By Drew Ward
Flourish, Fall 2011
Having come late to the party by many accounts, it’s time that Christians train up leaders in the global effort to address our current environmental issues. That’s why the Center for Environmental Leadership (CEL) is here. It is the brainchild of Dr. Chris Elisara, the founder of the innovative Creation Care Study Program (CCSP), a Christian environmental study abroad program with campuses in Belize and New Zealand, and a new campus, in Buffalo, N.Y., on the drawing board. Elisara says that the center is designed to groom “genuine environmental leaders, the type that cast vision and set direction rather than simply mimic trends.”
“In other words,” he says, “we’re not talking some wimpy, anemic kind of leading, but strong leadership that cuts to the core of issues and grapples with them; makes clear, decisive and forward-thinking decisions; and puts those decisions into the public domain … I believe without a doubt we have the intellectual, ethical, creative, and spiritual resources as a community to be a part of the leadership mix identifying and responding to environmental issues rather than reacting and responding to trends.”
Environmental education and so much more
The center’s intended practical impact is two-pronged. The first goal is for institutions, such as Christian colleges, churches, and ministries, to use CEL’s policy and practical recommendations to inform and shape their own environmental policies and practices. For example, CEL’s upcoming Symposium for Sustainability Workers will offer support and professional development to sustainability coordinators from Christian college campuses. Those coordinators will be able to bring the best practices they learn from their colleagues at CEL back to their campuses and implement new sustainability measures there.
The center’s second goal is to train future generations of Christian environmental leaders through two existing student programs aligned with the center—the Creation Care Study Program (CCSP) and Renewal, a student peer-to-peer environmental leadership program with a presence on over 50 Christian college and university campuses.
“We’re not talking some wimpy, anemic kind of leading, but strong leadership that cuts to the core of issues and grapples with them.”
In fact, the spark that ignited Elisara’s planning around CEL happened in a student-focused, educational context. Three years ago, Elisara was in conversation with Ken Bussema, vice president for student programs at the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities (CCCU), an organization that has been supportive of sustainability measures on its member campuses. Elisara asked Bussema how CCSP, the study abroad program he founded over a decade ago and continues to direct, could better serve those member campuses. Bussema suggested that one important contribution would be CCSP’s assistance in helping CCCU institutions develop sound environmental policy.
That got Elisara’s wheels turning.
He dreamed of a center that would bring Christians into environmental conversations at a new level, equipping them to take part in environmental policy planning on both large and small scales. The center would take Christians beyond the efforts of daily stewardship and into larger decision-making realms. In particular, CEL will address three broad categories of environmental stewardship: sustainability, food, and the built environment.
“I think these broad categories address today’s most important environmental issues,” says Elisara. “Moreover, they are ones the Christian environmental community has focused on the least. So, looking over the Christian environmental landscape, we can fill some gaps.”
From the garden to the city
Helping Elisara fill those gaps are Aaron Routhe, assistant professor of sociology, development, and environmental studies at Houghton College; Clint Baldwin, director of the Center for Global Studies and the Center for Peace and Justice, as well as assistant professor of international studies at George Fox University; and Rusty Pritchard, co-founder and CEO of Flourish. Although CEL has already developed these founding partnerships that span the continent, with Houghton College in the east, George Fox University in the west, and the Creation Care Study Program (CCSP) serving over 30 Christian colleges and universities across the country, it encourages and welcomes support and collaboration with other institutions, colleges, and universities that are passionate about the nexus of issues that forms the focus of the center’s interests of sustainability, the built environment, and food.
Buffalo, N.Y. has proven to be a prime home for CEL to address these interests. Buffalo, one of the country’s many post-industrial cities struggling to rebuild its economy and its identity, might initially seem like a surprising place to locate a major environmental center.
A lot of positive change is happening in Buffalo, a city filled with people of vision and initiative.
But Elisara believes Buffalo is the “perfect city” for both CEL and a new CCSP campus, still in its infancy. The city is manageable, so that the environmental lessons and case studies it yields can be easily comprehended and then extrapolated into larger contexts. Its environs stretch from rural agricultural land, through exurbs and suburbs to the city core, and then through Lake Erie and into the major metropolitan area of Toronto. Such a rich diversity, added to Buffalo’s history as a boom-and-bust city, lends itself to studying the natural environment’s relationship to the social, economic, cultural, and political factors of a region. Plus, a lot of positive change is happening in Buffalo, a city filled with people of vision and initiative.
Says Elisara, “I’d rather be in place were CCSP can make a contribution to the future of a city, like Buffalo, than be in a place where we’re just coasting along with the crowd. The same goes for CEL. Buffalo is a city conducive to doing good work.”
A symposium for sustainability
The kickoff for that good work will be a symposium for sustainability coordinators and leaders from Christian colleges and universities this October 19-21. While sustainability positions at Christian colleges and universities are relatively rare, their ranks are growing and the work is extremely important.
The center would take Christians beyond the efforts of daily stewardship and into larger decision-making realms.
After all, these are the individuals charged with implementing practical sustainability solutions on Christian campuses. Hence the goal of CEL’s symposium is to gather together like-minded colleagues from across the country for networking, assessing the state of sustainability efforts on Christian college campuses, and determining how CEL can support, resource, and strengthen their vital work.
The sustainability symposium is being planned in conjunction with Renewal’s second national student environmental leadership congress (Oct. 21-23), purposefully overlapping a day of the symposium with the student congress for cross-pollination with student leaders.
Future CEL symposiums, seminars, and practical workshops focused on key issues such as food and new urbanism are planned for the future. Other initiatives include publishing an annual review and assessment of pressing environmental issues from a multidisciplinary and Christian worldview perspective; issuing environmental policy recommendations generated by multi-disciplinary panels of Christian scholars; and developing CEL’s website into a trusted clearinghouse for practical information supporting CEL’s policy recommendations.
CEL’s vision is big, to be sure, but Elisara seems undaunted: “We are facing formidable environmental issues that require nothing less than a center prepared to engage these issues with as much spiritual, intellectual, and educational power as it can muster.”
For information about the Center for Environmental Leadership or its upcoming symposium, go to: http://www.center4eleadership.org/
You can also find it on Facebook at: Center for Environmental Leadership
Drew Ward is part of an ongoing experiment living in intentional Christian community and has been teaching Imagining the Earth in Belize and the South Pacific for the Creation Care Study Program since 2002. With a Masters in English (emphasizing Environmental Literature), Drew recently taught writing and literature at Azusa Pacific University, and currently teaches writing at Chaffey College. A writer himself, he’s a former poetry editor for Creation Care magazine and consultant for Restoring Eden. He speaks around the world about the earth, revolutionary marriage, Christian community, and the Biblical imagination.