New sermon from the evangelical pulpit: global warming

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

As a deeply committed pastor in Atlanta's African-American community, the Rev. Gerald Durley had long thought of himself as enlightened and involved when it came to issues that hurt people's lives. He felt he was fulfilling his responsibilities to others. Until, he says, he saw the film "The Great Warming" last May.

"My total perspective on environmental issues and life in general was drastically altered," says the pastor of Providence Missionary Baptist Church. "This went beyond any political, racial, or gender issues – it is a moral crisis."

Dr. Durley has since shown the documentary on global warming to his congregation and invited ministers, rabbis, and imams to see it. He has gone on radio to discuss the crisis and is promoting sermons on the subject. A discussion he held with Atlanta children has been edited into the latest version of the film.

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"The Great Warming" – a documentary made in Canada and narrated by actor Keanu Reeves and singer Alanis Morissette – tells the same disturbing story as Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth." But it has become a strategic vehicle for reaching out particularly to Evangelicals, many of whom were unlikely to rush to see the Gore production. Some hope it spurs a tipping point in the attitudes of grass-roots Christians.

Many conservative Christians have held a negative view of environmentalism, some even calling activists "pantheistic tree-huggers." Along with the Bush administration, they have insisted that the scientific evidence isn't yet in.

The dramatic film travels the globe from China to Peru, Bangladesh to southern California, depicting the impact of climate change on human lives and detailing the scientific evidence. It also presents the voice of a new Evangelical leadership "converted" to the movement, in language the faithful can appreciate.

Richard Cizik, Washington spokesman of the National Association of Evangelicals, urges action based on the biblical demand for "creation care." Rev. Cizik had his own change of heart after listening to an Evangelical scientist from Oxford University lay out the scientific consensus.

The movie has been previewed in more than 220 churches in recent weeks, and last Friday opened in Regal Cinema theaters in 34 cities. Ads are being run on Christian radio and in church bulletins, and Evangelical leaders have provided the film's website with Bible study and discussion guides.

"We pray everyone will see 'The Great Warming,' " says the Rev. Paul de Vries, president of New York Divinity School, who prepared the materials. "Science has given us an extraordinary wake-up call, but scriptural teaching gives us direction to be responsible for God's world."

Another website was created in early October to enable those who have seen the film to question political candidates running for Congress about where they stand on the issue (www.questionsforcandidates.org).

The film has support from a broad range of groups, including the National Council of Churches (NCC) and Jewish organizations, which have their own global warming initiatives. The NCC, for example, recently released a report on how member churches can reduce carbon emissions and overall utility expenses. The American Jewish Committee provides cash incentives to its employees to purchase fuel- efficient vehicles.

A "Call to Action" statement on the film's website has gathered dozens of signatories from a broad range of faith leaders, environmental groups, scientists, policymakers, and celebrities.

But converting and galvanizing Evangelicals is a major goal. "Too often Evangelicals have focused on just one or two issues," says Dr. de Vries.

The Rev. Joel Hunter, a Florida pastor who is the new president of the Christian Coalition, agrees. Speaking just for himself on a recent "Call to Action" teleconference, he said, "I'm part of the religious right, and am one of those leaders who wants to expand the agenda." After viewing the film, his 12,000-member congregation formed a team to consider how to become more ecologically responsible.

The shift within Evangelicalism gained some momentum earlier this year when 86 Evangelical leaders issued a statement on global warming, saying climate change was not in doubt and human action was required. They were immediately criticized by other Evangelicals, however, and still are. Yet they can point to growing support.

"In a survey earlier this year, 66 percent of Evangelical people favored environmental legislation to address global warming, even if it cost as much as $15 per month per person," De Vries says.

Younger Evangelicals, in particular, are getting on the bandwagon, working on a draft statement of their own.

Some Evangelicals recognize the problem as a moral issue but still see it primarily as one of individuals taking action. Others insist it's long past time to call for policy changes.

"It's not just individuals turning off the lights, but whether industries continue to pump pollution into the atmosphere," says Tony Campolo, cofounder of a nonpartisan group, Red Letter Christians. "Unless government starts controlling industry better than it has, we are not going to have a solution to this problem."

With global warming affecting poor countries more than the developed world, Dr. Campolo says, there is a biblical imperative for a wealthy America, responsible for at least 25 percent of global carbon emissions, to act.

Such Evangelical leaders remain under fire from colleagues, but they are counting on the film to change minds, starting with pastors.

"Spiritual leaders are waking up to this broader responsibility, and congregations really respect what their local pastor says," Dr. Hunter adds. "Just as all politics is local, all spiritual growth is local. As more pastors are aware of this challenge, it will gain traction – and quickly, I think."

Durley is equally optimistic about the black church community. "There has been a raising of the veil of ignorance around this issue. As we talk to people throughout the South, they ask, 'How can we get mobilized?' "

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