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Kyle-Meyaard-Schaap: Advocating for the Creation Care Policies We Need Now

In this episode, Kyle Meyaard-Schapp, vice president of the Evangelical Environmental Network (EEN) shares how he got involved in climate advocacy as a Christian - including the middle-school humor nickname for the lake near the town where he grew up! Kyle and Chris also talk about lament as a necessary component of hope, how to encourage folks wherever they are on their justice journeys, and taking the long view when it comes to bringing about change.

The following is a transcript of Season 4 Episode 3 of the Do Justice podcast.  It has been lightly edited for clarity.  Listen and subscribe on your favourite listening app.  

Chris: Well Hello friends and welcome to Do Justice. I'm your host Chris Orme. We’re really excited today to have Kyle Meyaard-Schaap with us. Kyle serves as the Vice President for the Evangelical Environmental Network. Before that, he was the national organizer and spokesperson for EEN’s youth ministry: Young Evangelicals for Climate Action.

He is an ordained minister in the Christian Reformed Church in North America. And we’re really excited to have him with us. Welcome Kyle, thanks for joining us today, man. 

Kyle: Thanks, Chris. Glad to be here. 

Chris: Yeah, tell us a little bit about yourself like where you're coming from, give us a little bit of your story, that'd be great.

Kyle: Yeah of course I'm coming to you from Grand Rapids, Michigan, where my wife and young son call home.Grew up in West Michigan. I'm a West Michigan guy, grew up in Holland, not far from Grand Rapids, grew up in the Christian Reformed Church, went to Holland Christian.

That's the CRC day school there in Holland. I went to Calvin College. And after Calvin actually joined the staff of the Office of Social Justice for a few years, while I was on staff I went through seminary at Western Theological Seminary. And since then have become ordained in the CRC. And for the last few years, I've been doing ministry and making my living helping churches understand the Christian call to care for God's creation, and to address climate change as an act of discipleship. I just—part of what it means to follow Jesus in the 21st century. If we're going to love God and love our neighbor, we’ve got to do something about a crisis that is threatening God's good creation and our neighbors ability to flourish and thrive.

Chris: Awesome. Yeah, I mean, if, if there's a more important conversation to be having right now I'm not quite sure what it is. So Kyle when you're outside in creation, what's the thing that just snags at your heart? What makes you want to become or be, and continue to advocate in this area?

Kyle: I love that question. I think it's probably a part of creation that I don't get to see as much as I used to but still looms really large for me and it's like Michigan. I grew up, like I said, in Holland which is right on the shores of Lake Michigan and there's just so much a part of my childhood to head to the beach, to hike in the dunes, to camp out along the beach and Lake Michigan was just always kind of like my center of gravity. It's even how I know how I tell direction. I'm really bad with just cardinal directions but as long as Lake Michigan is to the west of me I know where I am.

So, Lake Michigan is just like a really important piece of creation. That still has a lot of meaning for me and every time I get to go back there, it just reminds me of the awesome power of God that's communicated to us through creation, the enormous gift that God's creation is to us, not just in how it offers us the ability to relax and recreate but the amount of freshwater that a body like Lake Michigan provides for God's people in God's creatures and for crops that feed people just how God's provision is so tangible in something like Lake Michigan.

And, you know, relatedly, I think about another body of water that's close to Lake Michigan called Lake Macatawa: an inland lake near Holland that feeds into Lake Michigan and Holland is kind of built around it.

And for my whole childhood, we all had a nickname for Lake Macatawa. It was Lake Mac-a-Toilet, because it was so polluted. The agricultural runoff spiked the phosphorus levels in the lake every year, and led to huge algae blooms and mass die offs and it always smelled and there were dead fish floating on it and you always knew not to play or do anything in Lake Macatawa. And it's just such a heartbreaking reminder of how we have the ability to take this gift—that was meant to be a gift—and turn it into a threat. And how I never really questioned why Lake Macatawa was a threat instead of the gift that it was supposed to be. And thank goodness there are a lot of good people doing really good work to clean up Lake Macatawa. Those are kind of the two places that I think of Lake Michigan and the gift that it is and Lake Macatawa and the threat it has been and the gift it's becoming again and why humans aren't always very good at recognizing the gifts of creation as the gifts that they are and instead turning them into threats that are dangerous to people and the planet.

