Avery Davis Lamb’s journey to faith-based environmental advocacy began, fittingly enough, in a garden.
As a boy growing up in Topeka, Kan., he loved working with his mother in the family’s yard, a mini-Eden of flowers and foliage where, between all the weeding and staking and deadheading, he came to appreciate the value a gardener brings to a garden, and vice versa.
“Being outside and working with plants was such an affirming part of my childhood,” he recalled. “It definitely planted a seed, even if I didn’t start thinking about the environment from a faith or vocational perspective until years later.”
Lamb’s “ecological conversion” came while attending a Christian conference during his days as a biology major at Pepperdine University. When the conference’s discussion turned to Christian ethics on climate change and sustainability, he realized that though he grew up in the church he had never heard much there about caring for the environment. That puzzled him, because looking back, he knew how formative his childhood experiences in the garden had been for cultivating his own connection to God.
“That’s the moment I realized that my faith has in it a call to care for God’s creation,” he said.
After graduating from Pepperdine in 2016, Lamb heeded that call by heading to Washington, D.C., for a year-long internship at the faith-based social and environmental justice advocacy organization Sojourners.
“It was an interesting time to be in Washington. On one hand, I was able to take part in the People’s Climate March and do lobbying and advocacy on important issues that were finally gaining momentum, like climate justice,” he said. “On the other hand, we were in the midst of the Trump Era environmental rollbacks, so there were lows as well as highs.”
Most people of faith are on board about caring for the environment and wanting clean energy. They just may not use the same words to convey it or necessarily view advocacy as a natural expression of their faith.”
–Avery Davis Lamb
When his internship ended, Lamb signed on as a policy advocate at another D.C.-area faith-based NGO called Interfaith Power & Light (IP&L). There, he advocated for climate policy on Capitol Hill on behalf of the 20,000 congregations in IP&L’s network and organized grassroots campaigns to address environmental issues affecting local communities.
“There were two campaigns I’m especially proud of,” he said. “In the first, we successfully organized communities of faith in Baltimore to oppose the city’s practice of allowing trains carrying crude oil, which poses an explosion risk, to pass through a low-income, mostly minority neighborhood on their way to port. City council members said hearing the moral voice of the city’s united communities of faith made the case.”
In the second campaign, he led efforts to bring leaders from multiple faiths together to advocate for a bill mandating the District of Columbia to switch to 100% clean energy by 2032, the most ambitious municipal goal of its kind at the time. “I held prayer meetings with the leaders and asked them to talk to the D.C. Council about the moral imperative of switching to clean energy,” Lamb said.
The united voices of faith once again carried the day, and the bill became law on Dec. 18, 2018.
While presenting a unified front was critical to the success of both campaigns, Lamb learned that respecting differences between communities was just as imperative.
“Faith communities are as diverse as the rest of the American public, both politically and theologically, but it’s not an unbridgeable divide if you’re willing to listen to them and see the issues from their perspectives,” he said. “Most people of faith are on board about caring for the environment and wanting clean energy. They just may not use the same words to convey it or necessarily view advocacy as a natural expression of their faith.”
And that, Lamb explains, is what has brought him to Duke to pursue Master of Environmental Management and Master of Divinity degrees, and a Certificate in Community-Based Environmental Management.
“After reading the 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report that shows we have 10 years to enact unprecedented changes if we want to avoid the worst effects of climate change, I realized the training I had received up to that point wasn’t going to be adequate to help bring about the changes we need in the time we have left,” Lamb said. “I needed much better spiritual and scientific toolkits, and Duke was the place to get them.”
Elizabeth Shapiro-Garza’s courses on community-based environmental management have been especially helpful in “affirming that rather than always looking for large-scale technocratic solutions to problems, it’s often better to draw solutions from individuals and communities who know the local environment and have a vested interest in seeing it flourish,” he said. “That’s a takeaway that will definitely help guide my future work.”
Post-graduation, Lamb hopes to apply his expanded skill set to a career, most likely in faith-based advocacy, that helps bring about meaningful environmental and social progress while strengthening people’s connections to God and nature. His time as a board member at the Center for Spirituality in Nature in Arlington, Va., has piqued his interest in creating opportunities for people to experience the divine through outdoor meditation and other nature-based experiences. He’s also intrigued by the Church of the Wild movement, in which congregations meet outside to see what their encounters with God are like when their altar is a rock or stump and they take a 20-minute walk through the woods instead of listening to a sermon.
“For me, it all comes back to the Garden of Eden story, which I consider the foundational Biblical text on the relationship between God, humans and nature,” Lamb said. “In that story, God is not a king or a philosopher. He’s a gardener. He scoops up soil from the ground and breathes life into it. What a beautiful story.”