A Strange Compliment

Today we bring you our first guest blogger after our long break. Ashley-Veronika writes a memoir type piece on being a Christian among environmentalists. I’m sure you can relate to her experience. We welcome your comments!

“A Strange Compliment”

“I’ll admit, when I first found out you were a Christian, I thought ‘Oh, no…” Jay said to me during a farewell tradition for staff at The Outdoor School at Rancho Alegre. It was an unforgettable hot day in June and our backyard BBQ site overlooked a sparkling Lake Cachuma. For two years I have lived on this mountain outside Santa Barbara, CA with a cohort of friends and colleagues and together we have taught thousands of 6th grade campers about the joys of nature and the benefits of environmentalism. But on this last day, I was poised under instructions to receive verbal praise and appreciation from each of them without responding, to just to soak up the love offered by them all. This ritual, performed compulsively for each leaving staff member, is grotesquely called a “sunshine enema.”

Yet, that “sunshine enema” didn’t begin with Jay’s comment about how I express my faith in Jesus. It began with a quiet moment as I took my place in the lawn chair, then one at a time each of my friends sitting around me offered very moving praise for my friendship and work. Bryan spoke of how he would miss my companionship, and Rachel told me how much she admired my teaching style and curriculum. I’ll particularly never forget my supervisor Justin telling me with tears in his eyes “You NEED to keep teaching. The kids out there need you.” Part of the exercise is that you may not verbally respond at all to the sunshine given to you, though I could not help but tear up at that. It was a beautiful experience that I’ll never forget, and I certainly left glowing, tearing, and grateful, but also bewildered by the comments at the very end. It was stunning how when Jay did bring up my presence as the Christian on staff, immediately everyone else supported that comment. The was a stark change in the focus of my ‘sunshine.’

“I felt like I had to guard myself, watch my actions and words around you or I would be judged…” It’s an interesting way to begin an ‘appreciation,’ isn’t it? I certainly thought so. Yet this comment turned out by the end of it to be one of the most interesting and pivotal compliments I’ve ever received.

In my field of work, a Christian is rather an anomaly. I was a professional naturalist at an outdoor school in California. This means that every week a new group of twelve year olds arrived at our site on a bus, and we take them on hikes to look for signs of wildlife, to learn about the evolutionary adaptations of mountain lions, the ancient geology of the area, and about the stories and traditions of Native Americans who survived here. We helped class after class of kids create a personal connection with nature.

It makes sense that this work would attract young environmentalists on a mission to make the world a better place, who often held very liberal and secular idealism. My coworkers, and everyone else I met during five years in the field, tended to take modern ethics for granted and were people who had ‘spiritual but not religious personal connection with Nature’. The culture among naturalists in California was wild in many senses of the word—it was colorful, open-minded, cheerful, simple, embracing old fashioned crafts like home brewing and chicken farming, and new progressive morals like tolerance and free love. A delightful lifestyle, but one with substantial differences from the bookish, chaste, disciplined Christian lifestyle with traditional morals that yet melds with any and all hobbies. This cultural difference meant more for me than just being unable to find a carpool to church, or explaining why I don’t participate in some of the more popular recreational activities amongst naturalists (smoking weed and casual sex, for instance). It meant that there would be occasional, oblique ideological conflicts that were never directly mentioned until Jay spoke up that last afternoon during my farewell.

For my years as a naturalist, the nearest town was over 45 minutes away from our mountain community, and so we were more than coworkers. I spent many Sunday evenings with my lovely, but few, neighbors. My nearest friend, Rachel, arranged weekly potlucks at her kitchen which she named The Happy Pocket. We would gather and play music, drink home-brewed ginger beer, eat fried quinoa patties, discuss the adventures we had with the kids that week. When they brought weed to smoke, they were always kind enough to offer even while they understood I wasn’t interested. I always felt we got along well, even if I did feel a bit lonely in my faith sometimes.

Yet there were awkward moments also. I heard my fellow naturalists casually complaining about “Those right-wing Christians rejecting environmental policies” and how if only it weren’t for the Christians we could teach about evolution. On the supposed Rapture Day in May 2011 predicted by some fringe Christian nut, a coworker approached me with mock surprise and exclaimed “You’re still here!!” as if either of us actually expected I would have been whisked away to Heaven. And once when I lead the meal prayer with a group of Catholic school students, the breakfast supervisor Sage had such wide surprised eyes that I thought she would drop her cereal bowl. Still, it was always a mostly unspoken ideological conflict, until that last day. What struck me initially is that Jay had the courage to speak about it aloud, and speak it to me directly; whatever else he was going to say I already respected him for doing that.

