For more background
Karyn Bigelow and Avery Davis Lamb serve as Co-Executive Directors of Creation Justice Ministries. Both of them have long and distinguished records of service in climate advocacy and environmental justice.
Karyn’s research and policy work focuses on the intersections of climate change, food security, and racial equity. She has an MDiv from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and is pursuing another master’s degree in global food security.
Avery has a background in both ecological research and faith-based environmental organizing, He is also pursuing a master’s degree, one that combines ecosystem science, theology, and environmental justice. His research focuses on the role of religious communities in building climate resilience and adaptation.
Learn more about the work that Karyn and Avery are doing at Creation Justice Ministries here.
In this episode, we reference a training called Pastoral Care for Climate: Weaving Science and Theology, as well as Creation Justice Ministries’ climate resilience program: Faithful Resilience.
We also discuss (and attempt to categorize) various faith-based organizations working for environmental justice, such as:
- Interfaith Power and Light
- Blessed Tomorrow
- Evangelical Environmental Network
- A Rocha
- Lutherans Restoring Creation
- Presbyterians for Earth Care
Avery Davis Lamb: What we mean when we say “climate resilience” is not simply the ability to bounce back after climate impacts and disasters, but the ability to bounce forward. So seeing these moments we’re in of climate breakdown not simply as a time to rebuild what has been destroyed, but to kind of reconstitute our life together to transform how we live together in the beloved community.
Debra Rienstra: Welcome to Refugia, a podcast about renewal. Refugia are places of shelter where life endures in times of crisis. From out of these small sanctuaries, life re-emerges and the world is renewed. We’re exploring what it means for people of faith to be people of refugia. How can we create safe places of flourishing—“micro-countercultures”—where we gain strength and spiritual capacity to face the challenges ahead?
I’m Debra Rienstra, Professor of English at Calvin University. Today, I’m talking with two terrific people: Karyn Bigelow and Avery Davis Lamb. Karyn and Avery serve as co-executive directors of Creation Justice Ministries. Both of them have long and distinguished records of service in climate advocacy and environmental justice. Karyn’s research and policy work focuses on the intersections of climate change, food security, and racial equity. She has an MDiv from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and is pursuing another master’s degree in global food security. Avery has a background in both ecological research and faith-based environmental organizing. He is also pursuing a master’s degree, one that combines ecosystem science, theology, and environmental justice. His research focuses on the role of religious communities in building climate resilience and adaptation.
In our conversation today, we talk about how faith-based climate organizations can bring people together, inspiring churches and individuals to build social cohesion and work toward a livable and just future for all God’s creatures.
Debra Rienstra: Karyn and Avery. I’m so glad to have you with me today. Thank you so much for being here.
Karyn Bigelow: Thank you for having us.
Avery Davis Lamb: Yeah, it’s good to be here. Thanks for having us.
Debra Rienstra: So you two are working in this really complicated space of faith-based climate advocacy and environmental justice. So I’m curious how you ended up here. How did you get here? Is this work rooted in your faith formation from childhood, or did you have some sort of ecological conversion at some point, as so many people do? So Karyn, we’ll begin with you.
Karyn Bigelow: I would say that from my experience, I remember being taught and really caring about recycling as a kid, but for me, it actually came from my background in working around food security and food system issues. And I was working at an organization that has the goal that much of the world does, which is to end hunger in the US and around the world by the year 2030. And one of the things that, in my readings, I noticed is that climate change in particular is the very thing that hinders potentially that happening. And we see from the numbers that the world was able to cut hunger in half, but yet, over the last like five years, it’s been rising, either directly because of climate events or conflicts that are, you know, under its current is related to climate issues.
And so because of that, I just kind of felt like, “Well, why aren’t we talking about this issue?” And so it kind of led me down this path of really going more down the ecological/environment/climate conversations, because, you know, we can’t end a lot of the social injustices in our country or around the world without addressing what’s happening to our environment.
Debra Rienstra: Do you feel a little bit frustrated, like all this great work people have done on hunger over the years is now almost backtracking because of climate change? Does that feel sort of frustrating, or do you just have this kind of renewed determination?
Karyn Bigelow: It’s definitely frustrating because I know that so many of the things needed in order for us to accomplish this goal aren’t always just the things happening at the farm level. And so it is frustrating when we constantly see there not being the investment to really address climate issues like we need to, and knowing that there’s going to be, you know, people who are more susceptible than others, not to just hunger, but also just the other, you know, impacts of the climate crisis or the ecological crisis as well.
Debra Rienstra: Yeah. So it becomes this kind of interrelated web of crisis situations that all sort of have to be addressed at the same time.
