Wangari Maathai, Co-worker in God's Service
Scripture: Genesis 1:1-2:3
In 1960, 300 young Kenyans were awarded Kennedy scholarships to study at American colleges and universities. One of the recipients was 20-year-old Wangari Maathai, a member of the Kikuyu community of the central Kenyan highlands, who went to Kansas to study biology at St. Scholastica College and then got her masters degree at the University of Pittsburgh. When she returned home after five years, she returned to a Kenya that had been radically transformed in her time abroad, a Kenya that had thrown off the yolk of its colonial government and gained independence from Britain as the Empire crumbled. Throughout the 60s and early 70s, in a land that was familiar but also entirely different, Dr. Maathai worked as an academic, earning her PhD and working her way up the male-dominated ranks of the University of Nairobi, becoming the first woman appointed to every position she held there.
Now, as I’m sure some of you are all too aware, when you get to a certain point in your career, you start getting put on a lot of committees, and Wangari was appointed to the National Council of Women of Kenya and asked to represent her home country at the first-ever United Nations Women’s Conference in 1975. To prepare for her trip, Maathai began to source stories and concerns from as many women as she could meet. She noticed that these concerns had a surprising theme of resources: there was no clean drinking water. Not enough firewood to cook healthy meals. Women had to walk many miles just to get that firewood when it used to be found in abundance right near their homes. Maathai realized that the biggest crisis facing the women of Kenya was, in fact, an environmental crisis. And so she got to work.
I must say, after two sermons of getting deep into the weeds of biblical interpretation, it’s a real joy to stand up here today and get to tell you a story, especially the story of the life of someone as inspiring as Wangari Maathai. Now for those of you who aren’t as “holiday-oriented” as I am, a reminder that today is Earth Day, and as a lifelong lover of trees, water, mountains, and mud, I couldn’t let this Earth Day Sunday pass by without building a liturgy and sermon around it. This is also the third week in our “Co-Workers in God’s Service” series. First, we heard from Amy about Thekla and hidden voices in the church, then we heard from Kent last week about the spiritual fortitude and life of solidarity of Dom Helder Camara, and now I’m excited to share the story of Wangari Maathai.
She was born in the central highlands of Kenya in 1940, a member of the indigenous Kikuyu micro-nation, a term she always preferred to “tribe.” When speaking and writing of her childhood, Maathai always remembered the proximity to and intuitive sense of balance with the land around her. When young Wangari was sent to gather firewood for her mother, she was always sent out the door with a strict reminder to never collect any firewood from a fig tree, because the fig tree was a sacred tree, a tree of God, and it should never be cut down or burned. Wangari recalled how, when walking on nearby Mount Kenya, you were expected to take your shoes off to acknowledge that you were walking on holy ground. And most of all, she remembered forest—deep, dense, lush forest that provided for her community.
Wangari’s family had been Christians for several generations, so she was raised in a Christian home and remained a practicing Catholic until her death, though she always incorporated significant aspects of indigenous Kikuyu spirituality into her faith life. Most of her education was run by religious sisters, women who quite literally lived to serve God, and Wangari fondly remembered the ways in which their influence built a foundation for her to stand upon, a model for spiritually-fueled service and a belief that serving others was both a given for being a good person and a way to live out the message of Jesus given to us in Scripture. She cultivated this sense of service throughout her entire life.
When preparing for that trip to the first United Nations Conference on Women, Wangari realized that an environmental crisis was facing rural Kenya. During its decades of rule, the British colonial government had forced a shift from localized subsistence farming to large-scale, plantation-based cash crops like coffee, tea, and corn. These practices had only gotten worse after independence, as a corrupt government moved in to fill the power vacuum with its own capitalistic motives. Huge swaths of trees were cleared to make room for these cash crops fields, wreaking havoc on local ecosystems. Soil erosion led to run-off, which muddied previously clear streams of drinking water. Without roots to secure the soil, dangerous landslides were increasingly common. And women were having to walk farther and farther to get dangerously sparse firewood, adding to their already-demanding amount of labor. People’s diets even suffered, since cooking nutritious foods took more fuel, which was firewood that people couldn’t afford to waste. As a scientist, Wangari saw and understood all this, and so as the nuns taught her, she did something about it, leading a march of women to a park in downtown Nairobi, where they partook in the radical act of planting trees. They started with just seven trees—five of which are still alive in that park--and called themselves “the Green Belt Movement” in honor of the belts of green that they wanted to plant and grow across Kenya. Wangari organized women across the country to start groups and plant trees in their local communities. But the Green Belt Movement quickly became much more than just a tree-planting and conservation project; it became a movement for democracy, justice, and human rights, because as Wangari investigated the source of this environmental destruction in her country, she quickly saw that the issues were directly tied to the same corrupt government and dictatorship that was imprisoning human rights activists and political dissidents. She saw that responsible governance of the environment was impossible without democracy, and so she became an advocate for democracy, too. The trees she and others planted became symbols—resistant roots of hope planted in the rocky soil of dictatorship.
