A small seed grows into a movement
By Aaron Cooper
One summer day in his Racine, Wis., home, David Rhoads heard a knock on the door. He opened it to find a young man on the front porch wearing a license dangling from a neck band that suggested an official purpose.
Would David be willing to contribute to the Wisconsin Coalition on the Environment? asked the young man, a college student volunteer.
The student’s appeal carried no pressure yet was passionate and inspiring. While David had never contributed to an environmental organization, he felt compelled to respond. He handed the young man a check for $30. The volunteer thanked David, gave him a newsletter and proceeded to the house next door.
Back inside, David thumbed through the newsletter and was drawn into one of its stories.
"I think I had had some vague realization by that point in my life that we all ought to be caring about (the environment)," David says, "but I had not gone further than that."
That exchange took place nearly 25 years ago. David recalls his thought in that moment in his living room: “I am going to care about this issue of the environment, and I am going to seek to do it with integrity.”
That was it for David. The seed planted in his life would grow into a vocation.
Soon after, David, an ELCA pastor and now member of St. Andrew Lutheran Church in Racine, became a professor at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. He taught there for over two decades, pioneering significant efforts in environmental education and organizing students and others to make the seminary greener.
During that time he also founded the Web of Creation, an ecumenical website providing environmental resources for congregations.
Now retired, David directs Lutherans Restoring Creation, a grassroots movement he co-founded within the ELCA that seeks to foster care for God's creation in all expressions of this church's life. To do this, Lutherans Restoring Creation trains leaders in synods to help congregations in how they approach environmentalism.
"When we work with congregations, our model encompasses five areas we highlight in our training manual: worship, education, building and grounds, the lifestyle of members at home and work, and our public witness," says David. "The idea is that everyone takes some ownership so that creation care pervades the life and activities of a congregation."
At the center of this training effort is networking. Lutherans Restoring Creation encourages congregations new to environmental work to connect with more experienced congregations. Everyone benefits by sharing ideas and resources.
"Caring for creation has fundamentally changed my life," says David. “It's changed the way I relate to the world around me. It’s changed the way I think theologically. It's changed my moral commitments. It's changed my understanding of worship and the church."
David recalls fondly that visit from the college student those many years ago. "Funny how a small thing can change your life forever and set you on a path you never imagined."
Aaron Cooper is a freelance writer and member of Edison Park Lutheran Church, an ELCA congregation in Chicago.