Karyn Bigelow: Absolutely.
Debra Rienstra: Yeah. Avery, tell us how you got into this.
Avery Davis Lamb: Yeah. Yeah, certainly. Well, you know, first: I love the language of ecological conversion. I think it’s so astute to describe what we need. I think Pope Francis was really onto something with that.
Debra Rienstra: Yeah, exactly.
Avery Davis Lamb: I love it because it is very much what I experienced in my life. So I grew up in a Southern Baptist church in Topeka, Kansas, and with all of the theological formation that came with that. So I did not hear about the environment, certainly not about climate change—at least in a positive light—in my religious formation, but as a child, I was also just so innately connected to nature. I loved being outside. I loved being in nature, gardening with my mom later on in high school, biking around the Kansas prairies and, you know, looking back, that was really my spiritual formation.
I was spiritually formed by these experiences of, you know, encountering the divine in the natural world. But my spiritual formation was very much separate from my religious formation in my childhood church.
Debra Rienstra: Mm.
Avery Davis Lamb: My ecological conversion moment came when, you know, those two collided—when they came together. And, you know, the collision was kind of challenging. You know, what happened was I was at a big evangelical conference in Kansas City one winter. And I was, you know, sort of in the midst of a faith crisis—looking around, seeing 35,000 or so people there talking about some social issues, but certainly not talking about the environment. It felt like a call moment from God— really one of the only moments where I really have felt the presence of God saying, you know, “Go from here and read the people who are writing about this. Dig into the tradition. Listen to the wisdom of Christians who are paying attention to the environment.” I did just that. And of course, I’m still doing that and still diving because there’s so much richness, but that was really my first moment of encountering it.
Debra Rienstra: Wow. Thank you for sharing that. That’s amazing that you feel like, you know, God was speaking to you through the earth itself all those years, and then you had this moment where there was a kind of ‘Paul on the road to Damascus’ sort of thing going on, it sounds like.
Avery Davis Lamb: Yeah. Certainly.
Debra Rienstra: I’m still marveling over 35,000 people at a conference!
Avery Davis Lamb: Yeah. It’s a little bit mind-boggling.
Debra Rienstra: Imagine the hotel! Anyway—
Avery Davis Lamb: Yeah. And certainly now as an organizer, it’s like, “Man, if I could organize 35,000 people to show up…”
Debra Rienstra: That can only happen by divine fiat, I think.
Avery Davis Lamb: Yeah, yeah.
Debra Rienstra: So tell us about Creation Justice Ministries. This is a group that was first organized as an Eco-Justice initiative under the umbrella of the National Council of Churches in the eighties. So for listeners who are unfamiliar, what is the NCC, and how do Creation Justice Ministries come about as part of the NCC’s work?
Avery Davis Lamb: Sure. I could start in on this. So the National Council of Churches is an ecumenical collaborative, which means there are a few dozen Christian traditions who decided to come together and create a space whereby they can set aside their theological differences and collaborate on, you know, that which is most important, you know: the different missions of the church to love each other and to love the world.
You know, I think especially in the 20th century, the ecumenical movement really thrived, and the National Council of Churches was the outgrowth of that in the United States. So for a while, especially in the eighties and the nineties, the National Council of Churches had really strong programs. So they had a poverty program, I think they had like an anti-war or a peace program, and then in 1983, formed, as you mentioned, the Eco-Justice working group of the National Council of Churches, which was the Creation Justice program. It was the environmental program.
Debra Rienstra: Mm-hmm.
Avery Davis Lamb: And so that, as you said, is what Creation Justice grew out of.
Debra Rienstra: What happened that it became Creation Justice Ministries? Was there some sort of moment or was there some sense of urgency? Or how did that shift happen?
Avery Davis Lamb: Yeah. Yeah. So that happened in 2013, and, you know, it was just an organizational shift that the National Council of Churches decided to not do programmatic work any longer. It decided to just kind of reconstitute itself as a convening body of the denominations, and so, you know, split off from its programs—from the poverty program, from the environment program. So at that point, the working group—the Eco-Justice working group had a decision to make: whether to end the work that they were doing or to reconstitute itself as a nonprofit. And thanks be to God they chose the latter, because that’s why we’re here today.
Debra Rienstra: Okay. So sort of a spin-off, wholly-owned subsidiary kind of thing. I don’t know.
Avery Davis Lamb: Yeah, yeah, yeah. And, you know, we still operate very similarly in that we are ecumenical. We have 38 denominations and communions who are members, so we are certainly still swimming in the stream of the National Council of Churches even though we are institutionally separate.