Wangari’s bold, defiant, brave activism for green spaces and democracy got her arrested, beaten by police, targeted on an assassination list, and even a divorce from her husband, who cited the fact that she was, quote, “too strong-minded for a woman and unable to control” as grounds for the divorce. For years, she planted literal and figurative seeds of hope, fighting for green spaces and human rights, until 2002, when Kenya finally held openly democratic elections. She was elected to parliament from her home district with 98% of the vote. In 2004, she won the Nobel Peace Prize for her work, the first African woman and the first environmentalist to do so, and she continued to build and expand the Green Belt Movement until her death from ovarian cancer in 2011.
As a woman of faith herself, Maathai was constantly wrestling with the simultaneous beauty of her religion and its complicated legacy—the ways that Christianity had directly contributed to the environmental destruction that she fought so hard against for most of her life. And I think it’s important that we, as practicing Christians, here on Earth Day, having an Earth Day themed liturgy, are really honest with ourselves about that, too. The deforestation of Kenya started with the greed and short-sightedness of the colonial government, and colonialism and Christianity were always tied together. The spread of culture inherent to the British colonial project meant the forcible spread of Christianity, and Christianity hasn’t held and preached responsible beliefs about the environment for much of its history. As Maathai wrote, “In the Christian tradition, aspects of the original faith were disconnected from care of the earth, when carriers of the faith became politically entangled with the expansionists, colonialists, and exploiters of peoples and the planet. They at once facilitated and created the wounds that need to be healed today.” She remembers that it was Christian missionaries who cut down those same fig trees that Wangari’s mother told her never to use for firewood, a deliberate attack on the native people as a way to stamp out their resistance and destroy their sacred spaces, all the while decreeing that God could only be worshipped in a building, with an altar, controlled by a priest who lived far away and came by only on Sundays.
So much of the destructive legacy of Christianity and the environment is based on some really bad theology from Genesis 1:28, which we read today, and the infamous “dominion” line. It reads, “And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.’” Christian leaders and theologians around the world are attempting to undo the harm done by this verse by creatively reimagining models of Christian care for our common home. In his encyclical on the environment Laudato Si, Pope Francis writes that Genesis 1:28, quote, “has encouraged the unbridled exploitation of nature by painting humankind as domineering and destructive by nature. This is not a correct interpretation of the Bible as understood by the Church. We must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures.” He turns to the model given to us in the second creation story of Genesis 2—which for some reason we’re not taught as much—of Adam tilling and tending the garden of the world. Wangari Maathai was quite literally a tiller and tender of the garden of the world, and she consistently used her own faith background that integrated Christianity and indigenous beliefs to spur other Christians into thinking more responsibly about the environment. When Maathai would speak at churches, she would almost always talk about the story of creation in Genesis, which is why we read it today. She wrote, “I relate how God, in his infinite wisdom, waited until Friday to make human beings, and then rested on Saturday. If we’d come into existence on Monday, we would have been dead by Tuesday, because there would have been nothing to sustain us! The writers of the creation story understood that we are at once the culmination of the process of creation, and yet its most dependent creature.”
