What is an Environmental Missionary?

June 1, 2010


by Lowell Bliss

Flourish magazine, Spring 2010

At first, the question remained the same, but my answer would change.

People asked me, “Lowell, why are you a missionary?” Before I left for India in 1993, I’d tell them my conviction that Jesus is worthy of the worship of India, that the Great Commission is a mandate given to us all, and that those who die without Christ are lost eternally. But then after just a few months on the field, while those central convictions had not changed, I added to my answer, “I love Indians.” Over time, however, I had to change that answer, too, and admit, “Well, I don’t know if I can say that I love Indians, but I do love Shivraj, Munnu-ji, Prakash, and Prem Kumar.” I would rattle off names of individual friends. It’s hard to love disembodied aggregates, but it’s impossible not to love those God has placed in your heart.

Now, however, the question has changed. People are curious: “Lowell, why do you call yourself an environmental missionary?” The question has changed, but the answer is remarkably the same: I love Shivraj, Munnu-ji, Prakash, and Prem Kumar.

For the love of neighbor
Shivraj was a six-year-old boy of our landlord’s family, growing up next door on our ashram on the banks of the Ganges in Varanasi, India. His family maintained a temple on the property to the goddess Kali. Once a year, on the festival of Diwali, the family would sacrifice a goat at her altar.

We all noticed that something was wrong when Shivraj developed little blue spots all over his skin. Then he began to bleed through his gums. Shivraj was diagnosed with aplastic anemia, a disease whereby the bone marrow is deficient in making new blood cells. We ministered as we could—praying, giving encouragement, donating blood, and helping with medical bills. As we watched Shivraj deteriorate, we called the family together and boldly told them of the only true hope in this world and the next: “Kali takes blood; but Jesus gave his blood.” Two weeks later, Shivraj died.

Aplastic anemia can have any number of causes, but the one that seemed most likely for Shivraj was exposure to benzene, an ingredient in the gasoline so wantonly spilt about the property.

Munnu-ji was my best Indian friend. He was my first landlord, renting me a small room off Assi Ghat before I was married. I’m not sure Munnu ever believed on Jesus. He was a man of peace, however, and assisted numerous Christian workers. He died when a mosquito, borne off the polluted waters of the Ganges River basin, bit him. Munnu-ji contracted cerebral malaria.

Our most common way to understand the word environment biblically is to use the term God’s creation. But we can just as easily, and just as biblically, propose another definition. Environment is nothing more than “that which surrounds the people we love, the people for whom Christ died.” Love is a diffused light. It illuminates a wide-angle. My concern for Shivraj and Munnu-ji extends to hazardous waste disposal and malaria eradication.

Similarly, when I began to explore the issue of global climate change, I did so through the only lens I knew, namely, from the perspective of a traditional, church-planting missionary. I loved Prakash. He works in a small telephone exchange in a city in North Bihar. This region is generally acclaimed as India’s most backward. It’s also been called “the graveyard of Christian missions.” Two years ago, North Bihar was hit by the worst flood in 50 years. Millions were displaced. The previous year’s monsoon flooding—a flood in fact named after Prakash’s home district—had been the worst in 30 years. Scientists and Indian government officials point to climate change. The glaciers of the Himalayas are shrinking. Whereas previously these ice fields would retain the winter snow and slowly release their melt over the course of the summer, now this snow melt rushes to the Bay of Bengal, right through Bihar. Where combined with the monsoon rains, the land is inundated. The only reason Bihar didn’t flood this past year was because the monsoons had failed.

Last November when I was in India, I inquired after Prakash. He had survived the floods. But then my colleague from Bihar told me some news that made me sad. “There are some who were actually disappointed that the floods didn’t come this year,” he said. “They look forward to the flooding.”

“What?” I asked him incredulously. “Why?”

“Because they can get government relief. And they can also get jobs distributing that relief.”

What kind of life must Prakash’s neighbors have when the only blessing they can imagine is the scraps thrown out after the widespread loss of lives, homes, and fertile farmland?