Debra Rienstra: Gotcha. That’s really helpful. So Karyn, maybe you can help me understand and help listeners understand all the stuff you do. I look at your website and I think: “How do they organize all of this?” It feels like you’re engaged in this whole range of initiatives. So I wonder, is there like a whiteboard somewhere that has like a map or some way that in your minds you categorize all the things that you do? How do you think about it in terms of the overall mission of Creation Justice Ministries?
Karyn Bigelow: Yeah. We’ve definitely had to use a lot of post-its over the years. And so part of it is that we take very seriously our mission to care for God’s creation, and so that’s so encompassing of so many different things. And so part of it is that, you know, we have to assess: where do we feel like our value will be most had and how can we, in particular, partner with other organizations so that we can have more capacity, being a small but mighty team?
And so I think part of it is just, you know, going through the process. What issues are coming up? Where do we feel like there’s space that we can, you know, be able to really have an impact? And part of that means that sometimes we’re in spaces that other faith-based organizations may not always be doing work in. And so it’s really a plethora of issues that we take on, but we want to make sure that we’re, you know, covering a lot of the big issues, especially when it comes to like public lands, water issues, including the ocean, and other issues—especially when it comes to how they impact those communities that are on the front lines of many of these issues.
Debra Rienstra: Right. So you do a lot of advocacy, you do resource development—what are some other sort of categories of things that you work with?
Karyn Bigelow: Yeah, we also do some education programs that may look like a, you know, in-person event that happens over a few days of different speakers, but then there’s also monthly webinars that happen. And so we do a lot of education, a lot of mobilizing people to do advocacy to speak truth to power, and just really training people also to do, you know, everything in between.
Debra Rienstra: Mm. Do you think of your audience as individuals or as churches or as both?
Karyn Bigelow: I’d really say both. I think part of that is: how do people engage in their own individual capacity, especially within their rights, you know, being in the US? But then also, how can they bring their larger community into that? And how can it be something where we’re not acting as individuals solely, but also in a community effort? Because it’s really community effort that will get us to address these issues related to the environment.
Debra Rienstra: Right. I’m just interested in people like Avery, where you have this kind of awakening or this sense that environmental work is urgent, but your particular faith community is just not engaged. So you look for other places. So that’s maybe one kind of group of people that you would provide events and resources for. But then you’re also helping churches as a group educate themselves, as you say, and just become connected to other churches.
Yeah, so Avery, could you maybe tell a story about a project that you’ve worked on with CJM that really led to a wonderful moment where you thought, “Ah, this is why I do this. This is the Spirit at work.”
Avery Davis Lamb: Yeah. Yeah, most certainly. You know, immediately a project that comes to mind is a training that we hosted earlier this summer called Pastoral Care for Climate: Weaving Science and Theology for Justice. And we hosted this training on the coast of North Carolina at the Duke University marine lab in Beaufort, just this amazing place situated right on the Outer Banks.
And we brought together three really amazing categories of people. I guess we brought together 30 ministers serving either congregations or other Christian ministries from North Carolina and Virginia. We brought faculty from the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke who were working on science and social science, all around climate change. And we brought together theological faculty from Duke Divinity School.
And for three days in this amazing setting, this thin place where God’s was felt so closely, we just talked about ministry in a time of climate change. We learned from each other about the kinds of scientific resources that are needed and the ways that the scientific method can be informed by religious communities. It was just this incredible interplay between these three different groups of people who are coming from such different contexts, but are so driven and inspired to learn from each other because of this common cause that we have to love this creation, to love the communities and the places. So it was just totally transformative for me personally, and I think transformative for a lot of the people who were there, and truly it was the Spirit moving among that, you know? There was no way that me as a human or that Karyn and I together could get all of those people together in the same place.
Debra Rienstra: Mm. Yeah. People talk about this kind of convergence of wisdoms. You know, academic wisdom, science wisdom, traditional ecological knowledge, religious faith. And it sounds like that was just an experience of being inside that kind of convergence.
Avery Davis Lamb: Oh, that’s absolutely right. And you know, being in this work for a few years, I think— the religious community, when we’re at our best, we listen to science, learn from science, you know? But for me, being really at the intersection of religion and science, I haven’t seen as much openness from the scientific community to learn from and listen to religious communities in the way that it might influence their work, and I saw that at this retreat for the first time. Yeah.
Debra Rienstra: So what was a moment or a conversation you had, or maybe a theme or topic that especially stands out for you as you remember that conference?
