In 1981, I founded Rural Southern Voice for Peace (RSVP) with support from Celo Meeting and the Arthur Morgan School in western North Carolina. In 1985, I initiated the first Listening Project. I did so with great concern about the divisiveness and polarization that so often limits positive change, and with deep appreciation for listening as an act of personal, social, and spiritual transformation. Since that time, RSVP has provided training and support for successful Listening Projects on a wide range of social issues—locally, nationally, and internationally.
Much of our work has occurred in the southeastern United States. There are few other institutions in our region that have a greater influence than our churches, many of which are motivated, generous, and effective in their ministry and service work. Yet in regards to environmental issues, many have had negative feelings about environmentalism due to concerns about liberal ideology, “environmental extremists,” and secularism.
The Christian Stewardship Listening Project began in June 2007. Since then, it has developed as a model program that enables Christians to reclaim their biblically based responsibility to care for the Earth as God’s creation. Two active projects in Yancey and Madison counties, N.C., are now led by local church leaders, most of whom had never before been engaged with environmental concerns.
CSLP In Yancey County
Yancey County is a beautiful mountain community in western North Carolina with two primary mountain- fed watersheds and hundreds of clear creeks and streams. In the past ten years, Yancey County has experienced rapid land development that has included building on steep slopes and ecologically sensitive mountaintops. Among other things, this is affecting our water quality and availability, which is also being impacted by pesticide contamination, sewage system problems, and the fact that some existing homes still straight-pipe their human waste into mountain streams. Past efforts at county planning to address environmental concerns have continually failed due to opposition from residents who have very strong feelings about property rights.
The Christian Stewardship Listening Project (CSLP) began with people from several area churches, including Celo Meeting. Together we conducted a Listening Project as a means of opening dialogue on environmental concerns from a faith perspective: stewardship of God’s creation. CSLP’s goal was not to hear what we might want to hear. Rather, we asked questions and listened with open hearts and minds as some of Yancey County’s church leaders reflected on matters of Creation stewardship.
Following several months of preparation, 12 trained interview teams went out to interview 28 church leaders— both pastors and laity. As is the case in most Southern Appalachian communities, most pastors hold other jobs to make ends meet. Thus our interviews also revealed the reflections of working people in our county. Each interviewee was asked 21 open-ended questions about matters of faith and stewardship of the Earth as God’s creation. Given the fact that the vast majority of churches are conservative (most being Baptist denominations), a large majority of interviews were with pastors and lay leaders from such churches.
Faith-based Concerns and Home-Grown Solutions
In many cases, we were interviewing people who had negative or suspicious feelings about environmental issues. Yet all our interviews were very positive because we came not as advocates with an agenda, but as fellow Christians and as listeners who sincerely wanted to find out the concerns, hopes, and priorities of the people we interviewed. We didn’t tell people the meaning of Creation stewardship—we asked them to tell us the meaning they found in those words and from their life experiences. In this way, each person we interviewed helped us define Creation stewardship in Yancey County.
The following is a small sampling of responses we heard during our interviews:
- I remember when there were plenty of springs you could drink from. You didn’t worry about what was on top of the mountains. Now many springs are gone. The mountaintops are covered with houses. The land is logged till everything is gone. I grew up logging . . . we were careful . . . we didn’t take everything. Now they cut everything and there is no concern that the water will dry up without the trees.
- We’ve always understood this land because we made our living from the land, and people know you don’t cut your own throat by abusing what you need.
- If we don’t steward the land, so many of the experiences that I enjoyed growing up here are going to be totally gone for future generations.
- A large part of being a Christian is a feeling of wonder and awe for Creation as a gift from God. Christian worship should be a part of our wonder. We must respond with gratitude and by being good caretakers.
- Genesis mandates that to govern as stewards is for all of us. Sometimes we make fun of “tree huggers” when we as Christians should be the ones supporting and leading the way.
- There is no reason why we can’t simultaneously have good jobs and protect God’s creation. We need to find the right balance and continue working toward economic development that is good for both the people and the environment.
Our listening also enabled us to identify barriers to change. One key barrier was well expressed by Reverend Frank Wyatt of Liberty Covenant Church:
I think because environmental matters have sometimes done wrong without enough regard for the people it affects, some people react to anything environmental and throw the baby out with the bath water. In other words, they react to anything environmental even when really some things need protection. I remember when I was young things got pretty bad here. Some of the pit mines really left a mess, and the South Toe River was brown with scummy foam. It was really polluted. I’m glad it was cleaned up. I want the clean water here for my children and grandchildren. But you can’t just legislate; you have to involve the people.
Interviews with Pastor Wyatt and others identified the need for increasing community participation in determining the environmental priorities and initiatives that affect people’s lives. Many also identified the need for people to be better informed. When asked if churches could play a role in informing and educating people, most church leaders said yes.
CSLP education efforts began with the release of a series of articles in our local paper that shared the findings of our interviews. Generally, environmental issues are controversial in the county, but there were only positive responses to our articles because county residents could easily identify with CSLP’s local, faith-based approach to environmental stewardship.
Education continued as we expanded our listening through our “Prayer Dialogue and Reflection” sessions that enabled church members to come together in their own church to reflect, dialogue, and listen to one another in both small and large groups. This enabled us to further broaden faith community input into defining and identifying priorities for creation care in our county. Once again, issues of water protection and problems associated with rapid land development rose to the forefront of people’s priorities.
2010 Programs and Sustainable Yancey
CSLP eventually became the Christian Stewardship of Creation Project (CSCP) with a steering committee composed primarily of church leaders who had been interviewed by the Listening Project. In early 2010, CSCP founded a second organization, Sustainable Yancey. This was in response to the fact that many people we interviewed didn’t trust “outsiders” or environmentalists to set the agenda for land and water protection. They wanted a “sensible,” local approach to Creation care that took into account the economic and other needs of families and working people.
Sustainable Yancey has thus far been able to build bipartisan support for sustainable development. Local government and other civic officials as well as workers and business owners have come together through the organization to develop priorities, strategies, and plans for sustainable development. Currently we are conducting Facilitated Group Listening sessions that enable Christians to examine issues of development and sustainability—again with the goal of revealing church and community priorities. We are also assisting with economic development. This effort, funded by the North Carolina Rural Center, will have a direct impact on development in our county.
Sustainable Yancey’s priority is watershed protection. Thus far our actions have led to the establishment of a new watershed protection board that can review and hopefully improve county watershed regulations. We are also engaging churches in Adopt-A-Stream, a project connected to larger regional efforts to protect the French Broad River Basin, and we are partners in a major effort to restore and protect the Toe and Cane Rivers.
In addition, CSLP and Sustainable Yancey are working with programs that support local farms and are helping churches and individuals engage in energy audits and home weatherization for low-income families.
CSLP is a model for Christian stewardship that can be applied in other communities. It can also be adapted to other faiths or interfaith communities. By listening, we find that faith can bring us together rather than divide us. As we begin to see these lands and waters as God’s creation, we will find new and creative ways to protect that which has been loaned to us.
Herb Walters is a member of Celo Meeting in Burnsville, N.C. Rural Southern Voice for Peace and the Listening Project receive support from Celo Meeting, several other meetings, and Southern Appalachian Yearly Meeting and Association. For further information, or to receive a free annual newsletter with information about U.S. and international Listening Projects that addresses a wide range of social issues, visit www.listeningproject.org.