Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth fitness, nutrition, and adventure courses and more than 2,000 instructional videos when you sign up for Outside+ Sign up for Outside+ today.
Sage Vekasi-Phillips prays for an end to mountaintop removal.
Reverand Peter Illyn, who lost an eye to cancer in 2002.
Water samples taken from residential wells.
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.
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.
One way to gauge a movement’s viability is by its members’ willingness to chain themselves to heavy machinery. The kids from Restoring Eden did just that in March 2009, locking themselves to a coal-fired power plant located less than a mile from the United States Capitol, and threatening to stay there until Congress agreed to stop running—literally—on dirty coal.
The group of 25 college students I shadowed traveled from several Midwest schools to Washington, D.C., to join more than 12,000 other youth from 50 states and 13 countries for the largest climate conference in U.S. history. Called Powershift, the event was started in 2007 by the Energy Action Coalition to give high school and college students a voice in the national climate conversation. On a freezing March morning, I saw several Restoring Eden kids risk hypothermia—and jail—to block the gates of the power plant and sing Bible hymns in the slush for hours.
Another way to gauge a movement’s viability is the willingness of its members to unchain themselves from tradition. And in this respect, the courage these young people demonstrate is striking. It’s not the physical bravery of facing Bull Connor’s dogs, but the moral courage of children breaking with their parents.
According to Illyn, 90 percent of Restoring Eden’s members come from conservative evangelical and fundamentalist homes. Most attend or have graduated from Christian high schools and colleges. Many told me they were keeping their D.C. and West Virginia trips secret from their parents, and those who had been open about their activism universally reported some sort of backlash, from simple consternation to harsh rebuke to—in a few cases—excommunication from their childhood churches.
“If my parents knew that I was going to make myself arrestable for the environment, they’d disown me,” Michelle Dyer, a willowy 19-year-old with waist-length red hair, told me on day two of Powershift. Michelle had driven 10 hours from Lee University in Cleveland, Tennessee, with her friends Kaylen Fletcher and Dannika Foster.
Michelle, Kaylen, Dannika, and more than 100 other kids crowded into a conference room at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center. They had come to hear Sage Vekasi-Phillips, the seminary student from North Carolina, channel Ed Abbey via Billy Graham. His lecture topic: “Stop a Bulldozer and Hug a Tree for Jesus: A (Radical) Christian Perspective to Christian Organizing.”
The kids scribbled in notebooks as Vekasi-Phillips preached about mountaintop removal and how Christians should heed the call to stop the practice. He said Jesus was the ultimate activist and “prophets, not profits” should guide the new environmental ethic. “King Coal is not God,” he opined. “King Jesus is Lord.”
When Vekasi-Phillips opened the floor for questions, a litany of impassioned testimonies flooded out. Ariel, a Mormon from Oregon, said she was tired of people being “neither for nor against the environment.” Courtney said Christians should read the Bible and Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax, because nothing is going to happen until people learn the value of getting directly involved in change. And then Michelle Dyer stood up.
“I’m from the buckle of the Bible Belt,” she told the crowd. “Our biggest problem is the word environment. If we even breach the conversation, people look at us like we’re Satan worshippers. When I told my grandmother I was starting an environmental program, she scolded, ‘What are you doing with your life?’ My cousin said, ‘If I could hate you, I would.’
“But I have a love for creation,” Michelle continued. “I mean, my middle name is Eden. I want to learn how to build an argument for environmental stewardship that’s biblical.”
Like many kids from fundamentalist churches, Michelle faces numerous challenges. One is history: Conservative evangelicals (as opposed to liberal and mainline evangelicals) have been leery of social causes that water down their message of personal salvation. Many also believe in a dominion theology, in which the Bible tells them to “rule over all the creatures that move along the ground.” When interpreted the way Pat Robertson did for America in the 1980s, this Old Testament mandate provides religious justification for exploiting the environment for economic gain.
But neither of these hurdles compare to the negative cultural connotations of being an “environmentalist.” Call it the Al Gore Effect. “When I talk about the environment to other Christians, his name inevitably comes up,” says Jonathan Merritt, a respected writer on faith issues and the son of former Southern Baptist Convention President James Merritt. “There’s a perception—in many ways a well-grounded one—that this movement is saturated by political leftists. At the same time, [many Southern fundamentalists] fail to realize that one of the reasons it’s saturated is because they have wrongly failed to saturate it with their own voice.”
In general, conservative Christians continue to be skeptical of climate change, and many view it as an outright hoax. In 2006, the Traditional Values Coalition and the Interfaith Stewardship Alliance—two very vocal nondenominational lobbies—convinced the 40-million-member National Evangelical Association to resist signing a statement urging Congress to enact legislation limiting CO2 emissions. The TVC has also attacked the Evangelical Environmental Network. On the Coalition’s website, a paper titled “Evangelical Environmental Group Funded by Pro-Abortion, Pro-Homosexual Foundation” charges that EEN’s call to action was based on faulty science and that “increased carbon dioxide may be good for the planet.”
