Conference Table looks at issues ‘In Defense of Creation’

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Conference Table looks at issues ‘In Defense of Creation’

June 26, 2008     News media contact: Tita Parham* 
800-282-8011    Orlando {0875}

An e-Review Feature
By Erik J. Alsgaard**

GAINESVILLE — The 20th Florida Conference Table drew more than 140 people in person and via the Internet to look at three issues critical to the future of the world: global poverty and health, nuclear proliferation, and the environment.

Florida Conference Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker addresses participants gathered June 14 at Trinity United Methodist Church in Gainesville for the 20th Conference Table. The session focused on global poverty and health, nuclear proliferation, and the environment. Photo by Erik J. Alsgaard. Photo #08-0913. For longer description see photo gallery.

Meeting at Trinity United Methodist Church in Gainesville June 14, participants came together to learn how these issues are woven together, but more to help guide and shape the writing of the next pastoral letter, “In Defense of Creation 2,” to be penned by the United Methodist Council of Bishops.

The Council of Bishops issued a first “In Defense of Creation” letter in 1986 after two years of study. That document and study guide addressed the issue of nuclear proliferation.

Today, the bishops are building on that first document, broadening the scope of In Defense of Creation 2 to include global poverty and disease and the threat of global warming. Conversations are being held across the denomination to help the bishops gather concerns and comments that will contribute to the pastoral letter and foundation document.

Addressing the group, Florida Conference Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker urged Christians to never weary in doing good.

“We are being summoned to work,” the bishop said, using 2 Thessalonians 3:10-13 as his text. “We are being called to defend God’s creation. There is a crisis, a crisis of global warming, of pollution, of nuclear threat.”

The bishop blamed some of humanity’s unwillingness to address these issues on bad theology.

“Bad theology leads to irresponsible behavior,” Whitaker said. “Bad theology tells us that creation doesn’t matter. Bad theology tells us that Christ is only concerned with people. Bad theology says that God will destroy the world.”

The remedy, Whitaker suggested, is to remember that God came to us “as a creator” and God called the creation “good.”

“God came to us in the form of Jesus Christ and sought to renew us from within,” he said. “As Christians, we affirm the resurrection, the transformation of Christ, and us, and all of the creation.”

With participants challenged to continue being in ministry to all creation, four presenters offered their insights into the In Defense of Creation 2 topics.

Dr. Caroline Njuki, assistant general secretary for Africa for the United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries, speaks about the connection between global poverty and health. Photo by Erik J. Alsgaard. Photo #08-0914. For longer description see photo gallery.

The connection between disease, poverty

Dr. Caroline Njuki says there are three main challenges when considering global poverty and health: malaria, HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis.

“Malaria kills more people around the world than HIV/AIDS,” said Njuki, assistant general secretary for Africa for the United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries. “Malaria is a public health problem in more than 100 countries, and 2 billion people live where malaria is a threat.”

Although there are 300 million to 500 million new cases of malaria each year, the disease affects mainly children.

“Three-quarters of all victims are children, most in sub-Saharan Africa alone,” she said. “More than 3,000 children die every day of malaria.”

The disease is also tied to the issue of poverty, Njuki said, because poor people can’t afford to eat properly or buy the medicines they need if they get the disease, and they are often uneducated about how the disease actually spreads. With an immune system compromised by poor nutrition, malaria has an easier time making inroads.

“And with lack of access to medical care and very few medical doctors, poor people turn to home remedies that don’t work,” she said, “thus wasting valuable time in the race for treatment.”

Sharing from her own personal experience, Njuki told of meeting with 12 African bishops, all of whom had had malaria. The mother and daughter of one of the bishops had died from the disease.

“The role of the church is education, avoidance and eradication,” Njuki said. “We are teaching people about the true causes of malaria — stagnant water and heavy brush where the mosquitoes live and breed — and what can be done to prevent the disease.”

One major United Methodist Church emphasis in the area of prevention is the “Nothing But Nets” campaign. For $10, United Methodists can purchase a chemically-treated bed net that is distributed to Africa. To date, more than 2 million bed nets have been donated. Information about the campaign is available at

Dr. Nigel Smith, professor of geography at the University of Florida and a member of Trinity United Methodist Church in Gainesville, asks participants attending the “In Defense of Creation 2” Conference Table to consider the relationship between nature and spirituality. Photo by Erik J. Alsgaard. Photo #08-0915. For longer description see photo gallery.

Loving creation with heart and mind

Dr. Nigel Smith, a member of Trinity United Methodist Church in Gainesville and a professor of geography at the University of Florida, spoke about various religious perspectives on the environment and the need to reconnect people to their surroundings.

“All creatures are here on earth for a purpose,” he said, “just as we are. We have to move past just an intellectual acknowledgement of the importance of nature and learn to love and admire nature for its wonders and beauty, especially for our children.”