Avery Davis Lamb: Yeah. You know, we talked a lot about climate disasters and climate impacts. You know, for coastal North Carolina and Virginia, it’s felt very clearly. Coastal North Carolina is the third most susceptible area in the United States to sea level rise, so it’s felt very strongly. And we learn from the scientists and the social scientists about, you know, what’s happening, the realities, and they learn from us about the kinds of community building that we need, you know—building these refugia, right, in communities of faith, but also what kind of a grounded hope can be. Not just hope as this optimism that everything is going to be alright, but a hope that is grounded in the reality that things are not alright and the law is going to die and yet perhaps something beautiful might grow. And I think that nuanced approach to hope, I think was new for some of the scientists there, and really some of the ministers as well.
Debra Rienstra: Yeah, fascinating. I mean, that’s the shape of the Christian faith, right? Dying and rising. That’s at the very heart of the gospel, and it’s easy to think of that just abstractly or as something that Jesus did in the past, but it’s actually what’s happening in communities now—the dying and rising of place and community. And so trying to bring what should be our Christian resources to this is one of the challenges, and maybe one of the gifts, of what’s happening right now.
Karyn, what’s your moment? What’s your moment where you’re thinking, “Oh, this is why I do this”?
Karyn Bigelow: I would say my moment was: recently, I had been co-leading with others a Faithful Climate BIPOC Fellowship, which was an interfaith event or fellowship over the summer that had Christian, Jewish, and Muslim young adults in it. And for me, we had been going through sessions of workshops and giving people more tangible skills and workshops that they could do in order to, you know, advocate for the planet—and being able to do it unapologetically from their faith traditions.
And so they all had final projects for the fellowship, and they all did presentations recently for it. And I was just blown away by what happened with the things that people brought forth. There were people who developed really creative like children’s books. There were Bible studies; there was one person who did her own Bible studies, but using it from her Indigenous lens and letting that be what led through the process and how it was structured and just the conversation around things, but also doing that as a Christian. And so for me, it was very heartwarming to see that through the, you know, challenges of putting on all the behind-the-scenes stuff, that there—you know, being able to see the fruit that came from it.
For that same fellowship last year, one of the people—recently I saw her as one of the featured guests on like a very big event with a big organization that she was speaking at. And so it was just cool to see how we’ve been able to have some type of impact, and hopefully we’ll have future impact in the projects of the development of these young adults as they, you know, are either just starting out, or are in college but will be starting their career soon. And hopefully they’ll be doing it in a way where they’ll either be directly working for, you know, protecting God’s planet, or they’ll be able to put that lens to the work that they do, such as: someone who did a final project, she wants to become a doctor. And so she focused her stuff around the impacts of the environment and how that has a concern on public health. And so really being able to see the fruit that came from that was really great despite, you know, the challenges of always having to coordinate things.
Debra Rienstra: Yeah, yeah. Yeah. That youthful energy and creativity is such an amazing resource and gift. And you mentioned obstacles and challenges. What are the obstacles and challenges that sort of weigh heavy on you, Karyn?
Karyn Bigelow: I think for me, the obstacle or challenge is just not always feeling like I see many people who care about these issues, but I’m always concerned when I don’t see people who are more actively addressing this issue, or just the frustrations of not having political leadership that is really making the investments needed in order to truly address these crises that we have going on related to the planet. And it’s frustrating because we know the science, and we know how communities are being impacted. And yet, you know, there may be funding for recovery efforts, but where’s the funding to make sure that these issues will not keep happening, especially at the scale that it needs to happen at?
Debra Rienstra: Yeah. What about you, Avery? What are the burdens that weigh on you in this work?
Avery Davis Lamb: Yeah, you know, I think the burden that’s weighing on me right now is that every win in this work seems to come with a “but.” With a big “but.”
Debra Rienstra: I was going to say it. I’m glad you did.
Avery Davis Lamb: You know what I mean by that is, you know, this huge climate bill—Inflation Reduction Act—was just signed into law, the biggest climate policy to ever really…the only climate policy to ever pass Congress. And it’s huge, you know, it is huge. And yet there’s so much in it that is still on the back of people who are most affected by the climate crisis. That all of the compromises that are being made, you know, the compromises are not the solar energy developers and the EV manufacturers, but they’re the frontline communities who are having pipelines and other fossil fuel infrastructure projects now fast-tracked in their communities so that, you know, we could get this climate bill through. And it’s just discouraging that even after so much work in the environmental movement, in the environmental justice movement, still low-income people and people of color are bearing the burdens of this transition.
Debra Rienstra: Yeah. How long have you been in this work, Avery? How many years?
Avery Davis Lamb: I’ve been in this work about a decade.
Debra Rienstra: Okay. How about you, Karyn?
Karyn Bigelow: In a professional capacity, I’ve been doing it for about maybe five years. But always having dealt with stuff pretty much since high school, which was quite a while ago at this point.
