A Calling to Creation CareSix Duke Divinity Alumni Work With Populations Impacted by Climate Change
Whether the calling to care for the Earth was stirred by childhood memories of camping or a theology course with Dr. Ellen Davis, many Duke Divinity alumni are wrestling with our world’s growing climate crisis and seeking to understand how to respond in their ministries.
How do we care for the most vulnerable? How do we push past people’s apathy? How can we meet all this need with so few resources? These are just a few of the questions that alumni are dealing with as they seek to address climate change in their day-to-day work.
The answers to these questions are varied, as unique as the contexts in which each person works.
Below we introduce six Duke Divinity alumni as they each follow their calling to creation care. Though in different settings and with varied populations, all of these alumni have put at the forefront of their work a desire to care for God’s land and people.
– REV. LOGAN JACKSON
– REV. LOGAN JACKSON
Logan Jackson | Ocracoke United Methodist Church
Master of Divinity, 2017
“Ocracoke Island is essentially a sandbar in the middle of the ocean,” says Rev. Logan Jackson, the lead pastor of Ocracoke UMC in Ocracoke, N.C., whose church is one of three congregational communities on the island. The faith communities often work closely together to reach the various populations and needs on the island.
Jackson says, “With global warming, we have seen an increase in the number and strength of storms as well as major shoaling and erosion of the Outer Banks.” The only ways to get to the island are ferries, boats, or planes. The lack of bridge access shapes two big issues that affect the population in Ocracoke: tourism and medical access.
Ocracoke survives economically through the tourism industry. If there is no way on or off of the island during or after storms, visitors cannot get there to support the residents via tourism. “When hotels are left empty, restaurants have no customers, and shops cannot sell goods, that affects the vitality of the church and community as a whole,” Jackson says.
In the same way, people in Ocracoke are often left stranded during medical emergencies and natural disasters. Jackson notes, “I have heard of EMTs being unable to get back to the island during storms, residents being left without care when medical professionals cannot reach them, and the Coast Guard having to rescue people off grounded ferries.”
Jackson, who grew up in the mountains of East Tennessee, began his career with over 10 years in camping ministry before becoming a pastor. He says, “I have always been interested in the environment, but my experiences have helped me to relate God’s creation to the local church on a level that has inspired the laity to get involved.” The church council at Ocracoke UMC helped Jackson become trained as an EarthKeeper, providing helpful feedback and active participation in his training process.
At first, Jackson wasn’t sure how the church would feel about this goal, but they understood and supported his calling to care for the island of Ocracoke and God’s creation. In beginning this work with his congregation, Jackson is focused on small projects: “We collect and recycle paper, shred it, and have it available for community members to use in gardens and compost bins which are fairly common on the island. We also collect charging cords and small electronics and send them off to a recycling facility that breaks them down and turns them into new electronics for people to purchase.”
His church’s support makes him hopeful for bigger projects in the future to help preserve and protect the wildlife, the island, and the populations most vulnerable to the climate crisis.
Dr. Jennifer Lawson | Pediatrician at Duke
Master of Arts in Christian Studies, 2017
Dr. Jennifer Lawson, a faculty associate at Duke’s Trent Center, is a pediatrician in Duke General Pediatric and Adolescent Health whose clinic site cares for predominately underserved families.
“Climate change exacerbates issues that impact health,” says Lawson. “Our patients who are more vulnerable due to social, developmental, or chronic health concerns are at increased risk of health consequences from climate change. It is essential that we fully acknowledge and address the integral connections to issues of equity and justice. This must be part of every consideration, action, and engagement on this issue.”
For vulnerable populations, these climate impacts are wide-ranging, from development, nutrition, heat-related illness, respiratory illness, mental health, infectious disease, cardiovascular disease, and more.
Therefore, in her work, Lawson endeavors to provide climate-informed care and to advocate for health systems to adopt sustainable practices as part of their work of caring, including advocating for climate change and health education in the medical school curriculum. She helped launch the school’s first formal curricular thread for first-year medical students at Duke on climate change, health, and equity, which included lectures, field trips, discussion, and self-directed learning.
Lawson was also a Climate Change Faculty Fellow this past year for an undergraduate course called UNIV102: Let’s Talk About Climate Change, which was co-taught by Duke Divinity Professor Norman Wirzba. Lawson calls him “a profound inspiration in this space.”
“During my time at Duke Divinity, I deeply appreciated [Wirzba’s] Theology of Place class, which was the first time I encountered his transformational way of seeing and being. Norman models an open, caring, thoughtful, and deeply engaged heart endeavoring to notice, listen, acknowledge, and engage with respect.”
Lawsons seeks to model this way of being with her patients and students as well, and feels particularly inspired and encouraged by the dedicated engagement students bring to climate issues. “We have a group of medical students engaged both in the community and in educational initiatives,” she says. “Last year they collaborated with community organizations on a tree-planting project in East Durham. This year they are collaborating on curricular development.”
