What does a transformative, earth-honoring Christianity look like at ground level, lived out in daily action?
Reforms of personal habits—such as recycling and eating locally and shopping responsibly—are important steps. But we’ll need to embody a more robust Christian environmental ethic if we are to become the people God yearns for us to be, and address the overwhelming ecological crisis facing us today. We’ll need to do something wild, and embody watershed discipleship.
Watershed discipleship? It’s a provocative term blending two domains rarely joined in our imaginations: one scientific, the other religious. Yet it’s this kind of paradigm—both data-driven and deeply spiritual, both ancient and new—that Jesus followers will need to adopt in the coming decades if we are to play any significant role in our planet’s healing.
What is watershed discipleship? It’s a movement that’s being worked out, on the ground, in many locations. Activist and theologian Ched Myers gives the term two meanings, and I’ve contributed a third. In a nutshell, watershed discipleship means:
Being disciples during this watershed moment. At this crucial point in history, our choice is between responsive discipleship and reactive denial. We can’t pretend any longer: God’s earth is not just our grab bag and our trash can, to do with however we will. There are consequences to our actions. Interlocking and immediate crises of climate change, diminishing resources, and widening ecological degradation compel us to make environmental justice and sustainability integral to everything we do as disciples of Jesus, asserts Myers.
Being disciples within our watersheds. Wendell Berry warns us that abstract concepts such as “saving nature,” “global thinking” or “creation care” are well intentioned, but often do little unless rooted in actual landscapes. The real question, Berry states, “is not how to care for the planet, but how to care for each of the planet’s millions of human and natural neighborhoods….” Myers suggests that followers of Jesus today must be people of specific places, who root their prayers and practices in actual watersheds of care.
Being disciples of our watersheds. Becoming an engaged citizen of a particular place—being molded by its particular constraints, seasons, bounties, and boundaries—is a primary task of watershed discipleship. It is the “re-placed” identity we as a species must rediscover if we are to unshackle ourselves from the ecocidal, dis-placed path of empire. We need to go to school on our surroundings, as the ancients did, and learn core life truths from our own home places. As followers of our primary rabbi Jesus, we need to treat our region as rabbi and teacher as well.
I realize my attempts to explain watershed discipleship are more descriptive than prescriptive. That’s because watershed discipleship is fluid; it remains a “work-in-progress,” an intriguing and powerful concept only discovered and defined as we live it out in our places each day.
Albuquerque Mennonite Church did something unusual last year: they became the focus of their own mission. Our own lifestyles in North America are what need changing, AMC realized. We’re the ones who need to be converted. As we continue to follow Jesus and be faithful to God, they asked, how do we live in right relationship with water, land, creatures, and one another? After living so long as un-placed and dis-placed consumers with global appetites and little local awareness, how do we learn to re-place ourselves and become denizens of our specific bioregion—the high desert of northern New Mexico?
As a church body they began to respond to these questions. In early 2014, they initiated an educational series called “Becoming a People of Place,” gaining a scriptural and theological background for earth justice and reconciliation. Then, in April, they hosted a capacity-building event they called “Re-Placing Ourselves,” to increase their own capacity to be watershed disciples. Other church communities participated, hailing from up and down the Rio Grande watershed, from the headwaters near Alamosa, Colorado, to where the river flows into the gulf near Brownsville, Texas.
In addition to learning, praying, and connecting, the church was doing. Members started changing their shopping habits and taste buds, engaging more with local and community supported agriculture. Others built hoop houses and are looking to establish their own CSA. A “pilgrimage” group studied their own community to see what place-based initiatives and organizations were already established in the area. A “Zero Waste” group took a first step by sorting and weighing a week’s worth of trash they found the church dumpster, and provided insightful feedback to the congregation. Others organized field trips to a nearby recycling plant, a commercial composting facility, and a local water reclamation plant. One member led a series of “urban homesteader” how-to courses while others learned about composting and vermiculture. In its 2014 annual report, the Zero Waste team discussed whether they would concentrate on reducing the church’s material waste stream, or broaden their agenda to examine the church’s use of energy, water, and toxins.
