One of the oldest Protestant mission organizations has become one of the most forward-looking religious groups when it comes to fighting climate change.

BMS World Mission in Great Britain, the world’s oldest Baptist missionary-sending organization, is taking direct action to offset the carbon emissions generated by its extensive travels. BMS World Mission operates in some 34 countries across four continents, so that’s a lot of travel.

In recent years, various religious groups have made news by their reaction to growing awareness of climate change and its effects not only on the environment but also on people, especially the world’s poor. Sometimes, that reaction has involved taking the first step of acknowledging that global warming is a real problem.

In February 2006, 86 American evangelical leaders made headlines when they announced that they would back a major initiative to fight global warming because “millions of people would die in this century because of climate change, most of them our poorest global neighbors.” They called for federal legislation requiring reductions in carbon-dioxide emissions through a market-based system.

Their announcement was newsworthy in part because it broke from other prominent evangelicals, including Richard Land, the president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and James C. Dobson of Focus on the Family. Those two were among 22 evangelical leaders who had signed a letter the previous month saying that “Global warming is not a consensus issue.”

In March 2008, 44 prominent Southern Baptist leaders had their turn in the headlines when they said the denomination’s previous stance on global warming had been “too timid” and called for more action, for “serious consideration to responsible policies” to tackle global warming, and for Baptists to keep an “open mind” on environmental issues. The Southern Baptist Convention, however, remained divided on its reaction to climate change.

The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship has moved beyond debating whether climate change is real and a problem; that group has been discussing what it and partner churches can do to make a difference, by advocating action by government and business – and also by taking direct steps of their own.

BMS may turn out to be a prime example of the kind of direct action religious organizations can take. BMS has set out on what it calls a “journey” to become carbon-neutral in its impact with a target timeline of three years. From the beginning, BMS said that its action was taken in light of “the Biblical mandate for creation care.”

To translate its ideals into practical action, BMS has been drawing on the expert help of Climate Stewards, a Christian environmental organization that is part of A Rocha, a global family of Christian community-based conservation projects.

The results are clearly documented. For the 2007-08 fiscal year, according to Mark Craig, the director of communications for BMS, BMS carbon-offset all of the emissions from the air travel of its short-term mission teams around the world. This fiscal year, it is extending that effort to offset the emissions of all its worldwide air travel for other activities. And in the 2009-10 fiscal year, it plans to offset all its other travel, such as highway and rail.

BMS started by delivering its offsets to Climate Stewards, which has used the money for such projects as planting trees in Africa. Brendan Bowles, the director of Climate Stewards, said that the offsets from BMS are directed toward projects in Ghana, which is one of the nations being most hurt by drought, famine and other effects of global warming. Restoring forests there helps to absorb carbon dioxide, protect wildlife and enable local people to adapt and develop a sustainable way of life.

Praising BMS for being ahead of the curve on addressing climate change, Bowles spoke of the crucial role the church can play. “Jesus said the two most important commandments are to love God with everything we’ve got and our neighbor as ourselves. Treating God’s creation with care and respect is part of our love for Him. Preventing damage to the climate on which our neighbors in Africa depend to live is part of our love for them,” he said.

This year, BMS is adding a new element to its carbon-offset effort. It will continue to deliver half its offsets through Climate Stewards, but will use the other half to start a new BMS fund that will contribute money to grass-roots environmental programs that will make real differences to local communities.

BMS is also about to start a new resource called “FutureShape?” that will help Baptist churches in the United Kingdom “on a journey into the issues raised by creation care.”

Craig, the BMS communications director, said, “BMS is committed to making this journey because we believe that as stewards of God’s creation we are called to care in this way. For too long, we’ve avoided that issue, and the time is here for us to make good on that commitment, right across our mission work in the world. In doing so, we also stand with the poor, of all faiths and none, who will be hit first and hardest by climate change.”
Linda Brinson retired in November as the editorial page editor of the Winston-Salem Journal. She is a member of First Baptist Church in Madison, N.C.

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