Shovel in one hand, Bible in the other
What is environmental missions? Ed Brown gets us started on a definition. In Tri Robinson’s book Saving God’s Green Earth, Brown describes how he and Kenyan missionary Craig Sorley conceived of their organization, Care of Creation:

The basic idea was to combine the environment and missions in a way we don’t think anyone else is doing. On an organizational level, no mission organization in North America is openly both environmental and missional. It’s very similar to medical missions in its approach to the mission field. When you take out the word ‘medical’ and put in the ‘environmental,’ that’s what we are. We want to do practical things where we help people by sharing the Gospel, but we want to serve people and serve the church by helping to heal the land through various means.

Is this a new category of missions? Not in the strictest sense. William Carey, the father of modern missions, who sailed to Calcutta in 1793, was a world-class botanist. There is a variety of eucalyptus named after him. For centuries, faithful missionaries have crossed cultures to serve people through such means as sustainable agriculture, water purification, and appropriate technology. If environmental missions is considered a new category, it is because of an awakened awareness of our current global environmental crisis and the opportunities it presents to preach the Gospel and demonstrate the love of Christ.

In addition, while the Good News of Christ crucified and risen remains simple, and while the mandate to be a good steward of creation remains clear, I believe the issues of world evangelization and creation care (and the integration of the two) have extra complexity in the 21st Century.

For example, let me tell you of my love for Prem Kumar, a Dalit, of the caste formerly called “untouchable.” The church is sufficiently mobilized that when we hear of a Dalit village that doesn’t have pure drinking water, or when we hear of Dalits who are excluded from the village well, we put together a short-term team, raise the money, and go dig them their own well. It is the expression of the love of Christ in our hearts.

Last winter, I met with a friend, a landscape architecture professor who is involved in a water project outside Hyderabad, India. He first quoted me a statistic—now two years dated—that 18,000 new wells are drilled every day in India. But for him, the most startling report from his project is that there are regions where upper caste landowners are building underground concrete walls—some 20 meters deep, some hundreds of miles long—that effectively seal off the aquifer and restrict water movement to the lower caste.

In such cases, it won’t make any difference how many wells we dig for Dalit villages like Nayapura, the one in which Prem Kumar lives. On one hand, we have the new problem of aquifers being drained above recharge. More profoundly, we have the age-old problem of love gone dry in the unregenerate heart.

Shovel in one hand. Bible in the other. That’s environmental missions. Love. That’s why I’m an environmental missionary.

In 1985, at an Au Sable Institute forum, Ghillean Prance presented a paper entitled Missionary Earthkeeping. The topic became a forum in its own right and Au Sable gathered together small group of creation care leaders and missionaries. (Various of the papers produced were published in Missionary Earthkeeping, co-edited by Prance and Cal DeWitt, Mercer UP, 1992.) The forum hoped to be “an encouragement and incentive to all who are working in the mission field to join biblical teachings on earthkeeping with ecological knowledge to bring Good News to the world—Good News that announces and honors God and Jesus Christ as Creator, sustainer, and reconciler of all things.” Twenty-five years later Care of Creation and Eden Vigil are reconvening the spirit of this forum, an Environmental Missions Consultation, hosted in Manhattan, KS, July 12-15, with an open invitation to all who wish to participate. The Consultation will ask the questions that will better define environmental missions in the 21st century, with a view to establishing biblical and scientific rigor to the category. A detailed agenda is posted on the Eden Vigil website. Ed Brown and Lowell Bliss wish to extend an invitation to interested Flourish readers.

Having served 14 years as a church-planting missionary with Christar in India and Pakistan, Lowell Bliss is the director of Eden Vigil, an environmental missions initiative that seeks “to love Christ and His created through mobilizing and serving those who combine church-planting and creation care among least-reached peoples.” Stories from the Bliss’s life in India can be read in his wife Robynn’s new book, Expectations and Burnout: Women Surviving the Great Commission (William Carey 2010). They have three kids and currently live in tallgrass prairie country, Manhattan, KS.

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Bill Randall June 6, 2010 at 8:54 pm

Thank you! May we all love with a shovel in one hand and a bible in the other.

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