In the past, Christians and environmentalists often seemed to be in separate camps.
Sometimes they were separated by stereotypes, even though most Christians believe in environmental stewardship and most environmentalists are devoutly spiritual.
Allen Johnson, founder of Christians For The Mountains, has been working to overcome the problem. Part of it, he feels, is that environmental issues don’t receive the attention they deserve, and whatever information is made available goes through a filter either created by the media or generated from the pulpit.
“It’s underreported,” he said. “Most people don’t know what’s going on.”
He caught a first-hand glimpse of what was going on from his home in Dunmore, West Virginia, not too far removed from a mountaintop removal project in Monongahela, that in recent years has made national headlines for rampant groundwater contamination and the wholesale rape of a once-scenic landscape.
“I live a little further east than where this is going on,” he said. “I live in the midst of that. It’s a pretty area, and that’s how I got involved.”
That’s also how he became the director of a video called “Mountain Mourning,” which his organization actively promotes and distributes.
Johnson will even go so far as to say that conservative Christian values have worked at cross purposes with the environmental movement. Again, it’s a question of perception, always a slippery slope lined with a few sticks of rock-blasting dynamite.
“The world is going to go to hell in a hand basket,” he said. “There’s been a fatalism, and I think there’s a tendency in the clergy to not want to rock the boat and stir up the people.”
As the Christian community looks to the gospel for guidance, there is a serious absence of scriptural precedent for environmental stewardship. “In Bible times most of the world was a wilderness,” he said.
“I should also mention the power of some major figures, D. James Kennedy and Jerry Falwell. They were negative toward environmentalism. I’m speaking out. They were too much in cahoots with big corporate money.”
He planned to be a research biologist and, in 1993, visited Haiti and witnessed the hideous damage wrought by deforestation. Later, in Philadelphia, he was on hand for “the beginning of what’s called the Evangelical Environmental Network.
“That’s one of four partners of the National Religious Partnership on Environment. One of them is Jewish, one is Catholic, and another is the National Council of Churches. That would be Presbyterian, Methodist, what’s called the main-line protestant organizations.”
He had a radio program called Creation Song, “basically dealing with religious faith and environmental advocacy,” and became involved in a Christian campaign for forest conservation. That’s when he met up with some Appalachian Voices people.
“Some of us felt we needed to do something more local,” he said. “A national scope covers everything across the country, but there are issues in Appalachia and we could do it better as a religious organization dealing with regional issues.”
Christians For The Mountains came together in 2005 in Charleston WV, its mission to “work with the churches and try to get the message out.”
So far about 2500 copies of the DVD have been produced and distributed. “We’ve given many away,” he said, “and we have a lot of doors opening.”
The group also distributes a brochure with an aerial photo of removed mountaintops in West Virginia and a caption—deliberately misquoting John Denver—that says “Almost Level.”
An article ran in Newsweek, which snagged the attention of Bill Moyers. Support has poured forth from the youth groups of the participating churches.
“This is an issue that has come of age,” he said. “Within the younger rising generation they are increasingly more concerned and the church leaders that resonate with them have embraced this to a certain degree.”
Some Christian colleges are now on board, and in the last couple years the National Association of Evangelicals in Washington has worked up some level of concern for global climate change.
“But it’s a collision with what’s going on with the conservative church, which always tended to endorse good statements but it didn’t go much further. Particularly the conservative church has been a factor in George W. Bush’s election and he’s been one of the worst environmental presidents of the century.
“Bush has obviously mesmerized the more conservative Christians. I’m a mainstream Christian and I’m supporting diametric opposition to the Bush involvement.”
To expand his following, Johnson has expanded his message. “We’re really asking people to support clean water and clean air. Those aren’t the only issues but we can’t take on everything. The clock is ticking. The transition from coal to renewable resources needs to go faster, and we support that.”
Christians For The Mountains runs on a shoestring budget with no paid staff, a volunteer steering committee and, to date, no attempts to get grants or find funding among its membership. “We just hit the road running. We may just have to step back and see how we want to proceed.”
Another DVD is in production, “Rise Up, West Virginia,” which will continue the earlier film’s documentary-style approach. “It will be more stories of the people, walking around their back yards and showing the mountain areas. Just the voice of the common people. We won’t be talking to professors.”
As the next election approaches, he anticipates the focus may become increasingly political. “We want to keep pointing people to get politically involved with organizations that are set up to do that well. We want to push the candidates to address the mountain top and the bigger issue of coal and electric power. We’ll encourage the churches to look at candidates from their own theological, moral and ethical issues.”
For more information go to christiansforthemountains.org, call (304) 799-6000, or write to Rt. Box 119 B, Dunmore, WV 24934.