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Backpacker Magazine – March 2011

Hike. Pray. Protest.

Does God love camping? A new church movement foot-soldiered by wilderness-loving young people could transform the way conservative Christians perceive and protect the environment. We hit the trail with the new green evangelicals.

by: Tracy Ross; Photos by Julia Vandenoever

Sage Vekasi-Phillips prays for an end to mountaintop removal.
Sage Vekasi-Phillips prays for an end to mountaintop removal.
Reverand Peter Illyn, who lost an eye to cancer in 2002.
Reverand Peter Illyn, who lost an eye to cancer in 2002.
Water samples taken from residential wells.
Water samples taken from residential wells.

For more on author Tracy Ross, head to her Facebook page:
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
have imagined.

“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.

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Reader Rating: -


Nov 13, 2011

Regarding Jason T's biblical references, they are accurate.

Danika Foster
Jun 07, 2011

Jonathan David Foster
Apr 20, 2011

I kind of like it the way John Trudell puts it...

Jonathan David Foster
Apr 20, 2011

I kind of like it the way John Trudell puts it...

Apr 14, 2011

@James The main problem with this eco movement reaching mainstream Christians is that not only does the Bible DIRECTLY states in scripture the earth is for man to use, and also the bulk of the evangelical Christians (the 40% that don't "believe" in evolution) are the poor, down trodden, proletariat working in the factories, the mines, and the rest of the military industrial complex that is causing this desolation.

@Jason Turning Don't even get me started mister, your cray-cray is showing by the way.

Apr 07, 2011

If religion is involved, you can bet it's going to end badly as the result of ignorance and superstition.

Jason Turning
Apr 07, 2011

Don't get me wrong, I'm all for taking the best care of our natural resources. But the Bible teaches us that this earth is going to get tore up pretty good when God's wrath is unleashed against unbelieving mankind who violates His laws. Up until the point when God Himself returns, Jesus Christ, landing on the Mount of Olives splitting it in two. And eventually we'll have a new heaven and earth. I have no doubt that scripture is true, because I've seen the truth of it play out in my life and the lives of others. I know God is real simply because of what he has made. But our mission as Christians is to help save the lost souls perishing on this world. Environmental activism seems a distraction getting believers off their mission while fighting for something that will pass away irregardless. Environmentalism is actually a ploy our adversary uses to distract the lost to their harm. What we need at this time on the earth is energy and power so that our society can survive and grow while impacting the rest of the world for Christ. After all, God has given us these natural resources or oil and coal to use. However, we should make sure that companies do what is right in harvesting these resources and having as minimal an impact as possible adhering to government regulation that is reasonable. I would ask my brothers and sisters to open their Bibles and learn the precepts of God and what He plans for the end of the age so they can hold everything in context and know what God's plan is for mankind.

It would appear that end times might be close as the Jews returned to Israel after 1900 years away. Where in history has a nation been restored to their land after 1900 years, and their language once again spoken on the streets. Islam appears to be the religion of the Antichrist growing around the world at an alarming rate, and is truly a religion of hate created by our adversary. The final piece will be when we see the Jewish temple being rebuilt in Jerusalem where the abomination that causes desolation will occur. Maranatha!


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