Chris: Yeah, like, it's amazing to me to think that something that in its intent should be a source of life. It should be a source of food and resources and it should be safe. And human action has made it toxic and a threat. I like how you point out that nuance there. 

Kyle: And how human action is restoring it back to the gift that it was supposed to be. I think a lot of times in environmental circles, you hear a lot about what humans are doing wrong. And it's a whole lot of “humans are the source of all of the environmental problems” and of course we have a ton of responsibility for a lot of what is wrong but we also have tremendous creativity and God-given ability to co-create alongside God and to cultivate these gifts of creation, and to bring them—restore them back to their intended purpose. So, we have awesome responsibility in both directions and it's just a matter of which way we're going to exercise it.

Chris: Yeah, man. Yeah, so I have a question. So, how did you go from “this is something I'm interested in”—because we've all got interests. We've all got like our pet projects. We've all got hobbies that maybe wane and fade over time—but how did this go from something like “I'm interested in this. I care about this” to “I am deeply passionate about it. I have integrated this into my life.” What was that move like for you?

Kyle: That's a great question. It's definitely a progression that only makes sense looking backwards. There's a lot of things that—a lot of opportunities that God opened up to me. A lot of steps along the way that didn't always feel like they were heading in a particular direction but then when you look back, you say“oh yeah, now I see it.” Because I didn't necessarily grow up in a community that emphasized environmental care. It certainly wasn't it wasn't maligned. My overwhelming memory from the community I grew up in when it comes to what my faith had to say about my relationship to the natural world is silence. I just didn't really receive much formation or many tools to integrate my faith into my relationship with the world around me. And so it wasn't high on my priority list, and then it became so when I went to college and was exposed to more ideas about how our faith actually has a lot to say about what God thinks of the world about our responsibility toward it. God's invitation to us to revel in the goodness of the world with him and to take care of it alongside of him. God's ultimate purposes for the world, not maybe destruction and hellfire but restoration and reconciliation of all things, not just human souls. So it was going to college being exposed to people's stories, who were being harmed by environmental pollution.

Taking theology classes where, where I was scratching that itch I didn't really know I had, and was loving asking the questions that we were asking in those classes to deepen my understanding of what my faith did have to say about my responsibility to the world and my relationship to it.

And then it was a matter of just getting involved so I got involved on campus with the environmental stewardship group there. After college, I had the very very good fortune of coming on staff at the OSJ. And that just continued to deepen my passion, and to kind of build out my networks with other people around the country and the world, who were passionate about this and working on it. Getting involved with Young Evangelicals for Climate Action on the steering committee as a volunteer and then coming on staff there a few years later.

So I have been very blessed to be able to kind of make a living doing this thing that I'm really passionate about. But everybody has opportunities to get involved and to take action on things that they're passionate about. And I know that it's hard because there's so many things to be fired up about these days. And I don't think we can go wrong when we kind of choose a lane or two and really invest in those things because we trust that other people are investing in other lanes. 

That's what the church is about; we’re a body of believers. And each of us have unique vocational callings that comprise a whole lot of different things, whether that's our career, our relationships, our hobbies, the things we advocate for. So this is something that I advocate for a lot and I trust that other people are advocating for democracy reform and immigration reform and racial justice—and I do that too when I can—but this is kind of the issue that God is really called me to advocate for primarily in this season. 

Chris: It's cool because I think what I get from what you just shared is that this stuff doesn't happen in a vacuum. It happens in the context of community. Your formation happened in the context of community and our conversations that we have around—especially climate and advocacy—those conversations also happen in the context of relationships. So I want to bounce one off ya, because I have this friend. They're really excited about reusable straws, which is awesome. I love reusable straws and World Renew—we have reusable straws that we give to our constituents and they're great. They have the little World Renew logo on it and it's awesome. And we support that.

