Kyle Meyaard-Schaap, National Organizer and Spokesperson for Young Evangelicals for Climate Action, takes stock of how the church is doing in addressing climate change and describes how young Christians are leading the way, finding refugia through intentional action.
For More Background…
Check out the YECA website here.
To learn more about the Beyond Stewardship book we mention, go here.
Calvin recently (on July 10, 2019) changed its name from Calvin College to Calvin University. In this episode, I accidentally refer to Calvin College. Oops.
Here’s a full video of the episode taping.
Debra Rienstra: Today I’m talking with Kyle Meyaard-Schaap, national organizer and spokesman for Young Evangelicals for Climate Action. Also Calvin grad. Kyle is here today to talk about how his work is going and to talk about how young people can create places of refugia. Hey, Kyle.
Kyle Meyaard-Schaap: Hey, how you doing Debra?
DR: I’m good. Thanks for being here today.
Kyle Meyaard-Schaap: Oh, my pleasure.
DR: So we are in the Rhetoric Center at Calvin College. I suppose that’s appropriate because you deal with rhetoric all the time. And we’re hiding here today because it’s Passport day at Calvin, so a lot of new students and families are clomping around campus, exploring, learning, getting oriented. So we’re hiding out here in the library in the Rhetoric Center.
Kyle Meyaard-Schaap: I remember Passport vividly.
DR: Do you?
Kyle Meyaard-Schaap: Yes.
DR: Do you have a good Passport story?
Kyle Meyaard-Schaap: Not in particular.
DR: Is that were you met your wife, or something? It happens to people.
Kyle Meyaard-Schaap: No. I met my wife in high school.
Kyle Meyaard-Schaap: It’s one of those stories.
DR: Well, tell us what Young Evangelicals for Climate Action does and how you got involved.
Kyle Meyaard-Schaap: Sure. So Young Evangelicals for Climate Action is a national network of young Christians from all over the country who are coming together and taking action to overcome the climate crisis as part of our Christian witness and discipleship. That’s our mission statement.
And I think the last bit of that is what resonates most deeply with me, that we do this not because we’re Democrats or Republicans. We do this not even because we identify primarily as environmentalists. We do this because we’re Christians and we believe this is what it means for people to follow Christ in the 21st century: to take climate change seriously as a moral issue, as a gospel issue, and to do what we can to educate our peers, to invigorate the church with hopeful action, and to hold our political leaders accountable for taking the crisis seriously and enacting policy, the policy that we need.
I got involved in 2013, January of 2013. YECA was less than a year old. I had just started at the Christian Reformed Church Office of Social Justice as a fellow. It was immediately after graduating from Calvin. I went to a conference in Washington DC and I met this guy named Ben Lowe. He was the founding spokesperson for YECA, in the role that I currently hold, and we got dinner together.
He told me about the mission and vision of YECA. I was down, and he said, why don’t you join our national steering committee? So I kind of jumped in feet first and I’ve been with the organization ever since as a volunteer steering committee member, until 2016 when I stepped into the staff role. So I’ve been on the staff role for about three years now.
DR: So you have a seminary education as well.
Kyle Meyaard-Schaap: Right.
DR: When did that fit in?
Kyle Meyaard-Schaap: Yeah, great question. So at the same time that I was getting involved with YECA as a volunteer steering committee member, I was discerning this call toward seminary, this call towards serving Christ’s church, and I often talk about that call as maybe less than conventional. Perhaps maybe just less than what we often think of as a call towards seminary.
DR: Maybe different than conventional.
Kyle Meyaard-Schaap: There you go. Yeah.
DR: Maybe not less.
Kyle Meyaard-Schaap: Yeah, that’s a good way to put it–different. And I always felt a call to serve the church in some meaningful way, but I didn’t always feel called to kind of a traditional pastoral role.
So at this time I was discerning this call, I was getting deeply involved in advocacy and justice work at the Office of Social Justice. Those were values that were deeply important to me because of my time at Calvin, and I decided to go to seminary, and I continued to kind of discern this call that God was putting on my life to lead Christ’s church in some way, and I’ve come to understand the shape of that call for now at least looks like helping the church recognize the ethical and moral implications of the climate crisis, how it connects to scripture, to the gospels, how it connects to our values as people of faith, and then offering hopeful, meaningful action that arises out of our faith as the church.