In the medical field, more visible communication about climate is taking place in the public sphere, more voices are being heard, and more solutions are being included, says Lawson. “While we are surrounded by amazing young people who are actively engaged, we also need to be active, responsible participants as meaningful change cannot be accomplished alone. Solutions are available but we need systemic will and full participation from all of us. Ideally, we connect in our hearts toward a practice of care.”
– REV. MEGAN PARDUE
– REV. MEGAN PARDUE
Megan Pardue | Refuge Home Church
Master of Divinity, 2012
The goal of Refuge Home Church in Durham, N.C., where Rev. Megan Pardue serves as lead pastor, is to live out the practice of dependence on one another, reject consumerism and individualization, and care for God’s land. In addition to meeting outside or in congregant homes, Refuge Home Church meets for weekly shared meals, supports a community garden, and seeks to spend church dollars ethically and locally. Their work with food and community meals helps the congregation build relationships but also intersects with the climate crisis.
Says Pardue, “Emerging research shows that communities who are already eating together are better able to respond to climate-related weather disasters. If a church community is already eating together, they know how to work together, who has access to what supplies, how to feed a crowd, and which neighbors are most vulnerable in a power outage, among other strengths.”
Pardue says the scriptural and theological formation she received at Duke Divinity School made it impossible to look away as she learned more about creation in crisis.
“I began to see and experience the world through the lens of the powers and principalities, which Dr. Chuck Campbell explains as ‘the systems and structures that hold people captive,’ and notice, to paraphrase Dr. Ellen Davis, you can’t go more than a few chapters in the Hebrew Bible without reading something about land,” Pardue says.
By meeting for worship in people’s homes or outside in city parks instead of putting time and resources into church building maintenance, the church achieves multiple goals: “With no building to heat or cool, our literal and metaphorical energy is directed elsewhere,” says Pardue, “and meeting outdoors connects us to nature and makes conversation, practices, and activism related to creation care a natural outcome of our worshipping life.”
The lack of building space is an environmental and economic decision. “In my ministry context, the biggest risk my congregation faces is our captivity to the powers of capitalism, consumerism, and individualism—which I understand to be the primary drivers of the climate crisis,” Pardue notes.
“Even in faith communities, the stories of growth and ‘more and newer and better’ we’ve been sold require active resistance, and we cannot resist these powers alone. This impacts every aspect of my work as pastor—constantly countering these stories through preaching our dependence on each other, on the earth, and on the Triune God and then practicing what we preach in big and small ways.”
The church’s volunteer work with a community garden is one of those ways—helping them live out the practice of dependence on one another, rejection of consumerism and individualization, and care for God’s land.
“What was a place of ruin—filled with trash and used needles—now welcomes neighbors with bright red strawberries and cucumber vine-covered arches that look like they belong in a children’s book. Neighbors stop to talk, taste, and comment on the beauty,” says Pardue.
“Refuge is a church for the disillusioned, often folks who have been hurt by the church or who feel like they don’t fit in a traditional church context. With this work, we become closer to the earth, closer to our food, and closer to each other.”
– DREW WOTEN
– DREW WOTEN
Drew Woten | Open Table Ministry
Master of Divinity, 2020
Drew Woten serves as a local UMC pastor and the executive director of Open Table Ministry, a nonprofit that works alongside unhoused people in Durham.
“The individuals we serve live outside, in vehicles, or in other places not meant for habitation,” says Woten. “Folks are directly impacted by the elements and extreme weather events—which are often sudden and severe. It can be difficult to communicate potential danger to our unsheltered neighbors who sometimes lack access to phones or the internet. Even though their personal footprint is relatively small, the unsheltered community often bears a disproportionate impact of adverse weather events.”
Open Table Ministry seeks to be nimble and responsive, working alongside the unsheltered community in Durham to identify what members need during specific seasons, from clothing to survival gear to weather-dependent resources like sunscreen or blankets.
Open Table offers programs like mail services, ready ID, and emergency winter shelter when the temperature drops below 32 degrees, prioritizing families, children, and individuals who are medically vulnerable. The nonprofit also maintains the “Free Store” each week, an outreach event where volunteers serve between 40 to 50 individuals to help provide showers, clothing, and personal items. The store relies heavily on the local community for volunteers and donations, with nearly 66 percent of the items distributed being donated goods.
Open Table is seeking to overcome homelessness through the power of community, says Woten: “We named ourselves Open Table Ministry because we wanted people to know all are welcome here. We offer an open table, where there is room for everyone. We hold solidarity, inclusion, and community as key values while we work together toward stability and wholeness.”
Woten finds encouragement in this hard work through inspiring and courageous volunteers and partners. “Our team works diligently to provide clothing, blankets, and survival gear, but too often unsheltered individuals are unable to access the resources to adequately clean and care for items they receive,” he says.
“I have been encouraged by community partners who are exploring the possibility of acquiring a mobile laundry truck or installing laundry facilities for Durham’s unsheltered community to access. This opportunity would allow folks the dignity and respect to care for their clothing and possessions.”