But this friend—how can I invite them to take steps toward addressing systemic change? How do you help people pair their excitement for individual actions with working toward systemic action,  moving from “it's just me and my straw” to “I'm going to get organized to be part of something bigger?” What's that move look like? 

Kyle: Yeah, that's a great question. I think the first thing I would share is everybody is on a journey and nobody's journey is ever finished. It's not like Bill McKibben is done on his journey of becoming an activist, even though you know he started and he's this internationally renowned climate activist. We're all on a journey and all of us have more growth ahead of us. And so I think it's important to just recognize the journey your friend is on and where your friend is at right now and celebrate where they are in the progress they've made already, and even to remember your own journey. When I think about all of the people it took in my life to bring me to the place that I am now doing what I'm doing now, it took years and dozens of people faithfully doing what the Holy Spirit empowered them to do to kind of help me move along that that journey toward deeper faithfulness and discipleship.

So remembering our own journeys are long and and our own progress can be slow, but always celebrating wherever somebody is on their journey and kind of recognizing that all we're called to do as we walk alongside other people on their journeys is just to be faithful to what the Holy Spirit is inviting us to do, to invite that person into and to trust that the Holy Spirit will be faithful to bring that person to where they need to be eventually.

So, all of that said, I think what I would do right away is just celebrate their enthusiasm. Say “I love how excited you are about this. That is so cool.” Full stop, right? Just full stop. And just let them feel proud of what they're doing and celebrated because that's really important. This work is really hard. And it's really hard especially if we're not feeling supported, or if we're not doing it in community. So just making sure that person feels supported and celebrated is really important.

And then I think what I would do is try to get to the bottom of why that makes them so excited, what's motivating that action for them and what are the values that are informing that motivation. If they're really excited about keeping plastic straw pollution out of the oceans, you can say, “hey, that's awesome. I love that you're passionate about this and what you're doing around plastic straws is going to make a difference. I've learned oceans are vulnerable to lots of threats.

One of them is increasing temperatures and more acidity, higher pH, which is really harmful to ecosystems in the ocean,. It can harm coral reefs which—we're seeing are bleaching right now and that's really harmful for fisher people who make their living off of those fish. And all that's tied back to climate change.” So, if you can find ways to continue to help that person grow when it comes to the values they're really passionate about—protecting the ocean, plastic straws, or something. Plastic pollution is a threat to the ocean. So are lots of other things. And if you can expose them to those other threats and invite them to go deeper in their actions that will kind of amplify their impact over time, I think is a nice way to help build off of what they're already doing. Not demolish it and say “plastic straw reusable straws aren’t going to do anything to solve our climate crisis.”

We don't say that. We say “love what you're doing.” And then invite them to understand what the next step might be. 

And always do it in an invitational way. Invite them to some sort of action that you're taking to address climate change. Say “Hey, I just wrote this email to my member of Congress about the Build Back Better Act here in the US.” That’s a lot of the conversation right now. It's the best chance we have in a generation for big climate action and say “hey would you like to do that too?” Always kind of leading by example and inviting people to join you as a really winsome way to invite people to keep growing along that journey of engagement and deepening their actions from just individual action to pairing that individual action then with systemic action.

Chris: Yeah, I like the progression piece, sort of helping move folks along a continuum and moving from the individual to sort of the group piece is important. And then I think the next step in the evolution of that growth would probably be then to really start to think about intentional advocacy. 

And I think we've all been in conversations with friends and acquaintances and interested people where we start to talk about advocacy and I've seen it. I've seen their eyes glaze over. They're like “the government doesn't make a difference.” Except: we know that advocacy makes a difference. A great example would be before the Clean Air Act many cities in the US, they had big problems with smog and after it passed in the 60s, we know that air quality dramatically improved. So, I guess the question is like what would you say to someone—who would respond that way to that invitation of “well let's do some advocacy” with “well it doesn't work. It doesn't make a difference”—what would you say to that person?