DR: Okay, we’ll explore some of those relationships in a minute. What does a typical day look like for you?
Kyle Meyaard-Schaap: I’m not sure I have a typical day. That’s one of the fun things about this work, is I kind of wake up and I have a general idea of, you know, what my to-do list contains, but it’s not always entirely certain what the day will look like. So on any given day I might be on the phone with a journalist or reporter giving an interview about the work that we do. I might be writing an op-ed for a newspaper publication or an online publication. I might be on a video call with some of our organizers on college campuses, learning about the latest work that they’ve been doing, encouraging them, helping them troubleshoot problems. I might be writing a fundraising letter, might be writing a newsletter or an email blast that we’re sending out. I might be doing social media content creation. So it’s really varied work, which I find exciting.
DR: What was your major at Calvin?
Kyle Meyaard-Schaap: I was a religion major.
DR: That’s where you learned all those good communication skills, analysis skills.
Kyle Meyaard-Schaap: It’s where I learned to think deeply, yeah.
DR: Exegesis skills. Yeah.
Kyle Meyaard-Schaap: Yeah, absolutely.
DR: Yeah. So who joins in this work of the YECA? Who’s excited about it? What are they looking for? What are they longing for? What are they resisting when they get involved with this work?
Kyle Meyaard-Schaap: A lot of the people who find us and join our movement are people who grew up in the church, many of whom have had, I wouldn’t say, every one of them has had some sort of crisis, but a lot of them… a very common thread in the stories we hear is that many of them may have grown up in a church context that discouraged them from thinking deeply about a variety of social issues and how it connected to their faith, including environmental concerns and climate change in particular.
A lot of people were told either explicitly or implicitly in their churches that if they wanted to explore climate change and be active on climate change, that they needed to keep that outside of the church. So go join the Sierra Club or 350.org—which are terrific organizations by the way—but don’t bring it into the church because it doesn’t belong here. And then a lot of those young people who kind of had this passion for caring for God’s creation, for thinking deeply about how to protect it, as we’re called to do, many of them then went off to college and learned even more about the science of climate change, about the theology of creation care, and that dissonance just grew larger for many of them.
So a lot of people who find us have had this dissonance for a long time between their faith–the faith that they had been taught and handed, that taught them to love God well, to love Christ’s church well, to care about the church’s witness and faithfulness in the world—and what they were learning in their classrooms about climate science, about what the Bible says about how we care for God’s world. And they had a really hard time bringing the two together.
And so what I love about what we do is we’re trying to offer a space where people can integrate those things. We’re helping them recognize that no, not only is climate action not a threat to our faith, it’s actually deeply consistent with what it means to be practicing Christians in the world, what it means to be disciples of Christ right now in the 21st century.
A lot of the people that are joining our movement have had some kind of experience like that, and they’re trying to find a way to integrate their faith with a concern for climate change and trying to find hopeful, meaningful ways to take action. And in many ways we’re kind of retraining our generation how to faithfully and effectively engage in the public square for the sake of the common good on climate specifically, but I think it permeates many other issues as well.
DR: It’s a new… a renewed form of Christian citizenship. So, how is the church doing in America? I know it’s a mixed bag. So I would like to hear how you see it from your perspective. How is the church doing, I should say, in addressing the urgency of climate change and in finding fruitful and as effective as possible ways of engaging.
Kyle Meyaard-Schaap: I think I’ll answer that a few different ways because I think it matters which part of the church you’re talking about, what you mean when you ask how are they doing. So I’ll say up front, you know, the perception of white evangelicals in particular and their kind of suspicion of climate science and their resistance to proposed solutions is largely accurate. Many of the polls and the surveys bear out that white evangelicals are some of the most suspicious of the science of climate change, most wary of proposed solutions, and the least active politically in pushing leaders to do something about it.
Other pockets of the church, even other pockets of the evangelical community, tell a different story. So a full third of the Evangelical Church in America are people of color—black churches, immigrant communities—are much more on board. Not only with the science, but with solutions both, you know, market-based and government-driven. So even within the evangelical community, there’s a different answer to that question.
DR: And it sounds like there’s a strong divide generationally.
