Faith and Climate Change: Pastors weigh in

A clergy conversation about how faith can inform response.


By the Rev. Chip Seadale and the Rev. Hyuk Seonwoo

This column is an edited transcript of a Feb. 28, 2022 conversation on “Faith and Climate Change” between the Rev. Chip Seadale, rector of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Edgartown, and the Rev. Hyuk Seonwoo, pastor of the United Methodist Church of Martha’s Vineyard. The conversation is part of the ongoing discussion “Faith and Climate Change,” and was moderated by the Rev. Stephen Harding, rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Vineyard Haven.

The conversation centered on four questions; the first question was:

How does your faith tradition view climate change and its effects?

Seonwoo: Since you’re asking about denomination, I tried to find the official statement from the United Methodist Church: The United Methodist Church believes that “All Creation is the Lord’s, and we are responsible for the ways in which we use and abuse it. Water, air, fire, mineral, energy resources, plant, animal life, and space are to be valued and conserved because they are God’s creation, and not solely because they are useful to human beings.

And the adverse impacts of global climate change disproportionately affect individuals and nations least responsible for the emissions. We therefore support efforts of all governments to require mandatory reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, and call on individuals, congregations, businesses, industries, and communities to reduce their emissions.”

Seadale: I would point to the Diocese of Massachusetts’ Resolutions on this for a more specific answer. We are actively seeking ways to counter the deleterious effects that humans have on the environment by our use and misuse of fossil fuels. Humankind is responsible for the effects of pollution and misuse of natural materials in this world, which has exacerbated climate change. My answer to this question is that we see our earth as a cosmic substrate for our creation and recreation. We see ourselves as dependent on it for our survival. Our belief is that all we have been given is a gift to us from God, and we believe that it is our responsibility to protect it, to nurture it, and to love it.

Are there examples from religious texts or paradigms from your tradition that form your faith community’s response?

Seadale: It’s legion throughout our scriptural texts that the earth is the Lord’s and that God made it. God made us in God’s image for God’s purposes, for God’s pleasure, for God’s joy, and for relationship. Having been given this life on earth, our job is to remain in covenant with God, to take care of our planet, and to be good stewards of all that we’ve been given. Life is to be treasured, life is to be valued, and taking care of the earth is a basic and an essential element of being able to continue what God has begun, through all of God’s creatures and all of God’s creation here on earth.

Seonwoo: I agree with Chip: We all share the same story. We believe that we are entrusted to take care of God’s creation. And that’s not only among the [Christian] denominations. All of us: Christianity, Islam, Judaism — we all share the same story. I like the image that earth — all of God’s creation — we are all — an embodiment of God’s breath.

We believe that we are called to love God, to love others, just as we love ourselves, and that part of loving others includes loving God’s creation. That we are all standing on the same spot in that way.

What do you think is the biggest challenge to living out what you have both described?

Seadale: I would say apathy. There’s a lot of skepticism about authority and authority figures, and the amount and extent of influence we allow those organizational systems to have power over us. I would say this: Addressing climate change is essential for our existence. Previous generations were able to come together to pursue a common goal. It’s very difficult now to build consensus so that something useful, effective, and responsive can be built quickly enough to be viable for us. That’s the most concerning element, and our biggest challenge.

Seonwoo: There are many different challenges. One of them would be our lifestyle. Most of us are juggling things, feeling that we are burdened, that we are greatly stressed. Climate change can be perceived as something too big to deal with. But the hope is that if we can break it down, every single step can lead us 1,000 miles. The small step is important, although we are living in a multitasking world. The other challenge is that when we talk about the environmental issue, we often neglect the context of the least developed countries. The rich countries have mainly caused climate change, while signaling the poor countries to stop developing so as not to cause further climate harm. How can we deal with these challenging issues without neglecting climate change and unbalanced and unjust human conditions?

Seadale: If you ask someone who’s very satisfied with what they have to give it up, it’s very hard for them to do that. What we’re asking everyone to consider is to make a life and lifestyle change — to give up something to benefit many people who are not in our siloed tribe. That’s a very difficult hurdle to try to get over. Power is wielded by those who have resources, and climate change becomes a justice issue as well as an issue about our climate.

If you were in charge, what would you do to cope with the effects of climate change on Martha’s Vineyard?

Seonwoo: First of all, I’m not going to be in charge. I know that there are so many experts on that. I think it’s very important to be present. I am willing to be present to support any effort in climate justice. And when we stand there in that realm, it becomes moral support. That becomes something we can do. I do not dream something big, but I will think about what we can do as a single step.

For example, climate change is caused by our use of transportation. We may think about working together for creating a program, “Camino del Martha’s Vineyard”: In France, in Spain, there are different [pilgrimage] routes. If we can think about that as a concept — not only for hiking, but if we work together, reminding people to think about how important it is to walk together, to work together for climate justice, that is a single step that we can take.

Seadale: I’m approaching this question as a citizen in a town on Martha’s Vineyard who happens to be part and parcel of the faith community. I’m encouraged by the fact there is work going on, not only in the faith community but by municipal governments as well, and that there are people taking this very seriously and looking at the impact in the future, and what systems we may need when climate change hits more immediately.

If I were in charge … There needs to be a way to get across the apathy hurdle for the general populace. Can we agree to say that we don’t really want to suffer down the road? If we can agree on that, then it’s actually in our self-interest to move on this kind of stuff, and it is in everyone’s best interest to work on climate change together now, to prevent damage later. Climate change is already happening, as we can see at Five Corners. We need to become not concerned, necessarily, but excited about having a hand in our own destiny.

That for me flips the switch: Figure out a way to get everyone on board with what’s happening, what could happen, and what we can do about this now, together. It’s conceivable to me that we could paint a picture to say that what you think your life on the Vineyard looks like now is not sustainable if we don’t do anything about it. But here’s what it could look like if we take action now, and we need your help. To me, that becomes a compelling reason why people might become excited about being part of the solution.

What could your faith tradition and faith community do to encourage and promote a unified and united response to climate change by the Island community as a whole?

Seonwoo: This is a challenging question, actually. Let me put it this way: Several months ago, I heard the youths on the Island feel they don’t have a place to go. And the churches are saying that we don’t have young people in our congregation. How can we find the connection point between the need and the congregational context? We are a small congregation, but our church members are working for the community as much as possible. It is not always easy to find time for [even church programs]. As a congregation, I feel we need to find and take the single steps, but as part of the Island Clergy Association and beyond, there must be things we can do more.

If I share one more thing, I like tai chi because the flow and the rhythm invite us to remember how we are interconnected. Yin and yang together create the five elements, which eventually become the whole earth. When I invite people to practice tai chi, learning how we are interconnected in the web of creation, that kind of approach could be a single step.

Many people feel that the environmental issue is too big to deal with in their own daily lives. So, maybe step by step, if we invite people to be involved, or at least think about it, that would lead people, them, and us to join together 1,000 miles. Eventually.

Seadale: My first answer would be to pray. And I don’t mean in an offhand way. And continuing to pray. And making the prayer public. And asking people to care. And asking people to hope. And asking people to lend their efforts, in whatever way, to bring about the results we are hoping for. I’m aware that other churches do more on climate change than we are, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t. Our job would be to continuously get the word out that climate change is an essential issue between God and us and each other, for survival on this planet. And when the time comes that we are called to risk and sacrifice for it, then we need to say yes.