Smith, who has started an organic garden on church property as a teaching tool for his Sunday school class, urged participants to get outside and take their children and grandchildren with them.

“Most children can identify several players on the University of Florida football team, but they don’t know the names of the trees in their front yards,” he said. “Get more children out in nature and we’d write fewer prescriptions for Ritalin.”

God created all of nature, he reminded the group, and God offers daily reminders of who made what. The “mysteries and awe and wonder” of creation need to be recaptured, Smith said, as he pointed out the many faith traditions outside mainstream Christianity that do just that.

“Other religions respect nature a great deal,” Smith said, noting that Christian tradition and Scripture have a great deal to say about caring for and being good stewards of the earth. Even the sermon on the mount, Smith said, specifically Matthew 6:28-29, shows Jesus’ concern for nature and the environment.

“Jesus is saying here, ‘Hey, look around you; this stuff is pretty marvelous!’ ” he said.

Chris Bird, director of the Alachua County, Florida, Environmental Protection Department, also addressed environmental issues, specifically the threat of global warming.
“We have about 10 years to deal with this issue,” he said. “Climate change is emerging as the greatest threat to the planet in the 21st century. Unless we face this challenge with a sense of urgency … much of the world as we know it will be irreversibly harmed.”

A 2-degree increase in average global temperatures will have a huge impact, he said, with increased drought and wildfires, increased flooding, especially along coastal areas, and severe stress on natural systems.

He said the impact on human health will be tremendous.

With Howard Morland (right), Chris Bird answers a participant’s question during a panel discussion. Bird is director of the Alachua County, Florida, Environmental Protection Department. Morland is a former Air Force pilot who is now an anti-nuclear weapons lobbyist in Washington, D.C. Photo by Erik J. Alsgaard. Photo #08-0916. For longer description see photo gallery.

Releasing too much carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere causes global warming, Bird said. One of the main culprits of carbon dioxide release is the burning of fossil fuels. Bird said the depletion of forests around the world also increases global warming because trees “eat” carbon dioxide. With fewer trees and more fossil fuel being burned, the result is climate change, Bird said.

“Can we solve this?” Bird asked. “The window is closing fast. Huge changes are going to be needed, but it can be done. We have the technologies and solutions available. What is needed, perhaps, is the collective will to make it happen.”

“Climate change is real” he said, a statement that was disputed later in the gathering by Mike Hudson, a member of Ortega United Methodist Church in Jacksonville. Hudson, speaking during the question and answer session at the end of the day, asserted that climate change was a theory, not a fact. Despite differences of opinion, the two men agreed that caring for God’s creation was paramount.

Considering the need for nuclear weapons

Howard Morland, a former Air Force captain and pilot, addressed what is, for many people, an almost silent subject. Nuclear weapons still exist, he said, we just don’t hear much about them anymore.

“What kind of nuclear arsenal will the United States need in this century?” he asked. “The answer depends on one criterion: targets. What targets will the United States need to destroy with nuclear weapons, targets for which no other weapon will do?”

Guiding participants through a history of the nuclear arms race, Morland, an arms control lobbyist in Washington, D.C., shared his thoughts on how there are no justifiable targets that warrant using nuclear weapons, and no reason, therefore, to have these weapons.

“The most convenient feature of nuclear weapons abolition is that every nuclear weapon requires one of three fissile materials: uranium-235, uranium-233 or plutonium-239,” Morland wrote in a white paper distributed at the session. “These materials, in concentrated form, do not exist in nature, anywhere in the universe. They are the product of human activity, and they have no essential purpose except as nuclear weapon materials.

Mike Hudson, a member of Ortega United Methodist Church in Jacksonville, challenges the validity of global warming during the question and answer time. Photo by Erik J. Alsgaard. Photo #08-0917. For longer description see photo gallery.

“The abolition of nuclear weapons is a simple as gathering up all these fissile materials, which are now owned exclusively by nine national governments … and burning them up in nuclear energy reactors.”

Final questions

During the question and answer period at the end of the day, the presenters answered questions from participants based on their areas of expertise. Presenters were also present during discussion times to chat with people viewing the webcast of the session.

One question to Chris Bird summed up the challenges to fighting global warming. He was asked if simply driving more fuel-efficient cars and using fluorescent light bulbs was enough to alleviate climate change.

“It’s a good start, but if this is all we do, we’ll still face problems,” he said. “Churches can lead the effort to protect God’s creation by example: when you build a new building, strive for a low carbon footprint; encourage ride sharing to your worship services and other gatherings; educate people on how to do a ‘Lenten carbon fast’; and take some steps in advocating in your community for better stewardship of creation.

“Together, each small step adds to other small steps, and eventually change for the better will occur.”


*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Alsgaard is director of communications for the Florida Conference.

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