A Faith-based Approach to Environmental Justice

By Tricia Bosma

As followers of Jesus Christ, we seek to submit all parts of our lives to the lordship of Christ.  This includes our citizenship. We also seek to model our lives after Jesus’ life, striving to be Christlike. Stewarding our civic actions in the public square includes how we love our neighbors as ourselves through the model of Christ’s love for us; this is our political discipleship.  

Another election year is looming and, undoubtedly, life will be increasingly unsettled for many individuals, homes, organizations, and businesses. The already contentious political landscape will escalate to a heightened state of differences in our very diverse society. Different people will respond with different emotions: anger, apathy, avoidance, avarice, just to name a few. None of these responses, however, is consistent with submitting our political lives to the lordship of Jesus Christ.

Faith-based organizations (FBOs), however, have the potential to provide citizens with the spiritual resources necessary to approach civic engagement with hope and a sacred calling to honor the human dignity of every person in our political community. Faith-based organizations, as well as other distinctive civil society institutions in our pluralistic public square, can provide avenues for individuals to assure their distinctive, faith-motivated voices and acts of citizenship will be heard and seen. This is especially the case in the turbulent times of an election year. Faith-based organizations that have explicit, spiritually-motivated advocacy and/or lobbying policies and practices in place empower their stakeholders to intentionally steward their civic callings based on their sacred animating beliefs. It is worth noting that faith-based values often call for advocacy for the oppressed and the powerless: groups of people that can’t speak for themselves.  

The Office of Social Justice in the Christian Reformed Church of North America is an example of a FBO that provides wide avenues for Christians to fully live out their citizenship callings.  They focus their attention on the following issues: immigration, refugees, creation care, abortion, religious persecution, Middle East peace, poverty and hunger, and restorative justice.  

Steve Mulder serves as the director of the Office of Social (OSJ) Climate Witness Project for creation care. The Climate Witness Project provides a tangible way for individuals and organizations to partner in creation care initiatives. The Climate Witness Project sees environmental issues being a larger vision to engage in advocacy that upholds God’s creation: “[We] call upon the churches, members, and denominational bodies to be voices for justice and public examples in the effort to live sustainably within our God-given resources, to promote stewardship in our own communities and our nations, and to seek justice for the poor and vulnerable among us and for future generations.”  He and his colleagues work diligently so that many individuals, congregations, and other institutions will actively live out their sacred call to protect God’s creation through sustainable practices, and through advocacy in appropriate ways.   

Public Policy

The OSJ provides resources to learn about the root causes of poverty, hunger, and oppression. Their work seeks to empower individuals, local churches, and organizations to call on those in power to improve systems and enact just public policy. The Office of Social Justice, including the Climate Witness Project and its other sectors of work, strive to keep its stakeholders up-to-date with current issues being addressed in public policy using an Advocacy Action Center. In the Action Center, folks can find links to training materials on how to advocate for causes they may be interested in. There are also links to grassroots lobbying opportunities related to current policies being deliberated on in governing bodies. By providing these connections and training, they are making it possible for those who partner with them and embody the same sacred animating beliefs to be stewarding their citizenship to its fullest extent.  

As the 2020 election year draws near, the Office of Social Justice will make sure they adhere to special public policies that regulate a nonprofit’s work in advocacy. Organizations with 501(c)3 status cannot publish or distribute statements that are on behalf of any candidate. Steve Mulder notes that as an agency that serves a denomination, as well as the wider Christian public, they are careful not to promote a specific position or candidate on issues. Rather, they help educate their stakeholders regarding the issues to inform the civic actions they will be making. They will continue to do so throughout the upcoming election season.

The Standards for Excellence Institute also gives two resources that nonprofits can consult for guidance in advocacy/lobbying during election years: The Rules of the Game: A Guide to Election Related Activities for 501(c)3 Organizations and Playing by the Rules: A Handbook on Voter Participation and Education Work for 501(c)3 Organizations. They would be valuable resources for any nonprofit.  

Organizational Practices

The Office of Social Justice’s work spans many social justice issues. Within these categories OSJ serves four functions.

  1. Educating individuals, congregations and organizations about a variety of national and global issues. They offer online content, and they provide customizable programming for on-location educational experiences.

  2. Providing direct avenues for grassroots advocacy.  Additionally, they provide training in how to advocate and lobby with published materials for individuals and groups to use.  

  3. Communicating through four different email newsletters and social media networks that serve to connect the interested.  

  4. Distributing worship materials that help congregations worship around a variety of justice themes.

The OSJ has designed its internal practices to include a full gamut of education on important civic issues for those with whom they partner. The OSJ seeks to educate on social issues relevant to their faith-based values and on how to increase advocacy for the issues.  Additionally, the OSJ provides ways for their stakeholders to be connected with them and with each other through regular well-produced newsletters. Finally, the OSJ enfolds its faith intentionally through worship materials that their faith communities can utilize.  

Steve Mulder notes that part of their ongoing work is to find ways to relate the impact of climate change to the everyday lives of their stakeholders. The Climate Witness Project has extraordinary education opportunities surrounding the effects of climate change on the people in Kenya and Bangladesh. However, creating relevance to residents in West Michigan is an ongoing challenge. The OSJ has started partnerships with local organizations that can bring to light ways in which climate change is already at work even in their own communities.

Public Positioning

According to Steve Mulder, the Climate Witness Project’s greatest work is their partnerships with other organizations. These partnerships include congregations, other faith-based organizations, as well as non-sectarian organizations. In 2017, the Climate Witness Project established the Grand Rapids Area Advocacy Team. Its work was to identify and advocate for local and state-wide climate policy. Other members of this team included non-sectarian groups like Citizen’s Climate Lobby and Michigan League of Conservation Voters. Prior to the 2018 election, this advocacy team held a candidate education meeting with four candidates running for state offices. As they continue to broaden their work into a greater variety of denominations and into the public at large, they will be able to share how their Christian faith informs their dedicated work to climate care and other issues of social justice.  

Through their work on public policy, organizational practices and public positioning, The Office of Social Justice, through its creation care arm, enable Christ followers to flourish in their Christian civic engagement through promoting advocacy and lobbying efforts. Most faith-based nonprofits do not consider as part of this mission to partner with individuals and organizations in advocacy efforts. Wherever a FBO currently stands on advocacy for their cause, the Office of Social Justice provides a model for next steps in Christ-like advocacy during the unsettling election season, which will soon be reality. This advocacy work not only gives a voice for the voiceless, but also gives a distinctive faith-based voice to stakeholders who make civic decisions based on their faith. 

Tricia Bosma is a seminarian at Calvin Theological Seminary. Following a 20-year career in elementary and middle school education she is pursuing a call into ministry. Tricia is a 2019 Sacred Sector Fellow, where she served at Plainsong Farm in Rockford, MI. At Plainsong Farm Tricia supported the organization’s ministry of faith, food and hospitality.