Social Justice/Mission
Leader: Sarah McCoy

 

Great Article on Green Churches 

Young Methodists Plant Churches with Environmental Gospel

SEPT. 4, 2015

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Zach Kerzee, in plaid shirt, founder of Simple Church, led a prayer on Thursday during a weekly dinner in Grafton, Mass. CreditKatherine Taylor for The New York Times

 

MINNEAPOLIS — Growing up in nearby Eden Prairie, Minn., Tyler Sit felt called to be a minister. But he was not sure what kind.

“I was a cradle Methodist,” said Mr. Sit, 26, who is half-Chinese, half-European and all-Minnesotan: sweet, smiley and Protestant. “I went to church camp, did Sunday school, was youth-group leader, was in the choir, sat on worship committees.”

So Mr. Sit went searching. “I spent a lot of time with Buddhists in Zen circles, studied in India, did a mindfulness retreat 'with Thich Nhat Hanh,” Mr. Sit said, in a conversation that began in the May Day Café and wandered several blocks to his apartment. Then, in May 2014, visiting theTaizé Christian spiritual community in France, he decided to return to his roots.

“I realized that Christianity has within itself a deep internal religion, and also a deep ethic of social justice,” Mr. Sit said. “I don’t need to outsource to Buddhism.”

After graduating from the Candler School of Theology, at Emory University in Atlanta, Mr. Sit came home to start a church unlike most other Methodist churches. When he conceived New City Church, Mr. Sit was inspired not only by Jesus but also by diverse elements of contemporary environmentalism, from the fair-trade movement to the writings of the climate-change activist Bill McKibben.

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Mr. Kerzee prepared a loaf of bread to be baked on Thursday morning at his church in Massachusetts. CreditKatherine Taylor for The New York Times

 

He is not alone. With their denomination’s support, a small cadre of Methodist ministers is planting churches with an environmentalist Gospel. For them, environmentalism is about more than pollution and global warming; it’s about connections between consumption patterns and inequality. The earth is God’s creation, they say, so waste is a sin. They try to eat local, and they pay attention to how environmental problems disproportionally affect poor people and minorities.

For Mr. Sit, environmental concerns are inescapable in the economically and racially diverse neighborhoods — Powderhorn and Phillips — that he has chosen as the boundaries of his mission.

The area is “bounded by four superhighways,” which cause pollution, Mr. Sit said. “There is an asphalt mix plant, and several hospitals that have incinerators there, so it’s this milieu of toxins that is creating a casket of air pollution. So rates of asthma in this neighborhood are really high among kids.” The soil can be too toxic to grow vegetables.

This month, Mr. Sit plans to hold his first worship service, in his living and dining rooms. He hopes a diverse crowd will respond to his vision of environmental justice, but he is aware that environmentalism can be seen as a white people’s concern.

“I used to call this an ‘eco-church,’ ” Mr. Sit said, “and then I did a focus conversation with some African-Americans, and they said, ‘ Eco-church sounds like a white, expensive thing — it sounds like I am paying more for something I don’t care about.’ So I permanently dropped the name of ‘eco-church.’ ”

For Mr. Sit, environmentalism is not just transracial but also distinctly Christian.

“The task of New City Church,” Mr. Sit said, “is not just rehearsing secular environmental justice rhetoric and slapping Jesus on it.” Partnerships with nonprofits already in the area “will be key” — he mentioned an alliance with Tamales y Bicicletas, a Latino environmental organization in the neighborhood. In his vision, his congregation’s activism will help make Powderhorn and Phillips healthier without falling prey to gentrification. He wants a “green, safe, clean-air neighborhood without pushing out the people who live there.”

Mr. Sit is young to be starting a church, but right now, for Methodists, that is an asset. In 2008, the United Methodist Church, the country’s second-largest Protestant denomination, began Path 1, a special project to “to train and equip 1,000 church planters,” or ministers, who would, according to the group’s website, start 650 churches.

