Rooted and Grounded Conference Yields Hope for the Future

Tim Wiebe-Neufeld, pastor of First Mennonite Church, Edmonton, Alberta

In early October 2015, 145 people representing more than 20 Christian denominations gathered at the campus of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary to explore biblical, theological, and practical themes of care for creation and connection to the land at the second Rooted and Grounded conference. The event was cosponsored by Blessed Earth’s Seminary Stewardship Alliance and the Institute for Ecological Regeneration, under the umbrella of Merry Lea Environmental Learning Center. 

AMBS hosted its initial Rooted and Grounded conference in 2014 in response to the growing awareness of environmental degradation, detachment from the land, and the call to delve more deeply into the restorative aspects of the biblical text. “I’m thrilled with the ongoing interest in seeing these conversations about land and faith,” said Janeen Bertsche Johnson, campus pastor, sessional faculty, and chair of the Rooted and Grounded planning team. 

The conference featured three keynote speakers who addressed issues of faith and land through the lens of humanity’s understanding of dominion in its relationship with creation. In Genesis 1, God’s call for humanity to have dominion or rule over creation was the topic of the opening keynote address from Wilma Bailey (listen), professor emerita at Christian Theological Seminary. She outlined how in the biblical text, ruling the earth included limits and the responsibility to ensure that creation functioned as God intended. In examining the linguistic and contextual elements of the passage, she noted that ancient people had little control over the natural world. “Today humans win most of the time, and that has been detrimental, because humans did not prove themselves to be wise enough to keep things in balance. They have been proven to be poor rulers of what was entrusted to them.” 

Humanity’s misuse of creation was further explored in the second keynote address, by Sylvia Keesmaat (listen), adjunct professor at the Institute for Christian Studies and the Toronto School of Theology.  Drawing from the book of Romans, Keesmaat invited listeners to enter with Paul into lament over the destruction of creation and marginalized people by what she called "the violence of idolatry."  She said, “The gods of empire always promise abundance while they suck the earth dry, grind down the heads of the poor, and destroy the inheritance of the meek.” The voicing of such grief was meaningful for Karla Kauffman, a participant from Three Rivers, Michigan.  She said, “Sylvia expressed some of the lament that exists in my subconscious.”

In response to the brokenness of humanity’s relationship with creation, Keesmaat highlighted Paul’s affirmation of hope in God through Jesus Christ.  She challenged participants to reject the safety and security of empire in favor of what sustains community and creation. She asked, “What would it look like to really hold on for dear life, hang on against the odds and the evidence to what is good: the delight and joy and fruitfulness of creation?” She also wondered what technologies and cultural practices we might forgo – knowing their negative impact on the environment and the vulnerable – in order to embrace Paul’s call to "hate what is evil; hold fast to what is good.”

In the third and final keynote address of the conference, Ched Myers (listen) further contrasted the values of empire with the biblical message. He urged theologians and educators to address the "theological error" of spiritual detachment, where the physical world is regarded as outside of God’s concern, which is focused instead on some heavenly realm. He said, “We Christians must embrace afresh the incarnation. The notion of the divine taking on flesh was as scandalous in antiquity as it is today, but from this core New Testament conviction flows the rationale for protecting and nurturing all of life." Myers advocated replacing our focus on political boundaries with an understanding of the bio-regions in which we live. As a leader in the watershed discipleship movement, he suggested that an understanding of the natural interrelationships of an area’s rivers and tributaries could be a beginning point for bringing the spiritual and the physical world together. “We have a long way to go, and not much time,” said Myers.

Throughout the conference the relationship between faith, land, and care for creation was further explored through presentation of 29 papers and 13 workshops. Reflections on biblical perspectives, creation-oriented mindsets, and migration legacies were complemented by presentations on restorative justice, farming practices, and incorporating creation-care into churches and times of worship. The practical connection between faith and practice was further demonstrated through eight immersion experiences, which included tours of sustainable farms, environmental learning centers, and other projects engaged in creation care. These tours gave participants a chance to see theory put into action. “Who knew a trip to a sewage treatment plant could be so inspiring?” said Andy Brubacher Kaethler, assistant professor of Christian formation and culture at AMBS. The conference also featured a forum presentation by Brian Sauder of Faith in Place in Chicago, a sermon by AMBS student Alyssa Mezsick, and several times of worship focused on creation themes. 

A widely appreciated feature of the conference was time for dialogue and conversation, both informally and within presentations. Such times offered opportunity to discuss issues, share ideas, and offer support for action. William Kyle, whose wife Veronica works for Faith in Place, said, “To see how people are thinking outside the box, it makes me want to jump right out myself.” 

One theme that emerged was the opportunity for seminaries to take a leadership role in bringing the theoretical and the practical together. A workshop on Princeton Theological Seminary’s "farminary" project, which incorporates gardening with theological reflection, was followed up with a suppertime conversation for those interested in learning more.  AMBS’s long-term commitment to creation care has also been reflected in practical ways, including constructing its library to high environmental standards, returning lawns to prairie grasses, incorporating gardening into its campus, and using organics in its meal services wherever possible. Bertsche Johnson recognized the Rooted and Grounded gatherings as further steps along this trajectory: “AMBS has been deeply shaped by these two conferences, and our commitment to integrating creation care into our program has especially grown.” 

 In a forum at the end of the conference, participants urged organizers to keep the conversation going. They suggested publishing papers from the conference in a journal, sharing contact information among participants, and more conferences. Kevin Leary, program coordinator at Camp Friedenswald, said, “We should have a conference like this for young people. I think teenagers would be really engaged.”

Many participants acknowledged the need for action reflecting a change of mindset, while recognizing the immense task of a full-scale shift in our relationship with creation. 

In his address, Myers pointed to the significant role the church can play in being agents of the change required:  "The good news is that . . . our churches are perhaps the most well-positioned organic communities in our fragmented and fragmenting society to embrace the transition mission, which is in short that everything must change and soon."

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