Debra Rienstra: Okay. We don’t have to get specific. Yeah, I’m just amazed at these folks who have been doing this for 40 years, 50 years. And the sense that I get—maybe this is true, maybe it isn’t—but that they still feel all the victories and all the blows. You know, they have a sense of perspective, but they still feel the discouragement, the big “buts”. So I don’t know if it makes a difference how many years you’ve been in it to feel those burdens still.
Yeah. You mentioned climate resilience. Avery, let’s talk about that a little bit, because I know that you’ve done some events with churches who are really on the front lines and who are engaged in the work of building climate resilience. So could you talk about what that means, Avery, and some churches that you’ve seen working on that?
Avery Davis Lamb: Sure. Yeah. Yeah, climate resilience has become really important to our work at Creation Justice Ministries. Our climate resilience program is called Faithful Resilience. What we mean when we say climate resilience is not simply the ability to bounce back after climate impacts and disasters, but the ability to bounce forward. So seeing this moment we’re in of climate breakdown not simply as a time to rebuild what has been destroyed, but to kind of reconstitute our life together, to transform how we live together in the beloved community.
One specific definition that I really like of climate resilience that we’ve used a lot comes from a report from a few years ago called “Pathways to Resilience.” And they define it as: “Climate resilience is climate mitigation, which is preventing as much warming as possible, plus climate adaptation, plus deep democracy.”
Debra Rienstra: Oh, mm-hmm.
Avery Davis Lamb: So the recognition that there are these democratic, these systemic issues that we have to overcome and rebuild if we’re truly going to have climate resilience.
Debra Rienstra: Mm. And how are churches participating in that work? What can churches do?
Avery Davis Lamb: Yeah. Yeah. One statistic that I often share with people—I guess it’s not a statistic, but a study, that has been transformative for me and how I think about this is a study from a few years ago. And I can’t remember the name of the author, but what the authors found is that the best predictor of a climate-resilient community is not the one that has a natural shoreline. It’s not the one that has solar energy and battery storage in their, you know, civic center congregation. But the best predictor of a climate-resilient community is the one that has the strongest social cohesion.
Debra Rienstra: Hmm.
Avery Davis Lamb: It’s the one where the neighbors know each other, where they check in on each other, where there are lines of connection that bring people together consistently.
Debra Rienstra: Hm.
Avery Davis Lamb: And I see churches as playing such a key role in building that social cohesion.
Debra Rienstra: Yeah.
Avery Davis Lamb: Because again, when we’re at our best, we’re already doing that. And so how do we continue to do that and rethink how we do that in a time of climate change, in preparation for climate disasters, in preparation for climate impacts?
Debra Rienstra: You like this phrase “climate hospitality.” Tell us where that phrase came from and what that means to you.
Avery Davis Lamb: Yeah. You know, I’m not sure where it came from, to be honest.
Debra Rienstra: Maybe you made it up!
Avery Davis Lamb: I haven’t seen it much. Maybe I did make it up. I don’t want to take credit for it. I might have heard it somewhere, but honestly I can’t remember. But you know, I think hospitality is one of the most beautiful practices of the Christian tradition. And it’s so prevalent in our scriptures, all throughout it. It’s so prevalent in our scriptures. And I like it because it is an invitation for us to see the impacts of climate change not only as a crisis, not only as something to be afraid of, but as an opportunity for us to open our arms and open our doors to all of those creatures whose lives are being disrupted by climate change.
And so climate hospitality is practical in the sense of, you know: how can we reshape our congregational lives, our communal lives, to welcome the humans who are displaced by climate change, both internationally—both, you know, in the global refugee sense, and internally displaced people in the US? Also, how can we make space for those non-human creatures being displaced? How can we, you know, rip up our grass and plant native plants that monarchs can find? Or, you know, as the Bald Cypress moves inland from the North Carolina coast, how can we, you know, join up with organizations to plant more Bald Cypress, you know?
And then how can we broaden that? How can we think again with deep democracy and with politics, and practice a hospitable politic so that as these changes happen, people are loved and people are accepted?
Debra Rienstra: Yeah. Fascinating. Karyn, your work is in food security and equity and resilience. So talk about resilience in terms of our food system and how you’ve been working with churches and Christian groups on that front.
Karyn Bigelow: So resilience, when it comes to food security and agriculture issues, it’s very important, because as a country, our food system has been spending decades being worked in a way that doesn’t permit resilience as the weather patterns change. And so in some of the same principles that Avery talked about, how do we do this better in the future? And part of that means that there have to be seeds that are more drought-resistant, for example, being developed as they’ve done in other countries. And so there’s scientists who have been doing the work, especially in other countries that are feeling the impact of climate change well before much of the US has felt it.