And so I’m thinking about how we can take Wangari’s model into account, this notion that humans were made last and are dependent on the earth around us, and that in order to be stewards, as we are truly called to be, we must reimagine the hierarchy of life on this planet and put ourselves back at the bottom. Last. Wholly dependent on all that came before us, as God intended. Partners with the land. The Reverend Leah Schade, a Lutheran pastor and environmental activist, writes that we must always remember that we have not and cannot do anything to deserve the garden of the world around us. We receive it only through God’s grace. It is a gift given to us out of love. And think how much more likely you are to really take care of something if it was given to you by some you consider beloved. John 3:16 doesn’t say, “And God so loved human beings and only human beings that he sent his only beloved son.” It says, “For God so loved the world,” or in Greek, the “cosmos.” The creation around us is inextricably a part of Christ’s redemption, just as we are. We are called not to subdue or have dominion over this earth, but to serve as gardeners, as caretakers, to walk lightly and to use wisely. In John’s Gospel, when Mary goes to the tomb on Easter morning, she doesn’t mistake Jesus for a priest, or a solider, or even another disciple. She mistakes him for a gardener. What can we learn from the model of Jesus as a gardener? Maathai once gave a speech that said if Christians really wanted to honor the life of Jesus and our belief in his redemptive love, then we would plant a tree every Easter Monday as an offering for the tree cut down to make the cross of Good Friday.
Now, I have to acknowledge the ridiculously overwhelming nature of the problem of environmental degradation and climate change. Climate change is real, and we have created it. Stewardship might seem like a silly or trite word in the midst of the enormity of the situation facing us, when what is most urgent is big-picture, systemic change made by governments and people in real positions of power— things like climate accords, regulations on corporations, and large-scale investment in renewable energy. Small changes like riding our bikes, or turning off the lights, or even changing our homes over to solar power might feel insignificant, even foolish. They might feel as foolish as planting seven trees in the middle of Nairobi as an act of protest probably felt.
And yet I wonder, in the midst of this overwhelming reality…“What else is there to do but to plant a tree?” When remembering those first trees she planted, Maathai wasn’t overly sentimental or romantic about it—she knew, at the time, that the action was small, but she says that planting a tree felt like a “concrete, doable” response. But those trees grew, and as the trees grew, so did her understanding of the purpose behind her work. She admits that she didn’t necessarily start her work out of a place of faith or spirituality, but instead out of that deep-seeded sense of justice and service that the nuns who educated her had instilled in her, and it was only as she grew into the work that she was able to articulate the religious and spiritual implications of it. Maathai’s whole ethos—and indeed, the primary principle of the Green Belt Movement—was a deep love for the earth and for God’s revelation to us in it. She believed that the wonder and beauty of a dewdrop or a flower in bloom could turn our face toward the divine, and that, quote, “The environment is, in effect, the fingers on the hand that God has been stretching out to us, hoping that we will grasp it and lift ourselves up.” Too often, Maathai wrote, Christians focus on a belief in our other life, in the afterlife, in the promise of heaven, forgetting about the stuff of this world. But the prefix “eco” actually comes from the ancient Greek word for “home,” and if we, like Maathai, believe in an incarnational God that came to us in the form of the human Jesus, then we also must believe that that same God is revealed to us in every rock and tree and river of this, our home.
And so I’m thinking about the power of loving and choosing to care for this environment that we, as human beings and as Christians, have harmed—perhaps fatally. I’m thinking of the GreenUP team here at United Parish, or the increasing number of Bostonians choosing to bike commute. Making these small decisions—making small, persistent differences in our lives in the face of overwhelming odds—is a way of saying, “I am choosing to love and participate in God’s creation, in the earthly garden that we have been given, and that we have failed, time and time again, to properly take care of.” Maybe it is too late—maybe that’s the full, ugly reality of the sin we’ve committed. But in response to destruction and suffering, the holiest response is to cultivate; to plant; to grow.
Wangari Maathai started with a few trees in the middle of Nairobi, and in her lifetime, belts of green spread across Kenya. She fostered a connection to the sacred through an experiential, personal relationship with nature. And so—how to honor and celebrate God’s creation? Go outside. Take a walk in the park. Plant a tree. Vote. Work to elect officials who will change our laws. Yes, bring that reusable bag to the grocery store, even if it feels silly. Say, every day, that this planet, this home, is worthy of my love, and still worthy of saving, because it is God’s creation, and it is good. I offer up the revised Golden Rule of the great American writer, farmer, and activist Wendell Berry, “Do unto those downstream as you would have those upstream do unto you.”