Jay praised me for not being that stereotype he expected initially, for not trying to force my religion on anyone, or judging anyone’s lifestyle choices. There were nods all around the staff. He told me that I had changed his mind about what Christians are like, and I smiled. But then Seth followed up with a surprising elaboration: “It’s really good you recognize that your religion is just for yourself, and for your own spiritual benefit, but not for everyone.” There was an universal solemn agreement amongst my friends to that. I’m sure I saw everyone nodding as he spoke, but my heart folded in when I heard that.

Though I am honored by the intended compliment, I did not at all mean to imply in words or actions that I believed my religion is ‘just for myself.’ I have no idea where they got that idea, or why they would all consider it a good thing. I want to clarify: no, it isn’t. My religion isn’t ‘just for me’ any more than my environmentalism is. The nature of the sunshine tradition necessitated that I did not respond to the complements and praise given to me. But those last few comments were unforgettable and have occupied my thoughts. It is one thing to say that I have been respectable in how I lived out my faith, but quite another to assume I therefore thought it was a merely internal faith restricted to my own heart and not applicable to anyone around me.

I do think Christianity is for everyone, just as much as I think natural conservation is for everyone. I believe global warming is a true, actual phenomenon, and important to be discussed for the benefit of all people; I believe Jesus rose from the dead so that whoever wishes to accept Him may rise from death also and into eternal life. These are both factual to me. Yet they are treated very differently by the culture I am in.

An environmentalist would never be praised the way I was praised for my respectful faith. One would never say “Your recycling is just for your benefit, not for everyone, and I’m glad you recognize that.” Or, “I’m glad you find benefit from your belief that global warming is happening. But it’s best to leave others to their own beliefs about the world.” It just wouldn’t make sense. And so it didn’t make sense to hear my God spoken of that way either. When you see something good and true, you are eager to share it with others, and there is no honor in keeping it ‘just for yourself’ especially when it is a matter so connected to everyone!

Unfortunately, there is an uncomfortable double-standard between the evangelism of environmentalism and evangelism of Christianity. I have some friends who roll their eyes when I espouse the environmental agenda, and naturalist friends who walk on eggshells around the topic of religion with me. Yet while some of my friends might be uninterested in composting or solar technology, never to my knowledge has there been anything like the defenses or preemptive self-consciousness that Jay described before he complimented me. A particular friend thinks my composting bin is “gross” and my bicycling ‘too hard,’ but she has never indicated any worry that I would judge her for trashing her potato skins. There just isn’t a stigma against being an environmentalist like there is in being a Christian.

I strongly advocate a continuing commitment to increasing sustainability in one’s life for everyone, and I even more advocate a continuing relationship with the Jesus Christ. But what’s more, (and it is this that might have surprised Jay initially) I promote a careful evaluation, questioning and exploration of each point for both topics. No one should blindly accept environmental policy any more than religious teachings, but gather information diligently, test facts carefully, and ask questions thoughtfully. And every and all presentation of facts –environmental or religious—should be offered with respect to the audience’s feelings and ideas.

In the end, what apparently made the most impact is that I absolutely love both my naturalist peers and my other friends and I respect their freedom. I can maintain my friendship with naturalists who don’t understand the joy of being Christian as well as with my friends who can’t be inconvenienced even to recycle newspaper. Perhaps simply this behavior, being respectful but still absolute about my beliefs, is the most surprising good news I will ever evangelize. If I do only this, I consider it a vast success. It certainly seems to have shocked Jay into a new way of thinking, and his comment, in turn, shocked me.

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4 responses

  1. Where’s the ‘like’ button when you need it… Anyway, *like* :)

    If it’s any comfort, I face similar things in my experience in academia and life in the general post-Christian world of Edinburgh.

    08.01.13 at 9:19am

  2. Thank for writing this Ashley :) I have become more interested in how we should interact with nature. I also think increasing sustainability is an important goal, one that I am striving to incorporate into my own life. Do you have any suggested resources for more research?

    08.01.13 at 11:34am

  3. Ashley Veronika

    Thanks Daniel! If you’re looking for faith-based environmental organizations, I highly recommend A Rocha http://arocha-usa.org/ , Evangelical Environmental Network, or Catholic Ecology. I find Orthodox groups exist on small local scales but don’t have big organized movements like those. Otherwise, a good book to read is Last Child in the Woods by Louv. Feel free to email me directly and I can talk with you about home composting or whatever =)

    08.13.13 at 4:14pm

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