And so there’s a lot of resilience that needs to happen there. We have to go back to more regenerative practices for farming, being able to really farm at those smaller scales and making sure that there’s livelihoods, especially for small and medium farmers who often are struggling to just, you know, make ends meet on their farms, because so much of our policies and so much of our practices just do not incentivize good practice that emphasizes biodiversity, healthy soil, and leaving the land better than what we found it.
And because of that, we have to have more resilience that happens so that we can withstand the changes that currently are happening across the country in order to withstand and to make sure that we can continue to make enough food that can feed not only the United States, but other parts of the world as well, since we do have a global food market, to some extent.
And then part of it is also recognizing that not everyone is feeling the impacts of it equally. And so that means that those who, again, are small and medium farmers, they’re being impacted a lot faster than those who are at the larger ones. But even on the consumer side, there needs to be resilience in like, how can we support people being able to actually afford food? There are some people that, as prices increase—which can happen after a major climate event, whether it be a sudden freeze in an area that does not do well with cold temperatures, or it could be extreme heat, but those things can mess with supply, and then it raises the cost of prices. And so low income households already spend a disproportionate amount of money on food in comparison to the households that are more affluent. And so when prices go up, affluent communities or households, they can afford the higher prices, but then those who have lower incomes, they then are, you know, having to go without certain things or having to just not buy things or, you know, there is a compromise potentially to their nutrition.
And so it really impacts so many different communities. And so we need resilience so that people can still have access to food, but also that there is livelihoods that can also happen for many farms and people, and farmers can be incentivized for doing good practice, which right now—good practice on farms is often not incentivized or funded well in the way that bad practice is.
Debra Rienstra: Yeah. So this is more than just churches with food pantries. This is a whole systemic change that needs to happen fairly quickly. We had a whole summer full of drought out west. So the fact that food prices are going up has everything to do with climate change right now.
Karyn Bigelow: Absolutely. I think there’s efforts that churches can do that will help to kind of address the burden of what happens. And so there’s churches that have land, there’s churches that can host farmer’s markets, because often small and medium farmers can have a challenge with even getting their stuff to the market. And so churches can act as those hubs, not just, as Avery was talking, about for the community, but, you know, a farmer’s market could be part of that community building when everything is good to be able to help build that initiative and the network necessary when things do go wrong. There’s so many things that churches can do, but overall, we can’t, you know, food-pantry, as some of us say, our way out of this. We really have to have system issues addressed because that’s really where it’s happening.
Debra Rienstra: Yeah. So I hear you’re into beekeeping. Tell us about that.
Karyn Bigelow: Yeah. So I am a second year beekeeper, and so I’ve been—I just got interested during the pandemic in beekeeping, and so I took a course over the span of a few months. And I got a hive last year, and I’ve struggled to be able to expand my operations, so I still have my one hive, but because I’m committed to practicing sustainable practices for my hive, I have not been able to have honey yet. So I’m actually trying to schedule now to get all the equipment from my local beekeeping association so then I can actually finally extract my honey after two years. I’ll be happy being able to have any.
Debra Rienstra: Well, starting small is okay.
Karyn Bigelow: Oh, absolutely. Because you know, beekeeping is scary, so I’m starting slow and building up my confidence.
Debra Rienstra: Yeah. And you’re in the city too, right?
Karyn Bigelow: I am.
Debra Rienstra: Yeah, okay. So I wanted to ask you about the word refugia. As you know, we’re exploring the idea of refugia faith on this podcast, and this season, we’re trying to focus in on what refugia church looks like. And so I wonder in all of your work, if you could think of some examples of churches, or other groups too, that you could point to and say, “Ah, that’s refugia church.”
Avery Davis Lamb: Yeah, I can start out with this one, because there’s one church that I love sharing their story. I’ve written about this church before, so this may be—you may have heard this before, Debra. But there’s a church in Charleston, South Carolina, by the name of Crosstowne Church. And this is an evangelical nondenominational church with about 600 members. And for three years in a row, from 2015 to 2018, they were flooded by a hurricane almost to the day, back-to-back to back floods.
Debra Rienstra: Oof.
Avery Davis Lamb: They rebuild after the first one, they rebuild after the second one. After the third one, they rebuilt, and they also said, “Okay, we’ve got to do something about this.” So they looked at their assets. They thought about what they had. They looked at their community to see what was going on, and they decided what to do was to hire a local hydrologist to do a study of their neighborhood and see what was going on. Why were these floods so severe? And what they found is that in addition to intensifying hurricanes and floods because of climate change, upstream unsustainable development—you know, building strip malls and parking lots in suburban Charleston— meant that all of that water, instead of soaking into the soil and being retained, was flooding downhill into their neighborhood.