Kyle Meyaard-Schaap: Absolutely, and that’s another way I would answer that question, is that again those same polls and surveys show us that there’s a huge generational divide. The Gen Xers kind of bridge the gap a bit, but the Baby Boomers and some of the Silent Generation that are still with us are much more resistant than Millennials and Gen Z. And that’s, you know, those are the folks that we’re trying to reach and trying to engage. And frankly that’s what gives me a lot of hope in this work, is recognizing that a lot of the baggage that much of the church has had around the issue of climate change and environmental protection, a lot of that, is kind of melting away with our generation. And our generation is looking for new ways to think about this issue differently and to find ways to take action. So the church is doing okay. And it kind of depends on which part of the church you’re talking about.
DR: Sure. And there’s a distinction with Mainline and Evangelical as well.
Kyle Meyaard-Schaap: And Catholic.
DR: And Catholic. Yeah, so we could go into people of faith in general, but we’ll stick with your work. So what are some successes and failures that you’ve seen in your work, ones that stick out in your mind?
Kyle Meyaard-Schaap: Yeah, one of the, one of the exciting things that I love about what YECA has been able to do in the last six years is generate lots of exciting, kind of, media attention around our work.
So I think in a lot of ways, the media doesn’t quite know who we are or what to do with us. So they want to talk to us, which is fun. So, you know, we have been featured on NPR and PBS and CNN and NBC and it’s exciting, not just because, you know, it’s fun to…
Kyle Meyaard-Schaap: … Do those kinds of things, but it’s exciting because it’s getting our message in front of as wide an audience as possible. And I think that it’s exciting to see that people are interested in understanding the nuance within the Evangelical Church and among generations inside the Evangelical Church. One kind of, so…
Debra Rienstra: We had a panel on campus earlier—I think you might have been there, Kyle—with religion journalists who were saying that as well. They were saying there is a huge shortage of religion journalists, a huge shortage of journalists who understand religion, which is not the same thing. And those who are in that field right now are working very hard to find those nuances. So they’re out looking for groups like YECA and trying to understand the varying motivations…
Kyle Meyaard-Schaap: Yeah.
DR: …among this block that has been so often referred to monolithically as white evangelicals, right, or just evangelicals.
Kyle Meyaard-Schaap: Right, yeah.
Another kind of concrete success that I’m really proud of is in 2015 we launched a campaign to have young evangelicals write letters to the executive committee of the National Association of Evangelicals.
So the National Association of Evangelicals is kind of the largest umbrella organization of evangelical Christians in the U.S. It includes a little over 40 denominations around the country, hundreds of organizations and campuses. All told, about 43 million evangelical Christians are a part of institutions that are somehow affiliated with the NAE.
And in 2015 we had young people write letters to the executive committee, and I’m really proud of kind of the tone that we struck. So essentially our message was, because you all did such a good job raising us in the church, we’ve caught the bug. We love Christ. We love the church, and we care about the church’s witness in the world. Thank you. Because of that, we feel compelled to urge you to take a stronger stance on the issue of climate change because of the moral and the gospel implications involved for our neighbors and for God’s creation.
We had hundreds of letters sent to the executive committee at a time when they were considering a resolution around a statement on creation care and climate change specifically. And, you know, we’ve heard since then that it was our letter campaign as well as a couple of other focused and strategic interventions between us and that committee that eventually in October of 2015 helped them adopt an official position on creation care and climate change that this organization that represents, you know, 40-plus million evangelicals. So I think that’s a great example of young people’s ability to move our parents, our grandparents, our elders in the faith on this issue.
DR: And institutions.
Kyle Meyaard-Schaap: Yeah, absolutely. And the research is bearing that out, too. Scientific American just came out with a study that shows that young people, particularly young women, are most adept and most capable of moving members of the evangelical church on the issue of climate change.
DR: Fascinating. Yeah. What are the sticking points? Where are the places of frustration for you and your work?
Kyle Meyaard-Schaap: I think it continues to be the way in which climate change is so highly polarized and politicized in our national discourse. A big part of what we try to do in our rhetoric around climate change is to de-politicize it and to re-Biblicize it.
Kyle Meyaard-Schaap: So we start with scripture and we start with shared values. We affirm our shared identity as people of faith. We talk about the things that motivate us.