There’s an insidious effect when inflammatory claims like this reach the pews, says Illyn. “The far right gets stronger by making the science of global warming a debate,” he says. “They purposely introduce doubt into the conversation, and because it’s so controversial, the small- and mid-level pastors—the ones in direct contact with the largest number of people—won’t even present the idea [of global warming] to their congregations.”
And yet the evangelical community is no monolith. Despite the recession and the rise of Tea Party politics—both of which tend to dampen enthusiasm for green themes—there are signs that fundamentalism’s old insularity is changing. Since the late 1990s, almost every major faith-based organization in the United States has announced a commitment to greening the planet. The National Council of Churches, a liberal Protestant coalition with more than 45 million members, was no surprise. Nor were statements from mainline Catholics, Jews, and individual Protestant denominations. But a March 2008 declaration by several prominent Southern Baptist leaders certainly was. Reversing a 2007 resolution that called for caution on global warming, the so-called “Southern Baptist Declaration on the Environment and Climate Change” urged the country’s largest and most powerful denomination to combat climate change directly. Then two more shockers: In May 2009, Christian Coalition president Roberta Combs announced a partnership with Larry Schweiger, president of the famously left-leaning National Wildlife Federation. And in March 2010, her group officially endorsed the Kerry/Graham energy bill.
Plenty of critics remain, of course, and Illyn believes a pew-by-pew battle remains. But one thing is clear: The next generation of conservative evangelical leaders will sound a lot different. The kids of Restoring Eden represent a fraction of the students participating in environmental programming at evangelical schools across the country. In 2009, Mike Plunkett, a spokesman for the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, counted 50 of 111 member schools with some sort of green curriculum or club. What’s more, in a 2010 report to CCCU presidents at the International Forum on Christian Education, 41 percent of schools that responded to a campus sustainability and creation care survey said they were interested in having a dedicated sustainability office on campus. Over the next two decades, hundreds of newly minted ministers will step into pulpits with a little more Thoreau in their souls.
Ask Illyn if his efforts are moving the needle, and he’ll cite the stunning growth of Restoring Eden. In the months leading up to the publication of this story, the group added 4,000 new members. Between October and December of 2009, it delivered 70 students to Capitol Hill to conduct more than 50 meetings with congressmen from their districts. Protests and arrests over mountaintop removal continue, though Illyn declines to put a number on the latter. He prefers to highlight triumphs like the White House invitation to a summit on youth and energy, and the credit Restoring Eden received for bringing two new signers to the Clean Water Protection Act in March 2010.
Successes like these equate to more donations, which have allowed Illyn to open a main office in Minneapolis, hire a Rocky Mountain coordinator to fight for wilderness areas in the West, increase his MTR “witness tours” in Appalachia from two to five per year, and underwrite flyovers for high-profile church leaders and politicians.
But success has also placed more demands on Illyn. In the coming year, he’ll lobby D.C. two to three times and spend 120 days campaigning at Christian colleges. His road time is taking a toll. Since I met him in the fall of 2008, Illyn has packed 20 pounds onto his already husky frame, and he had to stop and catch his breath every few minutes when I snowshoed with him in Colorado in 2010. Soon after I saw him, he developed blood clots in his lungs and discovered that the cancer that had previously attacked his eye, bladder, and right leg was back. While he insists that this melanoma is not terminal, he admitted to me last spring that he might have a “shortened future.”
There will come a time—possibly in the very near future—when Illyn will hand the reins to his primary acolyte, Sage Vekasi-Phillips, the MTR activist and seminarian. Born on Cold River Mountain in North Carolina, Vekasi-Phillips is an intense character. Raised by his mother, he says he recognized social injustice from an early age, as he watched her struggle “to bring home the hot dogs” while working three jobs. Angry at the world, he spray-painted coal-train cars—but he also joined his grandparents every summer at a Methodist retreat on Lake Junaluska, in the hills of North Carolina.
At 16, Vekasi-Phillips became the youngest elder in his Presbyterian church. At Warren Wilson College, he spent his spare time playing fiddle along the Swannanoa River—mournful, beautiful airs like “Lonesome John” and “Gospel Plow.” He liked to pray by the river, and it was in nature, he says, that he most deeply met God. “I looked around and thought, There wasn’t just one molecule that spasmed and became a fish. This can only have been created by something bigger, by a higher spiritual power.” Like Illyn, Vekasi-Phillips’s epiphany led him to environmental activism. He fought “big timber,” then in 2004 received a second calling to stop the injustices of mountaintop removal. It came on August 21, when he learned that three-year-old Jeremy Davidson had been crushed in his crib by a boulder that had dislodged from an illegal Virginia MTR site and rolled 650 feet down the mountain and into his bedroom.
A month later, Vekasi-Phillips helped start Mountain Justice Summer, an enviro training camp (and now year-round campaign) that teaches nonviolent protest methods. For the past four years, the avid hiker, who also works for Christians for the Mountains, has focused on the principles of community organizing. His role: bringing hope to affected towns by letting them know that “Jesus hears them.”