Kyle: I think the first thing I’d do is sympathize with the sentiment, like I understand where that's coming from. That's coming from a place that feels powerless in the face of really big opaque power structures that can really easily feel beyond our control. And so—I spend my life teaching people to do advocacy and I still understand that sentiment sometimes! I find it hard sometimes to pick up the phone again and to call my congressman again. So I think the first thing is to just sympathize and say “yeah I get it. Advocacy can be hard and it's a slog.” Government moves really really slowly, like most institutions. So, advocacy is a marathon. It's not a sprint.

And if we're going to expect our advocacy to reap results in a few months and then we can put our feet up on the beach and pat ourselves on the back for doing the thing, and solving the thing, then it's going to always feel discouraging. So taking the long view is really important.

I think the Clean Air Act is a great example. Another example, at least in the environmental space is the National Environmental Policy Act in the US. That was also implemented. Around the same time, one of the linchpins for that was the Cuyahoga River starting on fire. In Ohio, the Cuyahoga River literally was on fire, because on the whole surface of the river was industrial pollution and flammable liquids. And so the government said “all right we got to do something,” so the National Environmental Policy Act is this landmark piece of environmental legislation, under which sits things like the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act. And, and like you said, before the Clean Air Act, smog was a huge problem. Before the Clean Water Act, access to clean water was even more of a threat to human health than it is now and it still is.There's still more work to do.

Before the Endangered Species Act, the bald eagle was going to die out in a couple of years. Other really important creatures were going to go extinct and they've been saved. So there are plenty of examples to look at where policy has really made a difference. And I think it's easy for those of us who have inherited that success to kind of go to sleep, to those realities and to convince ourselves that “oh I guess there's always been more or less smog free,” even though there's still smog. “I guess it's, it's always been the case that we could, you know, more or less trust the water coming out of our tap” although again that's not the case for everybody, but for a lot of people it is after the Clean Water Act. And it's important to tell those histories, to help us remember that even though that's been our reality that hasn't always been the case. And it's our reality now because of policy.

I think another great example of advocacy, that's not environmentally related but as in the Christian relief and development space, is how AIDS went from a morality issue, and a sin issue to a women and children issue really quickly. When the AIDS epidemic was spiraling, a lot of Christian leaders came out and said this is a morality issue. This is a sin issue. And Christians kind of fell in line with that and as a result, a lot of Christian relief and development agencies who are working all over the world, especially in Sub Saharan Africa where AIDS was really exploding, were finding it hard to tell their donors, back in the West, that “AIDS is crippling our efforts to try to love these people and to help them out of poverty. And we need your support to help us address it.” They couldn't say that until a few people including Kay Warren— Rick Warren's wife—stepped out and said, “You know what, this is not primarily a sin, and a morality issue. This is a women and children's issue. AIDS is destroying kids around the world. It is erasing all of the gains that we've made at eradicating poverty and all of these countries around the world and we have to address it. We have to do something about it.”

That really made a difference and the Christian community kind of rallied around that and then President Bush, not long after established PEPFAR: the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief in Africa. And it was the single largest international aid program to address AIDS ever established. And it's made a huge difference for millions of people. And that was because of the advocacy of people like Kay Warren and others like her, a lot of them field staff from relief and development agencies, saying, :Look what this is doing to the people we're in relationship with.

Look what scripture has to say about people like this and our responsibility to do something about it.” And that helped to reframe the whole conversation, and that was the result of advocacy.

Chris: So good man. It's awesome to hear good movement on such important issues, and especially because we hear words like “urgency” when we talk about climate. We're hearing phrases like “climate disaster,” “code red,” “point of no return.” How do we make sure our response to the challenge before us is still informed by reality, but also rooted in hope, rather than despair or fear?

Kyle: I think the first thing we have to do is, name the fear and sit with it for a little bit. I get this question about hope a lot in my work. And my answer has changed over the last few years, because my old answer was starting to feel more and more trite. And I think because I didn't give a lament it's due. Soong-Chan Rah, Professor out of North Park University, wrote a book called Prophetic Lament. And he makes the case that American evangelicalism—and I think we could expand that to kind of Western Christendom—by and large, is kind of triumphalist in its orientation.