DR: This is just good rhetoric.
Kyle Meyaard-Schaap: Yeah.
DR: You know your audience, you find common ground. Sorry. I didn’t mean to interrupt.
Kyle Meyaard-Schaap: No, that’s great. Yeah, you’re exactly right. And we try to help them understand that, in particular, scripture–because of our shared value around the authority of scripture as the rule of life and Scripture has so much more than we give it credit for to say about our relationship to creation, what God thinks of God’s creation, our responsibilities toward it, that go well beyond Genesis 1 and 2. And so working to try to help people understand that is a big part of what we do, but it’s difficult when so much of our national discourse around the issue of climate change remains so base and kind of appeals to our tribal instincts, our tribal partisan instincts when we are just so convinced that climate change can be a trans-partisan issue. It can transcend partisan politics.
Everybody, wherever they are on the political spectrum, has a reason to care about climate change, Christians primarily. Because we’ve been conditioned to think about and engage climate change primarily through the lens of politics, a lot of people have a hard time even hearing that from us. So a big sticking point is just starting the conversation. But again, there is a major generational divide on that point as well. In 2012 when we started our work, we were going into campuses and we had to start with, here’s why we’re not atheists. Here’s why we share your faith. Here’s why we’re not socialists or communists, like this is why this is an important issue that we can take seriously as Christians. And now when we go on campuses, students get that and they want to start at, yeah, we get it, what can we do that will actually make a difference?
DR: And that shift has happened in seven years. That’s remarkable. Yeah. So you were also part of the Beyond Stewardship group last summer, where a group of people at Calvin and Calvin-adjacent—one way to put it, I guess—a group of scholars across disciplines were thinking through this idea of stewardship, which has been important in the church.
It has been one way to interpret the Genesis texts away from plain old dominion and exploitation and extraction and toward caretaking. And last summer we had some conversations together about why stewardship still has its benefits as a concept but why it has limitations.
So our work together is coming out this summer and your chapter has to do with kinship. So maybe that’s one way into the deeper nuances of these theological connections between faith and climate action. So tell us a little bit about the idea of kinship and why that’s important for you.
Kyle Meyaard-Schaap: Sure. So I think I want to start by just reiterating what you said about the importance of the concept of stewardship in helping us get closer to scripture’s ideal for our relationship to the rest of creation.
I feel very much aware of the shoulders on which I stand when I do the work that I do, people like Cal DeWitt, who decades ago were pioneering the concept of stewardship and trying to help the church reimagine our relationship to the created world. But I do think that stewardship popularly understood in the church does have some limitations and I think one of them is that, I think, an unintended consequence of a paradigm of stewardship is that it can be co-opted by our Western modern instrumentalization of creation as kind of nothing more than inner raw material to be mined and harvested in order to power our industrial machines. And stewardship then in that context just means harvesting it well, using it well, but again creation’s primary purpose is for human use.
And I think scripture tells a much different story. It understands creation in a different way. It understands creation as having its own inherent worth and value independent of humanity. It understands humans as interconnected and part of the rest of the created world, certainly with a unique role, given the divine image that was imbued in us, but also understanding what that unique role looks like, and understanding that it’s not license to exploit and abuse as we see fit, but instead a unique call to radical responsibility and caretaking, as you said.
So this idea of kinship, I understand it as a corrective against kind of the operating paradigm that I think is prevalent within the church today, of stewardship as this distance between humans and creation, and humans are custodians of this different, other thing. When in fact, I think the scriptures tell a different story, of interconnectedness, of deep relationship between us and the created world, and I think kinship can help us get closer to what scripture’s actually telling us about our relationship to the rest of the natural world.
DR: Yeah. So we’re exploring this idea of refugia, which is a biological concept you’re probably familiar with, where there are these small places of shelter where in a crisis life takes… life continues, takes root, continues to grow, re-emerges. And so we’ve been thinking about that not only in its biological context but metaphorically and I’m wondering from your point of view in your work if you’re seeing young people create places of refugia—that’s how we’ve been talking about it—that help them live into this new relationship with Earth, maybe with their churches, maybe with their faith. Where are you seeing that?
Kyle Meyaard-Schaap: Yeah, I love this concept of refugia and I think it resonates deeply with me and with my work.
