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AMBS finds affirmation and inspiration for creation care efforts

Mary E. Klassen

November 18, 2013

AMBS students Janette Gallagher, Katarina Friesen and Ryan Harker explore one of the AMBS wildflower and prairie grass areas during the orientation course required of all students.

AMBS students Janette Gallagher, Katarina Friesen and Ryan Harker explore one of the AMBS wildflower and prairie grass areas during the orientation course required of all students.

Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary found both affirmation and inspiration when two representatives, Janeen Bertsche Johnson and Ryan Harker, attended the second annual gathering of the Seminary Stewardship Alliance (SSA).

Of the 21 member schools, AMBS is the smallest, but is already doing more in creation care efforts than some other schools, Johnson and Harker realized. However, as they drove home from the October 23–26 conference at Asbury Theological Seminary, Wilmore, Ky., they generated an action plan for how AMBS can expand this commitment.

“We recognized that creation care is deeply rooted in our theology as Anabaptists. We just need to articulate it better,” Johnson, AMBS campus pastor and a naturalist, reflected.

Harker said, “People ask me why I’m so interested in agriculture, when I didn’t grow up on a farm. It’s because I became an Anabaptist. When I read writings from Anabaptists, simplicity is always tied up with what they are talking about. It’s part of our theology in a way that isn’t in every other tradition.”

Johnson and Harker appreciated the opportunities at the SSA gathering to learn from other schools. Some of what they learned affirmed what AMBS is already doing, such as the student-run garden, recycling and composting; other presentations and conversations gave them new ideas.

SSA was formed in 2012 to help seminaries make creation care a part of campus culture so pastors leave with a deep appreciation for this effort. Harker, a Master of Divinity student at AMBS, explained that the goal is for these pastors to then lead their congregations to catch on to the importance of caring for God’s creation.

AMBS is one of nine schools invited to join SSA this year; 12 were members during its first year. Sara Wenger Shenk, AMBS president, shares the enthusiasm of Johnson and Harker in becoming part of this association. “In many unheralded ways, AMBS has been living gently within our natural environment. It is time to publicly announce that care for creation is one of the most urgent callings of Christian leaders today,” she said.

To be a member of SSA, the president of each seminary must sign a covenant calling for ten distinct actions. These include teaching creation care, modeling sustainable practices, facilitating spiritual formation through creation care, establishing annual goals and holding each other accountable for and celebrating accomplishments.

Before attending the conference, Johnson and Harker compiled a list of efforts AMBS is already doing in creation care. Areas of prairie grass and rain gardens; a commitment to energy efficiency in heating, lighting and building materials; and creation care themes in chapel services, forums, retreats and courses all signal AMBS’s well-established commitment to creation care.

However, Johnson and Harker agree that one area where AMBS needs to grow is in biblical reflection on the importance of creation care and integrating this more fully throughout the curriculum. “We already have courses on biblical reflection on peace and justice, on gender, on atonement, but not on creation care,” Harker noted.

Johnson added, “I also have hope that AMBS can be at the forefront of the conversation Mennonite Church USA is having, since we passed the creation care resolution at the convention in Phoenix last summer.” She notes that because AMBS already works with Goshen College’s Merry Lea Environmental Learning Center in several ways, this collaboration could expand to include curriculum and coordinating events for the church. One event already in early planning for next fall is a conference on land and Christian faith.

Another new step for AMBS is participating in the Seed to Feed program of Church Community Services in Elkhart. This community-based agriculture program provides produce and cash crops to support the food pantry of the faith-based agency. AMBS plans to make space available and to encourage students and staff to contribute time for the gardening tasks.

Johnson and Harker also hope to enhance the seminary’s walking path. By adding more native trees, circling the path through the prairie grasses and setting up signs that explain the features, it can become an educational resource for the surrounding community.

“Constructing the library was a turning point in which we said there are economic and theological reasons for us to think differently about facilities. And what we are doing with our grounds is unique among seminaries,” Johnson said.

The AMBS library, completed in 2007, was designed and constructed to meet criteria of the US Green Building Council, was the first theological library to register with the Council and earned a Gold Certification in the LEED program (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design). This led the way for incorporating sustainable features in multiple projects that followed.

“Our culture as an Anabaptist seminary supports this focus on creation care,” Harker added. “We are recognizing what is already here in our tradition that we hadn’t realized. I saw how much other schools are struggling to attach creation care under their already established theological framework. For us it’s already in there; we are just digging it out.”