Twelve Steps Towards Freedom: People

Rev Dr Dave Gregory

I’ve taken to going on a short walk after lunch.  My once a day exercise as recommended in the government COVID-19 lockdown advice.  Keeping an appropriate distance from other people of course.

During the first week of the lockdown, on a beautiful blue-sky day I enjoyed the wonder of creation around me.  The early spring greening of the trees under the bright sunlit clear sky.  The song of birds all around me, usually drowned out by traffic noise where I live.  And as I walked down one road, I spotted posters in the upstairs window of a house.  A message from a young person, perhaps in response to the school climate strikes.  “Show we care – our world is hurting”.

How true that is and not just because of the climate crisis.  While one person had not forgotten, many of the other windows I pass on my walk each day display children’s painting of rainbows.  A communal expression of hope in this time of the COVID-19 emergency.

Something more immediate has come along and knocked the climate emergency from its star billing it has enjoyed over the past year.  Rightly so given the immediacy and urgency of the COVID-19 pandemic that is impacting people, nations and communities around the world with dire and deadly consequences.

Social distancing has put paid to the student climate strikes and the direct action and campaigning of Extinction Rebellion and others in cities and towns across the world.  The Baptist Assembly in May where there was to be a strong climate and environmental strand is postponed.  And COP 26, UN Climate Conference, due to be held in November at the Glasgow Conference Centre has been delayed until 2021, the venue being turned into one of the emergency Nightingale Hospitals.

To be honest – and this may be controversial – I have some problems with the term climate emergency, a phrase we have heard much over the past year.  I think the COVID-19 emergency casts some light on my unease.  COVID-19 with overstretched hospital and brave medical staff, schools and university closures and lockdowns feel like an emergency.  It is immediate.  Something that we must respond to quickly.  Even so, some struggle with it all, continuing to gather and travel around.

This morning on breakfast TV, there were interviews with two hospital doctors who spoke of people struggling for weeks on ventilators with uncertain outcomes as they try and overcome the virus.  Some of them medical staff who have caught the virus caring for others.  Not able to be visited by family or friends, overstretched nurses try to help them stay in touch via the occasional video call.  Scary stuff.  All to try and make the urgent message – “Stay Home, Stay Safe, Protect the NHS” – personal.  If YOU break the self-distancing guidelines, YOU will harm others!  All trying to get across the message that this is an emergency.

There are fears that people will only put up with living an emergency for so long.  In my role as a minister over the past few weeks I have often been asked: “how long do you think this is going to have to go on for?”  On the lunchtime news today, politicians are asking how and when do we begin to return to life as usual?  What is the exit plan?  The thought that we may have to adapt to a new way of living, one more restricted than we in the developed world have become used to in the past fifty years is one that people are not ready to face.

This is what worries me about the phrase climate emergency.  Emergency is an immediate word.  People can only live with an emergency for so long.  Climate and environmental change are crucial issues that we need to address as society and Christians within it.  But for most people and governments, even with growing awareness over the past year and greater commitment to action, there is not seem the same urgency of response as to COVID-19.  The time scales seem too long.  The pace of change we experience seems slow – year and decades, not weeks and months.  Have people truly grasped how much our lives will have to change?  Will they be willing to pay the cost in the short and long term to bring relief to the planet and its people?  How long will the climate emergency last?  How long will people put up with it?

The increasing scary media reporting is aimed at making the COVID-19 issue personal.  And the next of the “Twelve Steps towards Freedom” makes the climate emergency personal too: “Make a list of all persons we have harmed and become willing to make amends to them all.”

Jesus knew the importance of making things personal.  When asked what was the most important of the commandments in the Old Testament he replied“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’  This is the first and most important command.  And the second command is like the first: ‘Love your neighbour the same as you love yourself.’” (Matt 22v37-39)

A part of loving God for me is loving the wondrous creation he has made and gifted to us.  But it can be hard to know how to start.  Yet, the “second command is like the first”.  Perhaps focusing upon people makes the urgency apparent.

There are people around the world who are already being impacted by their own local climate emergencies to which we are connected.  Those most vulnerable to COVID-19 in the developing parts of the world are the most vulnerable to climate change too.  Today, as headline focus upon COVID-19, there is also news of super Cyclone battering Vanuatu, an island nation in the south Pacific.  Already in a state of emergency due to COVID-19, they also must contend with terrible damage caused by a changing climate and the devastation of a second super Cyclone in the past five years.

Whenever I think of climate change, I think of the people my wife Carolyn and I met in Peru when I visited BMS World Mission worker Laura Lee-Lovering back in 2013.  Living next to the Amazon river in flimsy wooden houses, raised on stilts.  Increasingly inadequate as the river levels in the wet season get higher and flood through the raised floors of their homes.

One of the amazing and encouraging things I have seen over the past few weeks is how people are loving their neighbour – perhaps a sign that our Christian heritage is not as lost in this country as we often think.  Checking if they are ok.  Getting shopping if they need it.  Although we are locked down, perhaps community is becoming stronger.  Let’s hope that this is a legacy of this difficult time.

So, the challenge to you this month and to your church community is to build a climate emergency legacy by making it personal.  To make a start in loving your climate neighbour as yourself.  To find out about people for whom the impact of the climate emergency is not in the seemingly hazy future.  It is immediate.  It is here and now.  People for whom it is just as real an emergency today as the COVID-19 crisis is for us all in this moment.   People who our lives are impacting today.  Find out about the work Laura Lee-Lovering is doing in the Peruvian Amazon on the BMS website. Most of the other major Christian mission agencies, such as Christian Aid and TEAR fund, will have stories of how climate change is impacting people lives.  I also subscribe to the “Severe Weather” feed on the BBC News app on my phone.  It alerts me to the impacts extreme weather events are having upon people around the world.  A good prayer prompt.

Making COVID-19 personal may sustain us through the limitations it brings to all our lives and help save some.  Making the climate emergency personal may help sustain our response to people and creation over the longer time that is needed.  Perhaps we need to keep the rainbows in our windows long after this immediate emergency has passed.  A reminder of hope.  A sign of the hope of God’s care for all creation.  Remember, “Show we care – our world is hurting”.

This is the eighth blog in a 12 part series from Dave Gregory. To read the first post ‘Addicted’, please click on this link.

Rev Dr Dave Gregory is Ministry Team Leader at Croxley Green Church, a former President of the Baptist Union, and co-ordinator of Messy Church Does Science. He is a JRI Director.


This article was first published on Seventy-Two and it is reprinted with their permission.

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