Debra Rienstra: Oh. Pavement.
Avery Davis Lamb: Pavement. Yeah, yeah. The enemy of resilient infrastructure. So, that study was published and they presented it to the mayor of Charleston, and in response, the mayor appointed the pastor of that church to the permitting board of the city of Charleston. And he started joining with the developers and business owners and all these other politicos on the permitting board to make decisions about what developments were permitted, where they could go, and became one of the most respected people in the city of Charleston around sustainable development and protecting his neighbors, protecting the church’s neighbors, from the impacts of climate change.
And I love that story because there was both a local response—they were caring for the neighbors, they rebuilt their community—and that wasn’t the end of it, that they got involved in local politics and realized that there were systems and structures that they had to get involved in changing if there was going to be sustainable change.
Debra Rienstra: Yeah. So they became refugia, and not just for themselves, but for the whole community.
Avery Davis Lamb: Yeah. For, for the whole city of Charleston, really.
Debra Rienstra: Yeah, yeah. Karyn, what about you? What’s a good example of refugia church that you’ve observed?
Karyn Bigelow: So I reside in DC, and there are a few different predominantly or historically Black churches that I’ve been able to either be a part of or watch from afar. And what I’m always impressed with is that despite dealing with issues of trying to fight to stay in the city—because gentrification is a huge issue in the city, and so I’ve seen churches that are fighting to be able to stay even though they’ve been there for many decades, being able to see government ordinances that are really doing that. But despite that, they’re still doing efforts to be able to do, for example, native plant giveaways and being able to do things that will still benefit the community, doing sermons addressing issues such as environmental racism.
And so despite—it would be very easy in moments like that to really just stay in a sense of survival mode, but instead of just being in that, they’re still helping the community. They’re still trying to assist people through the pandemic and everything else, and still making sure that even though there’s short-term issues that are really in our face, but they’re still trying to address a lot of the long-term issues and looking at many of the things related to, you know, the climate crisis, environmental justice issues, making sure that people in certain communities have access to clean pipes and, you know, not being exposed to lead, which—everyone knows about, you know, the Flint crisis, which was much worse than what it’s had in DC, but DC has had its run-ins multiple times with lead water to the point that, as I experienced that as a child being potentially exposed. And I was fortunate that I wasn’t, but you know, I have a distrust of public water because of that.
And so, for that reason, you know, they’re able to really be on the frontline and help their communities, which are more low income, in order to really address those issues and infrastructure problems while also trying to protect the environment and the community.
Debra Rienstra: Mm. Yeah. So in both of those examples, maybe the common characteristic is this effort to serve the community as this refugia node within it, whatever that service might entail—whether that’s this kind of prophetic voice or whether that’s this working toward resiliency. Yeah. Excellent.
Okay. So help me out here. I have really hard times sorting out all the faith-based climate organizations out there. There’s Interfaith Power and Light. There’s Blessed Tomorrow. There’s the Evangelical Environmental Network. There’s A Rocha. There’s denominational groups. There’s you folks. There’s a million of them. I cannot figure out how they all sort of map. So, do you have a sense—once again, do you have a whiteboard somewhere where you’re like, “Okay, so these people are working together and these people are networked with these people”? And how do you think about the whole sort of ecosystem of faith-based climate organizations out there?
Avery Davis Lamb: Yeah, I love this question. I feel like I was made for this question. Because I think about this. But so, here’s my anatomy of the faith-based environmental movement. I think the first place to kind of classify the different groups is in climate only groups and climate plus groups.
Debra Rienstra: Ah, okay.
Avery Davis Lamb: So some of these groups whose mission is really just to focus on climate change. So that’s Interfaith Power and Light. That’s Blessed Tomorrow. There’s a few others. So that’s like Dayenu, which is a Jewish faith-based climate organization doing really amazing work.
And then there’s the climate plus organizations that, of course climate intersects what they do, but it’s not the extent. So: us (Creation Justice Ministries), Evangelical Environmental Network, A Rocha, you know, some of these other groups. So that’s maybe the first way to classify them.
The second way to classify them would actually be through theory of change. So are they grassroots or are they grasstops? That is, are they really focused on local organizing and organizing people in a specific community or are they focused on organizing leaders in a broader sense? You know, the grasstops being ministers, local community leaders who are connected with the grassroots.
So your local Interfaith Power and Light chapter, for example, would be grassroots because they’re engaged in local congregational organizing around climate change. A lot of the denominational networks, like Lutherans Restoring Creation or Presbyterians for Earth Care, I would also call grassroots because they’re really focused on engaging at the congregational level.
