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A Rocha’s Conservation of Creation

Convivium’s Hannah Marazzi talks to Richard Faw, interim president of the Christian conservation organization A Rocha, about God’s love guiding the sustenance of Creation.

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A Rocha’s Conservation of Creation June 6, 2018  |  By Hannah Marazzi with Richard Faw
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Convivium: What is A Rocha is and how did it come to be? 

Richard Faw: At a basic level, we're an international Christian conservation organization. We want to show God's love for all creation and do this by seeking the transformation of people and places. 

One description I've heard of what we do is we're a bit of a mashup between Labri, a youth hostel, and a field study station. The core of what we do is we want is to care for creation. The key is that we see creation as pretty broad. Creation refers to people and place and we want to invite others to join us in doing that.

Convivium: What’s the genesis of your name?

Richard Faw: A Rocha was started in Portugal in the early 1980s by a British couple, Peter and Miranda Harris. Peter was absolutely manic about birds, and he went to Portugal to start a bird observatory as Christian mission. At the time, that was odd to say the least. They landed on the Southern tip of Portugal in a wetland there at the Alvor estuary. This kind of rocky headland where they started their center was called the Quinta da Rocha. A Rocha’s name is both a nod to where this first centre began in Southern Portugal and a double entendre reference to Christ the rock or foundation. 

Convivium: A Rocha’s work is organized into three broad categories: conservation, environmental education, and sustainable agriculture. What work does A Rocha undertake in these three areas of focus?

Richard Faw: The core of our work is conservation. That takes the primary form, particularly in Canada, of habitat restoration and species monitoring. The goal is to improve biodiversity and ecosystem function. Conservation asks us to know who's in the neighborhood; you have to study who the species are, who lives here and then figure out what they need. Habitat restoration is often crucial to that. 

We partner with lots of other conservation groups, municipal, non-profit, federal agencies, and landowners. In doing so, we’re undertaking a lot of the same work as other organizations, but we do it with hope and I think that’s distinctive. 

The education aspect of our organization is a natural next step. Once you study which creatures are there, what they’re up to, and what they need, you get to learn about who is disappearing and how you might help them come back. You need to tell people about this!  Education is inviting others into this process. This can look like everything from reporting to equipping folks to care for what is in their own backyard. We try to get practical. This is a pedagogical choice and philosophy that doing is better than just talking. 

We also work in small scale, sustainable agriculture. This happens to some extent in A Rocha projects around the world, but certainly is distinctive here in Canada, particularly in Surrey, B.C. One of the rationales here is that of all human endeavors, agriculture has the biggest impact on the planet's biosphere. Agriculture is a conservation act. Therefore, eating is a conservation act. We ask: Can you grow food in a way that builds soil and improves biodiversity rather than the reverse?

This is an entry point between conservation and the daily lives of folks. If you're lucky enough, three times a day, to take part in conservation. So how can we do that? What does that look like? 

All these aspects of our organization, the time spent on the farm together, the education, the internships are ways of trying to close the circle and help people ask: What does conservation and the care of species have to do with my life and how I live? 

C: A Rocha is unique in that it clearly expresses itself as a Christian conservation organization. You have clearly articulated the inextricable link between your faith and work. Tell us about A Rocha’s theology of environmental stewardship?

RF: Our work almost always involves inviting people in. This can be visitors that come for the day, but at the other end of the spectrum for us it's interns that come for three or four months, sometimes even a year. Our hope is for them to emerge with an integrated experience. 

I remember one woman, Helen, who described attending her church community understanding her love for Jesus but perhaps not her love for her biology lab and her peers in the biology lab. She understood why she loved to come to the lab every day but lacked understanding of why she loved Jesus. She told us that it was only after she came to A Rocha that these parts fit together. Faith, lab, and I might add plate and lifestyle were actually an integrated whole. 

The root of the theology of caring for creation is that we're created to be in relationship. There's different ways to slice and dice it, but I see at least three fundamental relationships - with God, with other people, and with the rest of Creation. Biblically these three can't be separated. Isaiah 4:1-3 illustrates this perfectly. It refers to the worship of God, the love of people and the care for Creation. You can't have one without the others, at least not fully. Biblically this is well understood, but I think in some strands of Christendom we're missing the third leg of the stool often. When these come together, we see this as the arc of the Biblical story – shalom.  

