Taking Creation Care Global
Growing up, Perry Hodgkins Jones, T’15, was enamored with the woods and streams of Vermont and the mountains of Colorado, developing a kinship with Mother Nature that blossomed into a spiritual mission to defend the environment. This past November, Jones was able to exercise some of that spirituality as part of a small delegation representing Presiding Bishop Michael Curry in Bonn, Germany, at the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP23).
COP23 featured representatives from approximately 200 countries, including climate activists and scientists, a vast range of politicians, leaders and entrepreneurs, officials from major companies and organizations, and a slew of other stakeholders. The Episcopal delegation included scientists, a bishop, theologians, priests, students, and musicians who are active in environmental work for the Church.
The delegation’s booth, which offered information and stressed the Church’s solidarity with nations dealing with the damage and challenges from climate change, was met with skepticism from some visitors about a religious institution’s role in combating environmental challenges. “Many identify religious institutions as being either perpetuators of abusive behavior to the environment, or at the most as passive bystanders to the destruction of the planet,” she says. “I explained that The Episcopal Church stands to be neither, but part of the solution, working creatively to create climate resilient communities and heal Creation.”
Jones, who holds a master’s degree in theology and environment from the School of Theology, says being in Bonn at the conference was an extraordinary experience. “With representatives from seemingly countless nations, organizations, and interest groups, I could hear a dozen languages walking down the hallway. And, each person was here to represent their larger communities and populations and take a stand on environmental issues, climate change negotiations, and more. It was constantly eye-opening, challenging, and inspiring.”
In one day she was able to speak five different languages with people she met at the conference, including English, German, French, Spanish, and Mandarin. Jones says she can’t hold full conversations in those languages, but being able to speak at least some of each language was an ice breaker, especially with young adults who were suspicious at first about the presence of a religious group at the conference. Jones said she tried to share the welcoming theology, message and love of The Episcopal Church with entrepreneurs, activists, and others that she met.
Working for Environmental Responsibility
At the School of Theology, Jones, 28, says she garnered a well-rounded education on the climate crisis, which included not only theology, but scientific, theoretical, historical and ethical aspects. “By naming and acknowledging how environmental crises affect the poor and marginalized most sharply, it also became a question of justice work and reconciliation ministry, as well. I met professors and students who challenged my world view, showed me new perspectives, taught me the history and repercussions of this work, and who guided me onto the path I walk today. They are friends, mentors, and colleagues, and I hope they always hold my toes to the fire.”
After earning her degree, she delved deeper into environmental activism, working for two years as vice president of Warka Water, Inc., an international nonprofit architectural group that aims to provide answers for water security in arid rural communities. Jones is now the development officer for Muddy Sneakers, Inc., which provides fifth-graders in North Carolina and part of South Carolina with the opportunity to go on field science expeditions with naturalist field instructors. “This work aims to awaken in children a deeply felt connection with the natural world—one that inspires curiosity, stimulates learning, and brings new life to classroom performance." Jones notes that through a research partnership with North Carolina State University, data revealed that students have increased science scores and improved classroom behavior, especially those traditionally challenged by science in grammar school.
“Studies have found that girls and students with behavioral issues normally struggle with science at this age in traditional public school classroom settings, but with us they excel and thrive,” she says. “We are working to build a new generation of conservationists, curious minds, people with an appreciation for the complex value of nature, and successful students who are prepared for the challenges of middle and high school.”
Her environmental work is grounded and stoked by her faith and her roots her are strong in the Episcopal Church. Jones’ mom, sister, and brother-in-law are all Episcopal priests. In addition, her husband, Richmond Jones, T’15, is an Episcopal priest who works as staff chaplain and director of formation at Kanuga Camp and Conference Center near Hendersonville, N.C. “I believe that my foundation in the Episcopal tradition especially informs my perspective, not only as an environmentalist but in how I approach my work,” she says. “To me, being a Christian means constantly questioning anew that which I may have taken for granted and finding deep gratitude for the gifts we have been given."
“Working for environmentally responsible institutional practices is a humbling practice of constant self-examination and working to improve personal habits and practices, as well as finding the approach to call institutions to align with our call as communities to live in Christ-like manner: reconciled with one another and with Creation,” Jones adds.
Opportunities in Abundance
The Episcopal Church is very active in environmentalism, Jones noted, but said there is an array of areas to tackle and it can start on the parish level. “Some parishes or communities are only just now beginning to discuss it as a group, whereas others have been involved in advocacy, creation-centered worship, reconciliation with creation, and even conservation for decades,” she says. “I am proud to be a lay member of a church that meets its members where they are and pushes communities to take action in whatever way they can.” But at all levels of the church, Jones says boundaries need to be pushed in the fight against climate change, even if that makes us uncomfortable.
“Climate change is an issue of urgency, not something that can be addressed when we have free time or spare funds,” she says. “We need more resources to support initiatives at all levels: local, national, and global. Communities everywhere are being touched by climate change, both human and non-human. But, human populations will and are feeling the effects of degraded ecosystems and disturbances in weather patterns.” Addressing symptoms is not the answer, she says, but more attention and action needs to be taken to curb the causes, like improving a dysfunctional food system, reducing dependence on fossil fuels, and restoring a spiritual and physical partnership with the non-human world. “Some see environmental stewardship as a back-burner issue compared to our social justice ministries or our worship, when in fact they are deeply intertwined,” Jones says. “Topics of inclusivity, service, resilience, repentance, and prayer are all aspects of environmental work. They are inextricably linked and should be taught and seen as such.”
Jones’ work and the efforts of many others in The Episcopal Church are coming at a time of division on climate issues in the United States. In June 2017, President Donald Trump announced that the U.S. was withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accord, a multinational agreement to reduce greenhouse gases and strive toward more environmentally friendly practices and fuel sources to curb climate change. Curry issued a statement following the president’s announcement urging that The Episcopal Church continue to be a leader in environmental change and join many state and local governments and environmental activists in the effort to be good stewards of the Earth. “My prayer is that we in The Episcopal Church will, in this and all things, follow the way, the teachings and the Spirit of Jesus by cultivating a loving, liberating and life-giving relationship with God, all others in the human family, and with all of God's good creation,” Curry said.
The Church appointed an Advisory Council for the Stewardship of Creation in 2016, of which Jones is a member. The council’s mission is to study and guide the Church on issues like water security, renewable energy, sustainable agriculture, and many other environmental stewardship tasks. “I have great hope for environmental work in The Episcopal Church, but we have to change how we see it and how we approach it on a daily personal level and at an institutional scale,” Jones says. “I praise those who are already working in these circles and invite more to the table: your voice and perspective are needed. Working for climate justice and resilience is working for peace, equity, and prosperity.”