Vekasi-Phillips believes that thoughtful prayer, coupled with righteous activism, is the answer to stopping MTR. In March 2009, I saw him in action. On the night before we headed out on a hiking trip in the Appalachian Mountains, he helped organize a protest that would result in three arrests that grabbed national media attention. And a few months later, he would help lead a movement called Operation Appalachian Spring, in which 17 protesters chained themselves to Massey bulldozers and floated a “West Virginia Says No More Toxic Sludge” banner atop the multibillion-gallon Brushy Fork slurry impoundment.
As we hiked along an old logging road on Coal River Mountain, my companion prayed often and quietly, dropping his head and sometimes falling to his knees. He thanked God for “the beauty of his handiwork in all creation” and for help in stopping the destruction of MTR. When I asked him how he reconciled participating in illegal protests with his faith, he told me that his role is to bring Christ into potentially hostile situations. “I realize that not everybody shows up with the same spirit,” he said. “I go to lead prayers and help focus the energy, so we can all be more Christlike in our tone and approach.”
Vekasi-Phillips’s leadership potential is hard to measure. He doesn’t display Illyn’s outgoing magnetism or boundless energy, and his radicalism concerns some. There are hard edges—tough talk, a zealot’s intensity, and a spiky pastiche of tattoos across his back and arms—but there’s also an underlying softness. Allen Johnson, Vekasi-Phillips’s boss at Christians for the Mountains, calls him “a spiritual shepherd of the people, like Jesus, just standing there, fighting the empire while holding a little lamb.” And Vekasi-Phillips says the tattoos—of fire, a wolf’s eye, rivers, and the Chinese characters for Faith, Diversity, Unity, and Love—speak to his belief in “the oneness of humanity and the environment with God.” The art memorializes his missionary grandparents, but he also knows the tribal ink helps him connect with dissenting young evangelicals.
Vekasi-Phillips’s charisma—if quiet and complex—is unmistakable. Illyn mainly worries about his acolyte’s impatience. “The Christian world is just coming into this conversation,” he says. “They’re like a llama—willing to eat out of your hand, but if you move too quickly, they’ll back away. I fear that Sage, because of his pure and true heart for the issue, could move too quickly.”
When it comes to saving the planet, though, Illyn and Vekasi-Phillips are in lockstep about that born-again moment. They both believe that the single best place to transform other evangelicals is deep in the mountains, in places accessible only through backpacking.
Miraculously, some pastors are finding ways to get their flocks out to those places. “The average minister works 60 hours a week, with 95 percent of that time spent on church programs,” says Illyn. “He has 250 people and one youth van. At the end of the day, that ain’t a lot of resources to take people camping.” And yet, here and there, evangelicals are hitting the trail.
Illyn’s own church, Imago Dei in Portland, Oregon, hosts a handful of campouts per year—not as many as he would like, but some. At The City Church, my cousin’s charismatic evangelical megachurch in Seattle, people backpack, kayak, and mountaineer for Christ. And at the Vineyard in Boise, Idaho, so many members backpack on the weekends that the pews sometimes look half-empty on Sunday. Jason Chatraw, the Vineyard’s associate pastor, doesn’t see Sunday backpacking as a threat. He sees it as a way to bring his congregants closer to God.
“In order to get people to care about the environment, we have to get them in it,” he says. “We might take the men’s ministry one weekend and the women’s ministry the next. We create different learning opportunities, like how to cook outdoors or read a map and compass. Sometimes we’ll joke about it, saying, ‘Lord, please forgive James for missing the sermon this Sunday. He’s out in the mountains, geocaching.’”
Adventure-loving churches certainly remain the exception, but Anna Jane Joyner, co-author of the Sierra Club report “Faith in Action” and Restoring Eden’s new campaign organizer, points to her father Rick Joyner’s charismatic Morningstar Ministries Baptist church in Charlotte, North Carolina, to show that the rule is changing. For years, Joyner tried to impress on her father the biblical importance of caring for the environment; he began listening in 2004, when she started a research project exploring Christian perspectives on nature. “I was able to show him that all through the Bible, God talks about valuing and loving Creation,” she says. Shortly after, Joyner took 40 Morningstar kids camping. “Half of them had never slept outdoors,” she says, “so many were hearing the birds, insects, and trees for the first time. When they ate strawberries straight from the vine, they were blown away by how good a warm, fresh berry tastes.” The campout alone didn’t transform them, Joyner says, but follow-up trips have made them look at God’s creation more seriously.
Illyn, too, tells me a generational shift is happening, fueled by Sage Vekasi-Phillips and Michelle Dyer and the thousands of young evangelicals who are trying to find their own thin places in nature. With all of his heart, Illyn believes change is happening. He just hopes it happens in time.
Tracy Ross is the author of The Source of All Things, a soon-to-be-released book based on a story she wrote at BACKPACKER in 2008. The story won a National Magazine Award.