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Mr. Kerzee, 26, right, at a farmers market in Grafton, Mass., where he sells bread baked at his church. CreditKatherine Taylor for The New York Times

 

The church planters recruited so far tend to be younger than the average Methodist. “I think the denomination is graying,” said Candace Lewis, the executive director of Path 1, “but I think the average planter is probably in their 30s or 40s.” And while the Methodists’ denominational structure — it is divided into districts within conferences within jurisdictions — can seem old-fashioned in this age of independent megachurches, it functions well to connect innovative young pastors with others doing similar work.

For example, Mr. Sit has been in touch with a fellow Methodist, Zach Kerzee, founder of Simple Church, in Grafton, Mass. After Mr. Kerzee graduated from Harvard Divinity School in 2014, the Methodist leadership offered him a parsonage and seed money from a church that had closed. Intrigued, Mr. Kerzee, a native Texan, agreed to stay in New England. His vision for Simple Church was that it be environmentally sound, not wasteful, lots of fun, and tasty.

“I said we’d never have a building, because so many resources are poured into maintaining a building,” Mr. Kerzee, 26, said. “It would be in people’s homes, and we could rent space from existing congregations. And then I wanted it to be based around food.”

Mr. Kerzee began working at an organic farm next door to the parsonage. He is paid in vegetables, which he uses to help cook the weekly church dinner. His Thursday-night meals draw about 30 people a week, some Christians, others seekers, others there for the conversation.

“We don’t talk about the environment every week, but what we built into the liturgy is the understanding that everything we have is a gift,” Mr. Kerzee said. “Our church is committed to using fewer resources, so we have nothing to throw away each night. No paper plates, no bulletin. We compost our food. All of this, along with the fact that we don’t have a building, is built around a desire to consume less and be kind to the earth.”

About five years ago, across the country in Seattle, John Helmiere started Valley and Mountain, a Methodist community. A principal goal was “trying to integrate ecology” into all decisions, Mr. Helmiere said — and not as an afterthought.

 “We don’t have a task force over here that is trying to get us to respond in little subtle ways to the environment,” said Mr. Helmiere, who is 32 and attended Yale Divinity School. “It’s evident from our name to what we talk about on Sundays to how we source our meals to decisions we made when we finally moved into a building.”

Like Mr. Kerzee, Mr. Helmiere was dubious about owning a building. Buildings need to be heated, and churches tend to sit empty much of the week, which is inherently wasteful. So when his Valley and Mountain community finally leased a space, they turned it into the Collaboratory, a co-working space housing 28 organizations, including nonprofits and small businesses. One nonprofit runs a soup kitchen three days a week, while others help with family reunification, housing assistance and other social services.

For Mr. Sit, the Methodist connections extend not only to Seattle, and the East Coast, but beyond.

“I am in relationship with churches in the Congo, universities in Zimbabwe, with activists in the Philippines,” Mr. Sit said. “And that affords me a global perspective on how to address environmental justice, in a way that if I were planting just independently” — planting a church, he means, but one thinks of food, too — “I would never be able to have.”

 

Tide Me Over

Grocery bags filled with nourishing foods are provided for those who need to stretch their food dollars. These are available in the foyer near the door to the John Wesley room. People are invited to bring any of the following foods to the church or use designated envelopes to contribute to this mission:
 
Dried milk 10 oz or less
Saltine crackers 16 oz box
Canned vegetables 16 oz cans
whole kernel corn, green beans,
peas, carrots
Canned fruits
peaches, pears, applesauce
Protein foods
peanut butter 16-18 oz jar
tuna in water 6-10 oz cans
chicken or turkey 5-10 oz cans
baked beans 16 oz cans
spam light 12 oz cans
Total breakfast cereal 16-20 oz box
Candy bars 2 oz or less
 
At present, we especially need dried milk and cans of fruit and vegetables.

 

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