If your church’s community garden didn’t fare well in this summer’s excessive heat or flooding rains, it’s time for the congregation to talk about how to deal locally with the global climate crisis.
That’s the first message from Becca Edwards, a United Methodist candidate for ordained deacon in the Rio Texas Annual Conference who has begun an unusual, possibly unique, position as a Climate Fellow. Her status is unusual because her new post is divided between an interfaith state advocacy organization, Texas Impact, and the churchwide General Board of Church and Society.
Edwards comes to her new assignment as a bona fide scientist who spent a decade teaching engineering and climate science at United Methodist-related Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, a community about 30 minutes north of the state capital of Austin.
The Climate Fellow position came about through a conversation between Texas Impact Executive Director Bee Moorhead, who’s also a Presbyterian elder, and John Hill, interim top executive of the United Methodist General Board of Church and Society. The two activists are longtime ecumenical colleagues on global climate issues, Moorhead said.
“John was talking about how much he had on his plate now that he’s interim general secretary, and how he was looking for help with climate issues,” she said.
Hill confirmed his conversation with Moorhead had an air of sychronicity.
“I’ve known Bee for a lot of years,” Hill said. “She was naming her work and I was naming my needs and there was a clear overlap.”
“She was naming her work and I was naming my needs and there was a clear overlap.”
That conversation resulted in Edwards’ assignment half-time with Texas Impact and half-time with Church and Society. Working out of Texas Impact’s Austin headquarters, she meets with Hill every other week.
Edwards’ path from university instructor to creation care ministry led her through some unsettled times, she said.
Her undergraduate degree is in mechanical engineering, and her doctorate is a multidisciplinary degree encompassing both civil engineering and atmospheric science. Her dissertation covered the potentially hazardous interaction between turbulent winds and building structures.
Because her teaching post at Southwestern wasn’t tenured, she found herself in a state of job uncertainty — a precarious position that increasingly resembled the uncertainties of climate change. Along the way, through monthly meetings with some of her Southwestern colleagues, she began to see mitigating and adapting to climate change required not only educating minds, but also engaging hearts and spirits.
In other words, her scientific vocation grounded her well in the “how” of climate change, but then her observations began expanding to include the “why.”
From a faith perspective, the 2019 General Conference was a major turning point for her, Edwards said. That legislative assembly not only rejected a “live-and-let-live” prospect known as the One Church Plan, but also imposed harsh penalties against LGBTQ clergy and United Methodist pastors who officiated at legal same-gender weddings.
“I wasn’t comfortable continuing to say nothing about the harm the church was imposing on LGBTQ persons,” Edwards said. “I tried to develop book studies and led a worship service protesting the church’s policies against LGBTQ persons.”
Through her volunteer activities, she began to discern a call to ordained ministry.
Through her volunteer activities, she began to discern a call to ordained ministry. Encouraged by friends and colleagues, she signed up for a introductory weekend at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, which also educates United Methodist clergy in Central Texas.
“I fell in love with Austin Seminary and theological study over that introductory weekend,” Edwards said.
She delved deeply into theological classes during her first two years at seminary. Then in her final year of 2022, she circled back around to science, studying environmental ethics, space and public policy, and joining in a project to study air quality and climate. Her studies and volunteer activities led her to become minister of mercy and justice at First United Methodist Church in Austin.
That convergence led her to new activities with Texas Impact, a state multifaith advocacy organization that brings religious perspectives to public policy decisions.
So far, her work has been project-based. She organized a July conference on faith-based climate resilience at Lovers’ Lane UMC in Dallas and edited a climate action newsletter for Church and Society. To date, the work has been simple because both the Texas Legislature and the U.S. Congress haven’t been in session, but she expects her workload to increase as state and federal lawmakers consider climate-change proposals.
Edwards said one of her professional goals is to educate churches on why it’s urgent for people of faith to push for equitable, fair and effective public policies on the worldwide climate crisis. Part of that goal involves convincing people that science and religion aren’t at odds with one another.
“I see science as a tool that allows us to live out our call to care for our neighbors.”
“Science helps us understand how the world works,” Edwards said. “I see science as a tool that allows us to live out our call to care for our neighbors.”
Hill agreed with Edwards’ perspective, adding that her position highlights the vital links between state and federal climate care policies.
“What’s intriguing for me is the depth of state and federal work; right now, there are federal pieces for action in the Inflation Reduction Act, but much happens at the state level,” Hill said. “To have someone help us understand the ways state and federal policies interact is a real gift, because Church and Society is geared toward deepening understanding and catalyzing action. The closer the decision-makers are to the people, the more likely they are to take action.”
Harking back to those ruined summer gardens, Edwards said the extreme weather has spurred people to talk about climate change’s local effects.
“We don’t realize that so many people are thinking about climate change and talking about climate change,” she said. “We have a lot more power than we think we do to move the needle on climate change policy through our votes.”
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