None of these steps are life-changing by themselves. Taken as a whole, however, these small actions reinforce one another, allowing an earth-honoring church to act as leaven in the loaf of dominant culture.
Your Way is My Way
My friend Stephanie came by yesterday to plug in her electric car. She once lived next door to us and we shared a washing machine, but now that we live twenty miles apart, we’ve become her way station. She can do errands and bring her kid to gymnastics, and then visit with us and top off her battery in case it’s a bit low for the return trip home.
Out here in our little mountain town, electric cars are still oddities. Convenient charging stations and smooth level roads are rare or nonexistent. But Stephanie’s household and mine are partners striving for a better kind of life together, so we get creative. When she arrives, I drag her 220-volt extension cord through my house and plug it into the outlet for our clothes dryer, which we rarely use due to the abundance of Taos sun that strikes our backyard clothesline. This time when she visited, we updated each other on our latest findings: she’d discovered a farm in our region that sold flour from wheat they had grown and ground, and I told her about the barley I’d planted this winter so that we could provide our own fodder to our milk goats instead of importing so much hay from farther away.
Stephanie’s household and mine are on a journey of watershed living together. It’s slow, and we stumble, but we help one another on the path. Inspired by the ancient Biblical example of Ruth, we’re beginning to say your way is my way. We’re making a few steps on the path of energy descent and community resilience, and learning to live a bit more within our niche as citizens of our watershed.
Stephanie is an educator and activist with a Ph.D. Like many of my friends, she is intelligent, passionate, creative, and suspicious of organized religion. She left institutional Christianity a long time ago—it was far more hurtful than helpful to her as she was growing up—but she likes the way my wife and I are trying to follow Jesus. We give her hope. She’s part of the loosely-affiliated band we call TiLT—the Taos Initiative for Life Together. Some of us identify as Christian, others do not, but we all strive to reimagine the good life in America, starting with our own. We’re inconsistent and distracted with other concerns, but we often find ourselves growing food together, raising goats together, educating children together, wandering the mountains together. We run camps and start schools and lead treks and build greenhouses and mentor apprentices and manage non-profits and conspire to change our lives together, journeying deeper into the Watershed Way.
Walking the Watershed Way
We’re not journeying alone, either. A few months ago I was licensed by Mennonites in New Mexico and Colorado to be an educator and capacity-builder for watershed discipleship in the way of Jesus. What does that mean? I’m not sure, exactly, but I mean to find out. My first step will be to visit with existing congregations and groups in the region to find out what they are already doing and highlight some of their place-based practices they might want to share with others.
Next, I want to encourage the communities in our Mountain States region to enter into a ten-year exploration with us, an invitation to life-change that we’re calling “Walk The Watershed Way.” How can we each—in our own context—free ourselves from harmful lifeways and transition into a better future together by altering habits, innovating systems, and living lighter on the earth? We’re living into this question in 2015 by initiating a decade-long period of shared exploration, initiating and observing significant change in our own lives and in our communities. Each year, participating communities will craft an annual reflection and then share it with other communities, describing the best practices, struggles, questions and surprises that emerged for them during the year. Peer communities will help develop measurable next steps and guiding questions, and together we’ll head into the next cycle.
Why did we choose ten years? Three reasons. First, it’s a timeframe that encourages continued attention and accountability. Our earth is going to undergo significant change in the next ten years. As we participate in this change and check in with each other each year, we want to think and act patiently like trees, but probably not so patiently as tectonic plates. We need to have a healthy sense of informed accountability within community, because our planet’s health will be changing and we need to stay vigilant.
Second, a ten-year timeframe gives a sense of practical urgency dosed with a healthy forgiveness. It makes us plan, prioritize, and prepare, without feeling defeated. The kind of structural changes we need to make—in areas such as food sourcing, housing, energy, transport, community economics—are not going to happen over night, or even in a year. Ten years seems like a daunting but doable time frame that honors the significant transition work ahead of us, yet gives us breathing room. It allows us to make mistakes, and learn from them.