Debra Rienstra: Okay.
Avery Davis Lamb: The grasstops would be folks like us who work with the denominational levels, Blessed Tomorrow, and more of the national level groups. So that’s the second piece of anatomy.
Debra Rienstra: Okay. This is helpful.
Avery Davis Lamb: The third is faith-specific groups and then interfaith groups.
Debra Rienstra: Ah, yes. Okay.
Avery Davis Lamb: Right. So, Interfaith Power and Light and Blessed Tomorrow, for example, being interfaith, working with a lot of different faiths, and kind of casting a broader net, whereas, when there’s faith specifically, there’s Creation Justice Ministries— there’s us. But then you can even drill down more: Evangelical Environmental Network, just evangelicals. Denominational level even further down. So it’s a bit of a spectrum.
And then finally, I think another theory of change one is there are some who are more educational focused and there are some who are more advocacy focused.
Debra Rienstra: Okay.
Avery Davis Lamb: I think, you know, the amazing thing about all of these differences is that we all work really well together. So we collaborate a lot with Interfaith Power and Light. We collaborate with Blessed Tomorrow. We’re on each other’s boards. We partner on events. We’re on calls with these folks at least on a weekly basis.
So, you know, I think we all sort of have found our niche and our theory of change and understand how to rely on each other and work together with each other for the broader movement.
Debra Rienstra: Okay. That was super helpful. Thank you. And, you know, I guess it’s, you know, kind of a “let a thousand flowers bloom” sort of thing. There’s no shortage of work to do, so people coming at it from a million directions and working together—that’s a really helpful glimpse into sort of the background of what’s going on with you folks.
So let’s conclude with vision. So Karyn, we’ll start with you. What is the vision of the future that you long for Christians to work together toward right now?
Karyn Bigelow: I would like to see Christians coming together with a sense of urgency to address the climate crisis and so many other social justice issues that we have going on, many of which these issues are interconnected. And so I would like to see churches coming together to be those hubs of resilience, to be able to, you know, have the farmer’s markets, to have the farms, to be able to install showers or to be those places that if people get displaced because of a climate disaster, they can accept them in.
And so being able to have that, but also not stopping there, but also being advocates and being able to say like, “We’re doing our part,” but also demanding that our national leaders, and state leaders for that matter, are then also being held responsible to do their part, which is a far bigger part that needs to be done.
And so we’re engaging as Christians, not just with where we put our money, but also where we put our civic engagement, to reflect protecting of all of God’s creation—people and the rest of the planet.
Debra Rienstra: Hmm. Yeah. Avery, how about you? How would you describe your vision for the future?
Avery Davis Lamb: Yeah. You know, I think my vision is in part an outgrowth of this realization that the oppression of people is inextricably connected to the oppression of the land, especially the ways in which Black, Indigenous, people of color are oppressed, especially in America, is directly correlated with how we treat the land.
And so what that means is that to have healing, reconciliation, and justice, we need to seek that both for God’s planet and for God’s people. So it’s exactly that. It’s this vision of healing that brings together people and planet, that brings together humanity and the land and all of the creatures in a kind of flourishing, a kind of shalom that we know is possible because we have a biblical vision of what it can be like.
Debra Rienstra: Thank you for those beautiful vision statements. If listeners are inspired to get involved with Creation Justice Ministries, what would you suggest they do?
Avery Davis Lamb: Yeah, so you can find us online at creationjustice.org, and there you can sign up for a newsletter, then our email list, which is a great way to stay connected with us. If you’re on any of the social medias, we are @creationjustice. So we’re on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. Find us @creationjustice.
Debra Rienstra: Wonderful. Karyn and Avery, I’m so grateful for the work that you do, for the resilience that you have personally to stay in this work and faithfully work with churches and individuals and other organizations to create a refugia community and to inspire churches to be refugia churches. So thank you. And thank you so much for your time today. It was really great to talk with you.
Karyn Bigelow: Thank you so much for having us.
Avery Davis Lamb: Thanks so much. It was a joy.
Debra Rienstra: The Refugia Podcast is produced with support from the Calvin Center for Christian Scholarship. Our audio editors are Ian Gilbert and Kathryn Gardner. Our text editor is Michal Rubingh. If you enjoyed this episode, please help other listeners discover us. Write a review on your podcast platform or share this episode through social media.
You can find us on Facebook and Twitter @RefugiaPodcast. You can also visit our website at refugiapodcast.com where you can explore links and transcripts from this and all our episodes. You can find me on Facebook and Twitter at Debra K. Rienstra. That’s D E B R A K. R I E N S T R A. As always, thanks for listening.