Sharon Schulze | Parktown Food Hub
Master of Divinity, 2016
Schulze says her Old Testament class at Duke Divinity formed her perspective on creation care. The course connected creation “in the beginning” with all that is created, including all people. Schulze says, “If the needs of people are being well met then the Earth will benefit, but when the actions of humans bring harm, the Earth will suffer. In that way, caring deeply for the needs of people around us is in fact, caring for the Earth.”
Sharon Schulze is the founder and operator of the Parktown Food Hub, a food pantry in South Durham, N.C., that practices radical generosity. She lives out those Old Testament theologies in this work, meeting the most basic needs of people. “We share food with anyone who asks, without a requirement for ID, means testing, or anything else,” she says.
“My faith is such that I believe that God loved us and sent Jesus to show us how to live, which is to say, to love everyone in all circumstances,” says Schulze. “For me, that means giving food to everyone who asks, even if I wonder how great their physical need is. Instead, we say that if someone believes receiving food will address their problems then we want to do that because hunger comes in all forms and to address physical hunger but ignore spiritual, emotional, or intellectual hunger is not what Jesus would have us do.”
The Parktown Food Hub includes a garden that is moving toward complete accessibility and uses organic methods to grow food that is then shared with the community. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the garden became critical as a gathering place for people who had food needs and longed to get out of the house but were concerned about exposure to the virus.
Schulze says, “It is impossible to adopt belief around Jesus and then disregard nature, means of food, and the benefits of working together outside. We rapidly learned that our garden was very good at growing people in community and relationships and consciously chose to put people first in all of our activities—including gardening—and trust that in loving people the rest would come together in God’s time.”
The Food Hub works with a broad range of people, including many people of color. Says Schulze, “It is well known that the destruction of the earth and all creation disproportionately affect people who are not white. Populations that are more likely to live in substandard housing, to live in neighborhoods that have unhealthy air, have less access to trees-and-grass nature … everything considered healthy and good is most often denied to people who are not white.”
The Parkland Food Hub wants to combat these inequities. “Providing healthy food creates a situation where people without resources have the strength and energy to help make their communities stronger and healthier.
“We have worked hard to create a culture of caring—caring for each other, caring for our neighbors whether we know them well or not, and caring for all the resources that have been entrusted to us.”
Avery Davis Lamb | Creation Justice Ministries
Master of Theological Studies and Master of Environmental Management (Nicholas School of the Environment), 2022
The mission of Creation Justice Ministries, says co-executive director Avery Davis Lamb, is “to educate, equip, and mobilize Christian individuals, congregations, denominations, and communions to protect, restore, and rightly share God’s creation.”
Creation Justice Ministries is a nonprofit organization that represents the creation care and environmental justice policies of major Christian denominations and communities across the country. The organization works in cooperation with 38 national faith bodies including Protestant denominations, Orthodox communions, regional faith groups, and local congregants to protect and restore God’s creation.
This vast reach encompasses multiple ecosystems, which means people are affected by the climate crisis in different ways, says Lamb. “Whether floods, fires, droughts, or anything else from the litany of climate impacts, churches and communities are seeing the effects of a warmer world. In turn, many communities are rethinking their mission in the light of these impacts.”
Creation Justice Ministries seeks to help churches consider how they can be hubs of resilience in their communities during the physical, social, and spiritual storms of the climate crisis.
Says Lamb, “In many communities, churches can be key sites of resilience, but it requires the church to look closely at how climate change is impacting and will impact their surroundings, and consider how they can use their physical, social, and spiritual assets to address those impacts.”
As a student at both Duke Divinity School and the Nicholas School of the Environment, Lamb acquired both pragmatic and theoretical skills to protect and restore God’s creation. “I had the opportunity to step back and consider how I was thinking about the problem of climate change while developing the tools to address the spiritual and material roots and symptoms. Perhaps most importantly, it deepened my scriptural understanding of our call to creation justice,” says Lamb.
Creation care goes beyond a few key passages of Scripture, he noted, “It goes into the fabric of Scripture that tells the story of a God who created a world out of love and wants to draw ever closer to that world. A God whose home is among mortals. If God so loves this world, then we ought to love it, too.”
Lamb continues: “Doing ‘creation justice’ means protecting, restoring, and rightly sharing God’s creation. At Creation Justice Ministries, we seek justice for all of God’s creation, including the human beings who live in it. Our approach to creating justice is informed by respect and love for our Creator. We draw on the rich heritage of Christian scriptures and traditions which call us not only to till and keep the Earth, but also to act for racial, economic, and environmental justice.”
Last summer, Creation Justice Ministries convened pastors, theologians, and scientists at the Duke Marine Lab for three days to engage in collaborative learning about ministry in a time of climate change.
“One evening, we took a catamaran from the Marine Lab docks out beyond the barrier islands to look out on the open ocean,” says Lamb. “As the sun set over the water, we held a service of lament for all the ways the ocean has been witness to death and tragedy. It was a profound moment, looking at the beauty of God’s sacred creation while we lamented all the ways we have desecrated it.
“It was also a moment of hope to see how God’s good creation might still shine forth even through the cloud of destruction we have wrought upon it.”