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Interview: Peter Harris environmentalist, founder of A Rocha

04 January 2013

'God speaks to us very powerfully through his creation'

The Christian community is now on a long and late journey to align our own environmental practice with the biblical inspiration and mandate to care for creation. That calling is evident to anyone who will read scripture with care, prepared to be challenged out of our materialism and individualism.

The expression of the wisdom of God, and the love of Jesus Christ for his world that should flow from a Spirit-filled Church, is a kind of priesthood. And our own Christlike identification with the suffering of the world is a kind of priesthood. I believe it belongs to the whole community of believers.

I don't wish to stoke controversy, but I would suggest that one of the handicaps we have faced in the Western Church has been the myth of the lone hero, or the special individual. It is as communities change that wider change comes.

I was working as a curate in a parish on the Wirral, St Mary's, Upton, when I began A Rocha. I'd been an English teacher, and, with my wife, Miranda, who had spent some of her childhood in Uganda, I was trying to prepare to serve the overseas Church by training in a number of areas that could be useful.

We set up a field-study centre in Portugal in the early '80s, as a practical response to several pressing issues - principally habitat destruction around the Mediterranean, the urgent need for environmental education in a country where most learning was taking place in the classroom, and, locally, the protection of the Alvor Estuary. Now A Rocha is a global Christian movement for nature conservation active in 20 countries, and with relationships in many others.

The name means "the Rock" in Portuguese, and, as the vision spread around the world, the global family of organisations decided to keep it in tribute to that first vision from a minority Christian group with great courage.

At our best, we are working out of faith, hope, and love. We share many of the same aims and goals with the broader conservation movement, and are grateful for many partnerships, and the expertise and help of many organisations. But, although we are engaged in many of the same tasks, we are doing it out of a desire to please the living God who created all things, and not because we have any certainty that we can save the world.

Happily, there are many places that now look different as a result of the work of A Rocha.

I've stepped away from direct management, and am working primarily in South-East Asia and North America. I encourage Christian leaders to put biblical convictions about caring for creation into practice, and to encourage the secular environmental movement to take seriously the part that belief plays in a society's environmental choices. I'm also helping Christian finance and business leaders to understand the impact that their activities can have on biodiversity.

The American Church is beginning to get it now - unfortunately, for the wrong reasons. It's not been helpful that conservation is a very politicised issue in America. That's been a real problem for everyone in the world, because it has delayed action.

We're very proud of our reliance on good science. You can't attribute climate change to individual weather events like Hurricane Sandy, even though these have been predicted with more frequency by climate-change experts. You have to be very careful about what you say.

Actually, we'd met some very discouraged environmental scientists in New York just a week before Hurricane Sandy. A week later, they were so-called "electricity refugees" - it was a very poignant situation. But, then again, because it was North America, there was huge media attention. Other parts of the world - less fashionable and suffering far more greatly - just don't have that.

We have a profound theological conviction that shalom is possible. The global population is rising, wildlife is getting squeezed into smaller and smaller areas, economic choices are becoming harsh - but we have an explicit set of values that guide our decision-making rather than just a visceral reaction that thinks in terms of winners and losers.

In Kenya, the forest where we work was being cut down to provide the money for school fees. Now it has become the banker for those fees through a very creative project called ASSETS. Over 400 children have been able to go to school over the past decade, and the destruction of this priceless last area of coastal forest has been halted. In India, a wonderful new method of protecting the crops of very poor farmers from raiding elephants was pioneered very successfully. Simply shooting the elephants was no solution, but ropes soaked in chilli powder and oil did the job. (They don't like the smell.)

I'm certain that God intends to speak to us very powerfully through his creation, and he certainly speaks that way with me. The fact that high numbers of urban children have now never seen a star - and have so very little direct experience of God's presence that way - is a huge loss to them, and to us all.

We have four married children - formerly all living outside the UK, but now intentionally gathered back here - and six grandchildren; and we are back here ourselves to be near them, and to live near Miranda's mother, near Devizes.

My most important choice in life was to marry Miranda. My biggest regret was not doing so earlier.

My father was a wartime pilot, and my ambition was to follow him. But I discovered when I went to the RAF for a flying scholarship that I was colour-blind; so that finished that.

John Stott became a close friend, and has been a major influence on our lives. Eugene Peterson, too - but there are many, many others.

Favourite books: David Jones, In Parenthesis; Eugene Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction. Plus Kit Smart, the Hebrew Bible, the plays of Murray Watts, and the books of my daughter, Jo Swinney.

If I don't like any of the Bible, that is my problem, and I like it for disturbing me. But I do prefer Hebrew to Greek, and I particularly love the Hebrew of the minor prophets who all have "o" in their name.

Rod Wilson, President of Regent College, Vancouver, is one of the best preachers I have been privileged to listen to. But David Watson and David McInnes both made a huge impact on my own generation of students at Cambridge in the early '70s.

My favourite place is Newport in Pembrokeshire.

My favourite sound: birdsong, especially recently arrived migrant warblers.

I am most annoyed by injustice, and my own follies. And negative US politics, and particularly the special-interest-driven denial of climate change. Oh yes, and negative Welsh rugby.

I'm happiest with my family and my friends, and in worship. To be accepted by the God who made all things in love is an incredible thing.

Miranda and I begin each day by reading a psalm together and praying for our family, the A Rocha family, and all kinds of things as they come to mind. At any one time, someone is in deep trouble of some kind; so we do pray for them.

There's a song, isn't there - "In Christ alone, our hope is found": that's about it, isn't it?

Being locked in a church would be my nightmare; but if I was, I'd choose to be with the most senior politician in China. He is the person who is probably best placed to bring about the changes Christians might long for. If they could do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God, what might happen?

Peter Harris was talking to Terence Handley MacMath. arocha.org


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