I think the work of activism in many ways is fundamentally about creating spaces of refugia, of recognizing crisis, entering into it wholeheartedly in a way that reimagines a different way of being and reimagines a different future, and then goes out and fights for it and tries to create it.
And I think one of the really cool spaces of refugia that I’m seeing in my work with YECA is just the community that is created among young people of faith who I think in many ways kind of feel like exiles in our faith communities. I think in many ways we feel like our faith communities have left us behind in many ways, including on the issue of climate change, and it almost feels like a betrayal for young people because it feels as if our Sunday school teachers, our pastors, our parents have looked at us and said, I don’t believe your future is in danger. I don’t believe you when you say you’re scared about having kids. I don’t believe you when you say you’re not sure how you’re going to live fruitfully and flourish in 40 or 50 years.
That’s really painful. And so a lot of young people in this movement are looking for refugia. They’re looking for spaces that can bring life out of that pain, out of that hurt, and I think one, just one concrete example of how that’s happening in our work is our program called the Climate Leadership Fellows program.
So it’s a leadership development program that seeks to train and equip college students for an academic year to carry out projects on their campus toward education, toward climate adaptation, mitigation, what have you, on their campus. Fellows have gotten solar panels on campuses, have gotten composting in the dining halls, they’ve gotten administration to commit to renewable energy standards, they’ve written pieces for newspapers.
It’s just really cool to see young people finding their voice and for us to kind of pour into them and invest in them, but more than that: for them to find each other and to invest in, pour into each other. Every single year at the end of a fellowship in May when the academic year ends, and the fellows are wrapping up their time, without fail, in each of their final reports, I read some version of what was the most meaningful part of this experience for you, and it’s always the fellows that I walked alongside of in this work throughout the year, my peers who are on other campuses around the country who I got to meet with every other week on a video call, who I got to spend a week with at a retreat center in August being trained together, sharing some of the same pain that we bear, these feelings of betrayal, these feelings of tension between us and our faith community, finding people, who are entering into this work with me, gave me hope, gave me life.
And I think it’s the perfect example of refugia: entering into this place of crisis and finding rebirth, a new life.
DR: Yeah, beautiful. So they find it in each other and in the work itself.
Kyle Meyaard-Schaap: Yeah. Right.
DR: That’s wonderful because I’ve been thinking about this tension in the Reformed tradition between our kind of activism and then our sense of humility and sinfulness and woe is me, which is, you know, there’s a lot of evidence for that. So it’s a convincing part of our theological themes. But you’re suggesting that this idea of shelter happens in the action. I think we often oppose those two—that a place of shelter is a place of quietude or rest.
And in fact I was just speaking with Jamie Skillen about refugia and Sabbath, but it’s not the same as passivity. And it’s wonderful to hear you talk about it—the action itself can become this place of re-emerging life that can spread.
I’m struck by this sense of pain and betrayal that you speak of, and I’m wondering what advice you would give to the older generations in churches in hearing and responding to that pain in constructive ways for their sons and daughters, the young people in their churches. What suggestions would you give?
Kyle Meyaard-Schaap: Listen.
Kyle Meyaard-Schaap: And I want to be careful because even in my own story I have examples of parents, of other leaders who raised me in the church who have done that, have listened, have exercised the humility to kind of suspend their assumptions and actually hear my story and to believe me, and I’m deeply blessed by that. So I look to those examples as my advice: follow the example of my parents who, before my kind of transformation on this topic, didn’t think a whole lot about climate change, certainly didn’t think about what it had to do with our faith, but since, because of their love for me, have listened, have called their members of Congress, have donated to our organization monthly because they support me and they support my work. So listening and practicing those spiritual disciplines that you instilled in us, of humility, of patient listening, of compassion for one another, of empathy.
DR: Always going back to the scripture.
Kyle Meyaard-Schaap: Yeah.
DR: Reflecting on it again, letting it speak anew. Yeah, continuing that study. What are the most beautiful places of refugia for you right now?
