Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Green Religion: A Shepherd Protects His Own Backyard

By Vanessa Juarez and David Gates
Newsweek

Aug. 29 - Sept. 5, 2005 issue - They don't get much more Red State Christian than Allen Johnson. He and his wife, Debbie, live in Dunmore, W.Va. They home-schooled their four sons, and on their one fuzzy TV channel, they watch only reruns of "Little House on the Prairie." This hardly sounds like a hotbed of environmental activism. But Johnson, cofounder of Christians for the Mountains, is as hard-core as any Birkenstocked Berkeleyite—not just living a purist, back-to-the-land lifestyle, but demonstrating at a coal-mining company in Charleston, even visiting a Rainbow Family gathering where people tend to take a drug or two. Johnson admits he's an out-of-the-box thinker, but "Jesus thought out of the box too."

The Johnsons are part of a movement called Eco-Christianity. Or, more broadly, Green Religion. No one knows how large it is. But over the past 20 years or so, green organizations with a specifically spiritual orientation have been springing up. Episcopal Power and Light. Restoring Eden. Shomrei Adamah ( "Guardians of the Earth"). Some groups are small—Christians for the Mountains invited 20 people to its initial meeting and will be having its first open conference this fall—but they're increasingly putting aside differences and working together to educate and lobby. Johnson hopes the stewardship of the land will be a unifying, not a dividing, issue. Believers disagree on many subjects, but, he says, "God has called all of us seriously, and we should agree on one thing: to take care of his earth."

Visiting Haiti in 1993 changed Johnson. He went there with a Christian Peacemaker team and saw desperate farmers cutting down grapefruit trees to make a cash crop of charcoal. "I just started sobbing," he recalls. "It really hit me that impoverishment is so closely tied into environmental destruction." Back in West Virginia—a poor state suffering environmental damage from the coal industry—Johnson quit a good job as a nursing-home administrator and went off to a seminary in Philadelphia, visiting his family every couple of weeks. He came home and started a local radio show, "Creation Song," that lasted six years. Now he works 50 hours a week as director of four area libraries. Thanks to budget cuts, he'll go to a 30-hour workweek—at $20,000 a year—giving Johnson more time to share his ideas with churches like Word of Faith, the conservative house of worship the Johnsons attend.

The biggest challenge, Johnson says, will be to convince fellow Christians that his group is not New Age wing nuts, or, heaven forbid, liberals. His plans seem modest—PowerPoint presentations, flyovers so church leaders can see the devastation, maybe encouraging private landowners to set aside undeveloped property as a way of tithing—but his group's guiding principle is nothing less than cosmic: "The earth is the Lord's, and everything in it."

For Johnson, of course, modesty and simplicity are signs of strength and sufficiency. With help from his father, he built his house himself, and he sold his beloved 1971 Triumph motorcycle to buy the wood paneling. The Johnsons raise most of their food: four large gardens, as well as chickens, turkeys, rabbits and geese. This guardian of the earth has his priorities straight. "My identity is not as an environmentalist," he says. "It's as a Christian. Because I am Christian, I should be involved with social justice, the poor, the needy. Environmentalism is one thing in my circle, but it's not my center." And if you're rolling your eyes at the idea of a $20,000-a-year librarian going up against the politically connected coal operators and the wealthy energy lobbyists, don't forget that he's got a highly placed friend of his own.

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