And it's very very good at the praise and worship part of, of being in relationship with God. It’s good at praise and glory. It's really bad at lament and repentance. But lament is a necessary component of hope. We can’t hope if we're not honestly naming the pain and the suffering that we hope will one day be eradicated.Otherwise, our hope is unsustainable. We can't sustain that hope so I think we need to get better at lament. We need to get better at naming the things we've lost and the things we will lose, before we can have any sort of sustainable hope that's grounded in anything real.

So I never want to tell people that they aren't supposed to feel fearful and never want to tell people that they're not supposed to lament because I actually think that's really really healthy. It's not healthy if we stay there. It's healthy if we start there. Because then that's how we can move to something that resembles hope. So I guess that's my first thought is: I want us to get better at real lament, naming the things we've lost and we'll lose and sitting in that for a while.

But then you know the biblical example of the formula for lament is: name the sorrow. Name the injustice. And then move toward expressions of faith. Move toward remembering God's faithfulness in the past. Move toward these places where we can still name the loss, but also remember the hope that's grounded in Christ and Christ’s ultimate purposes for the world, which is renewal and reconciliation. If we believe that the end of the story is in Revelation 21—when God comes down from heaven to earth and makes his dwelling place here on earth and renews all things—if we believe like that's true, then we have hope that, somehow against the odds, even when the headlines scream otherwise, God will be faithful to bring that about. And it might look different than we think. But it'll happen. And then we get to work, taking action in ways that empower that hope, that enable us to remember that story, to be “re-membered” into that story every time we take that action.

But we have to start with lament. And then we have to do something. Katharine Hayhoe is a friend of the organization and of me personally and she's good at saying “We don't take action because we have hope. We have hope because we take action.” We take action first, and our action leads to hope because by taking action we build relationships with other people taking action. We cultivate community. We hold hope for each other. When it's hard for me to hold it, you hold it for a while. And then when it's hard for you to hold it, I hold it for a while. We can't hope alone and we can't hope, unless we're taking action. So, I think we have to start with lament. We have to honor the fear and the despair that's really real and is there and and bring that before God, just like the Psalmists do and the ancient Israelites do often, just like Job did. And then move toward recommitments of faith, and saying, “All right, God, even the midst of all of this, I see what you've done in the past and I believe you'll be faithful into the future and then I'm going to live like I believe that and I'm going to take actions that reinforce that.” And as we do, our hope begins to be cultivated. But again, I think that that idea that hope is incubated and held in community is so important, because by ourselves, it can be really hard to hold that hope. And people need to be told that it's okay sometimes not to be hopeful. I'm not always hopeful about the climate crisis.

But I'm in a community that's holding that hope together. And so, my brothers and my sisters can hold that hope for me until I can get to a place where I can work through that lament.

And then I can take action with them and begin to cultivate that hope again.

Chris: Brother, I'm just thankful that you're in this space. I really am. Hearing you talk and just reminding us that you're not alone, and you can't do it alone, it's been such an encouraging conversation. And I just feel uplifted and I know our listeners will too. Hey, as we come to a close here, how can people track with what you're doing? Where can people find your work? How can people connect with you on socials and all that good stuff?

Kyle: Yeah, for sure, so you can head to, that's where you're going to find the Evangelical Environmental Network, and the work that we're doing. I'm pretty easy to find on Facebook and Twitter. I hope you're going to have my name spelled out in the episode description because if you just search phonetically for me you might not find me.

Chris: we’ll make sure we get it out there!

Kyle: but find my name in that description and then just plug me in. I'm on Facebook and Twitter.

I'm too old to be on Instagram and TikTok—no, that’s not true. I just don't care enough to set up an account…but I'm on Facebook and Twitter!

Chris: Awesome. Hey and for our CRCNA sisters and brothers, you can always visit the CRCNA website. You can visit the World Renew website. And you can visit the OSJ website to find all of the stuff that we're doing with Climate Witness Project and working together in community in this hopeful endeavor. Our guest today was Kyle Meyaard-Schaap. Kyle, thank you for being with us.

Kyle: Thanks so much, Chris.


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