Kyle Meyaard-Schaap: This might not quite fit the description of refugia perfectly because I wouldn’t call it crisis, although sometimes it feels like crisis, is My 14-month-old son—watching him discover the world, watching him explore our garden, and watch the peas sprout up, watching him go from being terrified of touching grass to loving the grass and wanting to walk around in it all day long, watching him perk up every time he hears a dog bark or a bird chirp. Just his hyper-awareness to creation and kind of that innate connection between us and the created world that exists in all of us when we’re his age. Being open to that and bearing witness to that has been refugia for me.
DR: The world is wondrous. No one knows that better than a tiny kid.
Kyle Meyaard-Schaap: Absolutely.
DR: Can people learn more about Young Evangelicals for Climate Action if they want to get involved?
Kyle Meyaard-Schaap: Yeah, so head to our website, yecaction.org.
DR: Do you ever call yourselves Yecca?
Kyle Meyaard-Schaap: There’s a raging internal debate about that. We’ve come down on, sure do it if you want to, but we don’t do it ourselves because it sounds too much like yuck. So we go with YECA, but Yecca is just fine.
DR: You could use the Yucca plant as your symbol.
Kyle Meyaard-Schaap: There you go.
DR: It’s a healing plant.
Kyle Meyaard-Schaap: Wow, rebranding.
DR: There you go.
Kyle Meyaard-Schaap: All right. I’m gonna bring it to the team.
But even if you just Google Young Evangelicals for Climate Action, you’ll find our website. Find us on social media—Facebook and Twitter and Instagram. It’s probably where we’re going to be most active and where you can get plugged in.
But right on our website, there is a faithful action pledge. It’s a paragraph that’s essentially our manifesto. It says, because we follow the risen Christ, we are called first and foremost to love God and to love our neighbor, the greatest commandment given by our savior. And we believe that acting on climate change is an opportunity to do both better.
So we’re going to do that. If you sign that it gets you into our system. You’ll get our newsletters. You’ll get our email updates. You’ll get action opportunities. And even if you aren’t a young person…
DR: I was going to ask that: can oldsters get involved?
Kyle Meyaard-Schaap: One hundred percent. We have a lot of supporters outside of kind of our target age range, which is 18 to 30—those are the folks were really trying to reach and to mobilize. But we have tons of supporters, and we couldn’t do our work without them. So donating is a major way that older folks can get involved and support our work. We cannot do our work without donations. So that’s a huge way for you to act on your values and support the work that we’re trying to do. You know, prayer and just reaching out to us. You know, my email is easy to find on our website. Our organizational email is easy to find. If you’re an older evangelical listening and you want to find ways in addition to donating and praying for us, reach out. It could be that we have an action plan in your region and you can host us or you can reach out to your church youth group and find other young people who might be interested in our mission and vision and get them involved.
DR: Repost. Retweet.
Kyle Meyaard-Schaap: Absolutely.
DR: Great. So, I heard a rumor that you can’t work for YECA after age 30. Is that true? Are they going to fire you? When is your birthday?
Kyle Meyaard-Schaap: It was recent.
DR: Oh dear.
Kyle Meyaard-Schaap: So there is, there’s no official policy. There is a cultural practice within the organization to consider where God might be calling you next…
DR: I see.
Kyle Meyaard-Schaap: …as you enter your 30s.
DR: We need you to hear the Holy Spirit calling you.
Kyle Meyaard-Schaap: Exactly. So the practice has been that actually when you turn 31—because when you’re 30 you’re still a part of that target age range, 18 to 30—once you turn 31, to kind of step away and to pass the torch, and frankly, I believe wholeheartedly in that practice. It’s important for the integrity of our organization as a youth-led movement trying to move young people to be led by young people. So I turned thirty two weeks ago.
DR: Happy birthday.
Kyle Meyaard-Schaap: Thank you. I have about a year left, and I’ve been thinking about how to focus this year on transitioning well, on making sure that the good work continues. And thankfully we have an amazing team of young leaders on our steering committee who will continue this work and make it even better than I’ve been able to do it.
DR: Maybe you can found Middle-aged Evangelicals for Climate Action.
Kyle Meyaard-Schaap: There you go. 30-age-something evangelicals.
DR: M-A-E… Anyway.
Kyle Meyaard-Schaap: We’ll figure it out.
DR: Yeah. Kyle, thank you for the work that you do, and thank you so much for being here today. Really appreciate it.
Kyle Meyaard-Schaap: Thanks for having me.