Ruth Valerio: Challenging British Christians
This interview was first published in the A Rocha International News, issue 55 (March 2014)
Dr Ruth Valerio, Churches and Theology Director, A Rocha UK is becoming increasingly well-known amongst Christians as a writer and speaker on issues of faith, justice, environment and lifestyle.
Ruth, in your blog ruthvalerio.net you describe yourself as ‘Community activist, Christian, academic, eco-warrior, mum, author, veg grower, wife and pig keeper rolled into one.’ What started you off onto such a singular path?
One was seeing a few individuals in my church who were switched on to environmental issues and realising that I had a lot to learn from them. The other was reading a book on the Bible and green issues and realising this was a really important part of Christian life. It was almost like a second conversion.
We often expect people to be either academics or activists, but you’re obviously both. Your academic career began at Cambridge with a theology degree, and you’ve recently completed your doctorate, looking at simplicity and consumerism. Why is that such an important issue to you?
I think I’m an activist who pretends at being an academic every now and then! But anyway, I think issues around consumerism and how we live are vital for two basic reasons. Firstly, they play such a huge part in our current environmental and social crisis. At the risk of being overly simplistic, if you look at the problems we’re currently facing, they pretty much all come down in the end to the resource-intensive life lived by those of us who are more economically developed. That life is, of course, fed by consumerism.
Secondly, they play a crucial part in our walk with God. Jesus said pretty bluntly that we’re not going to be able to serve both God and money, and when we try to do both it’s a problem! In Hebrews we’re told to keep ourselves free from the love of money and be content with what we have. Simple living is a bad name, I think, for a good aim: that we try to live in a way that reduces the amount of resources we use; that brings in a sense of rhythm and awareness, allowing space for God and for others (both human and non-human), as well as for ourselves.
How does it affect your own lifestyle – and that of your family?
Well, we live very differently to when we first got married nearly twenty years ago! It has affected what we buy, where we holiday, where our electricity comes from, how much we heat our home and water, how much we use our car, and, hugely, how we eat and where our food comes from.
It has been a great adventure that I have loved – and my husband has grudgingly gone along with, ha ha! The food side of it particularly has been great fun, and thankfully my children have really embraced that and love the fact that we grow/rear/make so much of our own stuff. I’m FAR from perfect and there is always more to do, and all sorts of compromises that I make, but I’m aware and I’m trying, and I think that is the main thing.
When I wrote, L is for Lifestyle: Christian living that doesn’t cost the earth, I deliberately made it quite autobiographical and I think that helped other people engage too and see that it is possible to do these sorts of things whilst living a ‘normal’ life – you don’t have to go up a mountain and live in a cabin!
I blog a lot about all of this at ruthvalerio.net so do have a look and see a bit more of what I get up to and what occupies my thinking.
Why did you get involved with A Rocha?
It started with a very happy coincidence. Back in 1999 I was working for the UK Evangelical Alliance, as Head of Social Responsibility. The EA held a large congress and I was put down to run a seminar on the environment with some chap called Dave Bookless. [Then National Director of A Rocha UK, now Theology Director for A Rocha International.] I’d never come across him before. At that point I felt like I was a lone voice, carrying the cross of an ecological conscience in a context that simply didn’t get it. When I did the seminar with Dave I suddenly met someone else who was thinking and saying the same things as me – it was fantastic!
So, we connected at that congress and stayed in touch. Dave occasionally asked me to speak at various A Rocha UK events and we became friends. At some point he asked me if I would take on the Living Lightly initiative www.arochalivinglightly.org.uk just one day a week, and so I did that for a number of years, which was great as it made my link with A Rocha that little bit stronger and kept me connected with others who thought similarly to me, so I didn’t feel quite such a wierdo!
Tell us about some of the other action being taken by A Rocha UK to challenge and resource Christians to care for the Earth.
This is what I love doing! This year we’re going to be focusing quite a bit on our speakers – giving them some training and increasing our church visits. I do a lot of speaking around the country, both to churches and conferences, and it is encouraging to see those opportunities growing. Increasingly, churches are contacting us saying, ‘we want to look at the environment as a church – please help us do that’.
Our Eco-Congregation programme is growing, with about 270 churches having been awarded Eco-Congregation status and that is something I’m going to be looking at this year too, with Nigel Hopper who is my Churches and Resources Manager, to see how we can develop it further. I’ve got a number of possible opportunities opening up for this that I’m excited about!
Another interesting thing is the Land Conference that Andy Lester is organising, which brings together land owners (mostly Christian) in a safe context to look at Christian principles of how to manage their land well.
I think social media has also got to play a big part in this. Our Facebook page gets quite a bit of traffic, and we’ll be ramping up our Twitter feed over the next few months. It’s finding ways of constantly getting the message out and encouraging people to make those changes.
What kind of changes would you most like to see in the UK church?
I would like it to be as natural for them to be engaged in acts of wider creation care as it is for them to be engaged in acts of social care. Most churches in the UK (evangelical ones at least) are doing some sort of outward-facing ministry (toddler groups, Food Banks, Street Pastors and so on) and would be embarrassed if someone told them that they weren’t. I want that to be the same for wider creation care: every church, as a matter of course, being involved in some way, whether that is through practical local action or greening the church building or looking at how individuals can change their lifestyles… or whatever.
The good news is that a lot of churches and Christians in the UK would now say that environmental issues are part of the Christian faith. The challenge is getting them to do something about it!