Dr. Leah D. Schade is the Assistant Professor of Preaching and Worship at Lexington Theological Seminary and author Creation-Crisis Preaching: Ecology, Theology, and the Pulpit (Chalice Press, 2015).
Natasha DeJarnett is the Research Coordinator at National Environmental HealthAssociation, where she leads research as well as children’s environmental health activities, and a Professorial Lecturer at The George Washington University. She has a background as a policy analyst at the American Public Health Association, where she led the Natural Environment portfolio, including air and water exposures along with climate change.
Leah and Natasha share a conversation on the commonalities across faith and health in climate action. You can read more in their respective chapters in the book Rooted and Rising: Voices of Courage in a Time of Climate Crisis, co-edited by Leah and Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019).
Natasha: I’ve often heard it said that we are the first generation to experience the impacts of climate change and the last that can do something about it. For my part, I’m seeing those impacts from climate change in the form of severe threats to public health that worsen pre-existing health conditions and exacerbate health inequities. Leah, do you think pastors and faith leaders are aware of the ways in which climate change is impacting the health of their congregants?
Leah: I think this is a strong point that pastors can emphasize in their congregations, and it’s one that hasn’t received much attention. Health and healing are common themes in nearly all religious traditions. Helping parishioners make the connection between God’s desire for healing in their own bodies, as well as healing for Earth’s body, can be a good framework for raising awareness about the need to address climate change. As a health policy expert who is also a Christian, Natasha, what scripture passages speak to you about this health and healing connection for our planet and our communities?
Natasha: The Bible teaches us that God created the Earth, formed us, and called us to cultivate and guard the land (Genesis Chapters 1 and 2). We also learn through Scripture that our bodies are a temple of the Holy Spirit (Corinthians 6:19), and we, therefore, have a responsibility to protect our health. Safeguarding the Earth and our health are not mutually exclusive, because protecting the Earth promotes our health. These are not small responsibilities, but God has also given us power – as shown in Philippians 4:13 – that we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us. This is why I am confident that we can and will make a difference. My role in addressing climate change and health has largely been to inform policy. This means that I educate. To leaders in public and environmental health and policy, I provide educational tools that equip them to make informed decisions on policies to protect health as the climate changes. I also provide education for the general public that I hope will build a groundswell of advocates who will call on their policymakers to act on climate to safeguard health. I’d like to see more faith leaders partner with health policy experts in their own communities – I think this could make a difference for the health of their parishioners and the health of the climate.
Leah: Educating around climate change is something we have in common. In my work as a seminary professor, I teach courses on how to create sermons that address climate change and other environmental issues. I also encourage students to think about the ecological aspects of worship – from protecting the water in which we baptize to the soil that produces the grains and grapes for the bread and wine for communion. In this way, I see religion and science co-informing each other, because we can draw on our observations of the natural world for designing liturgy, preaching sermons, and educating our congregations. In turn, science can draw from the ethical and moral grounding provided by the faith community.
Natasha: I agree that we need to build bridges between the realms of science and faith. For me, it’s exciting to take the latest scientific information and put it in terms that the general public can understand, explaining the problem of climate-harming pollution and what we can do to defend public health. I also apply a lens of equity to my climate-related work, examining how climate change worsens disparities for certain groups and assessing policies to ensure that they don’t have unintended consequences on vulnerable populations.
Leah: Yes, that’s another point of resonance between your work and mine – the need to focus on justice and equity among vulnerable populations. Holy scriptures from many different traditions emphasize the need to care for “the least of these,” to use Jesus’s words. Clergy have a moral obligation to be ambitious advocates for those who are suffering and will suffer the most from climate disruption – impoverished individuals, people of color, the elderly, children, and those living in areas where drought, wildfires, hurricanes, typhoons, and floods destroy lives and communities.
Natasha: Many of us don’t intend to destroy this beautiful gift that God has given us, but that is what we’re doing. Undoing God’s great work runs counter to the will of God. The undoing is also a deep disservice to future generations. I feel a keen responsibility to act on climate because failure to take action is a form of neglect for the health and well-being of future generations. One verse has echoed throughout my life that I think applies to clergy and faith leaders as well: “To whom much is given, much is required” (Luke 12:48).
Leah: Indeed, much is expected of those of us who have been entrusted with the care of souls and congregations. I’ll look forward to continuing our joint work within these two areas of faith and health to develop stronger partnerships and join our voices to advocate for climate solutions together.