So that does that look like in a little bit more detail? Well, I think we care for Creation as part of our worship of God, as part of our obedience to His commands. Part of how we mimic God is that we are made in God's image and given the task to care for the garden earth. We try to help Creation flourish in the same way that Christ's sacrifice allows me to flourish. There isn't much question that the health of people and the health of ecosystems are intrinsically linked where affecting one will affect the other. 

Lastly, of course, the third relationship is actually caring for Creation. Part of why we are Biblically called to care for creation is to practice resurrection. We're bearing witness to the Kingdom of God that is and is yet to come, that is here now but is not fully present. We’re trying to give a foretaste of where we're headed and what we're created for. 

Caring for creation also has to do with our credibility theologically. People are watching – do they see within us a faith that prompts us to care about things that matter in the world? Creation care can also help us to reach out and share Christ's love, to testify to His work to our lives and in the world. It seems to me that conservation concerns, particularly in local places, can connect people in ways almost like none other.

C: You and your team work to preserve sensitive habitats and threatened species. Are there particular habitats and species that are under threat right now in Canada? How does this intersect with your approach to “Creation care?”

RF: Taking one’s context seriously is both a crucial ecological and hermeneutical principle. The answer to this question will vary according to where you are. I’ll speak about Surrey, the little Campbell River Watershed with which I’m most familiar. A few years back one of our interns discovered a tiny fish called a Salish sucker that was thought to be extirpated, which means extinct in this watershed. 

It was last seen in the 1970s thought to be gone from this watershed and here it was in this little pond. Some of our work since then has been to try to cultivate habitat for it. In the number of intervening years, we've found dozens of them. We just had our most recent survey season back in the spring and we found more than we ever had. It looks like something is going in on their kind of most effective spawning area in the watershed. 

C: Tell us about your Community Shared Agriculture program and the work you and your team do in sustainable agriculture?

RF: The basic idea is to connect eaters of food with the soil and the people that grow the food. This gives people a better sense of what's involved with growing their food. You don't just mine frozen carrots from the grocery store freezer. They actually grow in soil. 

As a CSA member, a shareholder, I start to bear the risk that is inherent in working with wildness, creation. We talked about the wilderness, this is rooted in the Latin for willed creatures, like they have a will, we don't control it. It’s the same thing with soil or the weather, it's not fully under our control. 

Whereas most of our agriculture system is modeled on this in a way that farmers or growers of food bear a disproportionate risk, a CSA invites ordinary people to risk when engaging with the inescapable vagaries of dealing with wild Creation in its forms. The CSA can serve as a vehicle to learn more about the variety of ecological and human relationships that are involved in cultivating our food.

C: How do you seek to move a community of faith and indeed, Canadians, from a place of paralysis to hopeful engagement with the environment? 

RF: At root it has to do with in what, or more precisely in whom, do I hope. Is my hope in my, or collectively humanity's, ability to turn things around? No. My hope is in Christ. My hope is in the one who created and sustains and is redeeming all things. 

I would challenge and encourage people to ask the Spirit: God, what would you have me do? 

Perhaps I go outside the door. I start to cultivate wonder. I start to get to know where I am. I start to pay attention to global brothers and sisters and follow their lead. I invite my neighbor to dinner, invite them over, perhaps even start working on a project together. These are ways to invite all people, Canadians, people of faith and whatnot, away from the paralysis and fear and say, “Spirit, what would you have me do now?”

C: I have followed your organization for years and I find your articulation of faith and the work that you do with the earth to be inextricable from your theology of community. What has A Rocha taught you about bringing people together? 

RF: We have more in common then we have not. We're all creatures. The care of Creation is about recognizing that I am a creature also; I am beholden to a Creator and the Creator has asked me to help bring about the flourishing of all creatures. As I have that kind of posture, I can begin to see those around me as fellow image bearers, creatures who are called to bring about the flourishing of all creation. I think that can be something that unifies and helps with community.

When you get into neighborhood scale, watershed scale, typically conservation concerns are shared across boundaries that typically divide. One of the things I've learned about theology of community from my experience with A Rocha is that we don't have to agree on everything to do stuff together. A Rocha’s distinctiveness is that while we are not only trying to create resources or hold discussion, we are actually trying to integrate practice with rationale. We want to live in light of our Biblical call to make things manifest.  


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