’d come back a better man.
Those high-summer days were hot, and the mosquitoes and horseflies tortured him mercilessly. Sometimes, he got so lonely he’d spend all day talking to the llamas. But every now and then, in a beautiful meadow or in a stand of trees where the light slanted just so, he would feel the veil of the physical world lift, and there, waiting behind it, was his Creator.
“The early Celtic Christians used to say that in nature ‘thin places’ exist, where the wall between you and God becomes more permeable,” he says. “It’s hard to describe, but if you’re a backpacker, you know it. I’d be walking along and all of a sudden the trees would become brighter. Time would slow. And I would feel a renewed kinship with God.”
By early September, Illyn had hiked 750 miles. His depression had lifted, replaced by an ability to “see with the eyes of my soul.” He planned to go back to a layman’s life, but nearing the end of his journey, he saw something that would alter his view forever. It was a massive clearcut that had denuded vast portions of Snoqualmie National Forest that once towered with old-growth Douglas fir.
Illyn collapsed onto a stump and grieved. “It was the greatest devastation I would see until the World Trade Center towers fell,” he recalls. “At first I thought, God, why would You allow this to happen? And then I asked, Who will speak for the ancient forests, Lord? Who will speak for the elk?”
The response that came to him—from Proverbs 3:18—was as clear as a Cascades creek. It said, “Speak for those who cannot speak for themselves.”
Twenty years later, Illyn sits at the helm of a surprisingly successful dissident movement, one that’s shaped by his history on the trail and whose core message he quickly distinguishes from what he sees as Christian greenwashing. Illyn cherishes every carbon-conscious preacher, but he believes that many of them are too focused on turning down thermostats and changing lightbulbs. Across the Christian world, he claims, there’s a disconnect between believers and nature. “The only way churches are going to make the big changes needed to save the planet,” he insists, “is to put actual people in actual nature where they can experience the wonder of God’s creation.”
For now, Illyn sees his role as convincing young Christians that it’s OK—nay, essential—to be tree huggers. He wants them to understand that a transformative relationship with nature is the surest path to saving the planet and their souls. That journeying into the wilderness, meeting God, and coming out a steward of His Earth is the purest expression of Christianity. That a true evangelical is, in fact, the one who proselytizes for the planet.
To convince them of this, Illyn spends 120 days a year traveling to Christian colleges with his environmental stewardship group, Restoring Eden. With 9,000 members and growing, it’s the largest faith-based organization of its kind, and its students have become leaders in the fight against mountaintop removal mining in Appalachia.
The students’ greatest strength as activists—and Illyn’s biggest challenge as a recruiter—is their evangelical upbringing. That background gives them clout among conservative politicians, but their inborn suspicion of environmentalism makes them tougher to convert.
Illyn’s secret weapon? Wilderness. “Scripture says the Earth has voices,” he says. “That the mountains cry out with joy and the heavens declare the glory of God. You’re sitting around a campfire smelling the burning logs. Or closing your eyes and listening to a bird. It’s feeling the moss on the forest floor, or having a surprise encounter with a turtle in the reeds. That’s the born-again moment.”
If he could just get more of these kids to go backpacking, he tells me, the devil—and his bulldozers—wouldn’t stand a chance.