Third, ten years from 2015 is 2025, which marks the 500th anniversary of Anabaptism. Five hundred years ago, a little bit after Martin Luther tacked his protests on the door of the Catholic Church, the forefathers of the Mennonites and Amish broke the law and scandalized Catholicism by baptizing one another and forgiving one another’s sins, without needing professional priests to do it for them. Anabaptism means “again baptizing,” and these brave folk had the wild idea that true discipleship was about adult choice-making, not about being saved through institutional allegiance and infant baptism. Five hundred years after these transformative actions, it seems fitting to have a reckoning, and ask: as followers of Jesus, what are we doing today that is transformative and earth-honoring? What adult choices are we making now that are transforming today’s institutions of consumption and conformity?
Choosing Your Own Path
Where will this exploration of the Watershed Way lead our faith communities over the next decade? I’m guessing that no two communities will follow the same path. Some may be inspired by the example of Albuquerque Mennonite, and turn collective will toward goals of xeriscaping, zero waste, and incubating community-supported agriculture. For other groups located in dense urban areas, walking the Watershed Way may turn both prophetic and political such as what is happening in Detroit, where some faith communities are resisting powerful interests that willingly accept unpaid water bills by corporations but turn off the taps of the poor. Others might enter into a bioregional food covenant like my friend Stephanie and I are doing here in Taos, and see how we can adapt to what is available in our area.
I am a Mennonite, an environmentalist, and an unapologetic follower of Jesus. But where I live in northern New Mexico, the Watershed Way is practiced more deeply by other traditions. I’ll be joining an ancient river, not creating something new. Over the next decade, I’ll be learning from my Native neighbors at Taos Pueblo how they have been able to walk the Watershed Way in this bioregion for thousands of years; I’ll be learning from traditional Hispanic farmers and ranchers how they have been practicing the Watershed Way here these past five centuries. I’m guessing that, where you live, you have mentors and guides too.
Watershed living is my path of earth-honoring, Jesus-following discipleship. For me as a “half-done” Christian, it is not an intellectual exercise; it is experiential and transformational, a learning-by-doing that results in liberated lifeways and systemic change. Is this path for you? That’s for you to decide. God’s gifts of clean water and pure air and good soil are in the balance; our industrial society is damaging them at a horrific pace. How can we half-done Christians change our ways, and become the people God yearns for us to be? Whatever path you choose in these transition times, I believe that it must be both personal and political, social and spiritual, individual and communal. What will it be for you, in your place, in your situation? Perhaps you’ll encourage your church to “go green” with solar panels and encourage your electric company to provide cleaner energy. Perhaps you’ll harvest roof rainwater and advocate for clean water laws. Maybe you’ll get a few folks to commit to a bicycle-based lifestyle and fight against fracking. Or maybe you’ll grow more of your own food and support local food hubs connecting producers to consumers and help low-income people get healthy, fresh food. Maybe you’ll travel into the woods for weeks at a time, and discover you need a lot less from industrial society than you thought.
We’re heading into transition times, my friends, an unknown wilderness for which there are no maps, only sketches. God is doing something new, and the Spirit is troubling the waters. As Ched Myers observes, whenever the Holy Spirit is poured out in human history, traditions are disturbed and institutions disrupted, because our untamed God is not a domesticated deity, but the One who liberates us from our enslaved condition.
In a wilderness time like ours, we need a wilderness guide. The Greeks had a word for this: hodégos, meaning a leader for the journey or a guide for the way. It comes from two other words: hodos, a noun describing a road, path a way or a journey; and hégeomai, a verb that means I lead or I think. Hodégos, then, means a conductor, both literally and figuratively—a wilderness guide, or a mentor on a spiritual path. In Jesus, we have the ultimate hodegos, the eternal guide for wilderness times. He not only knows the way, he is the Way, and calls us to follow along unfamiliar paths. By following his call, we’ll be joining countless other disciples before us who have left empire behind for a wilder way, trusting in the words God loves to say: Be not afraid, for I am with you always, to the ends of the earth.