As a missionary in the Beqaa Valley in Eastern Lebanon, Chris Naylor got involved with efforts to protect the Aammiq marsh on the floor of the valley in the years following the civil war. In time, the conservation work became part of A Rocha (Portuguese for ‘the Rock’). It wasn’t what he’d envisaged when he came a missionary, but Chris said being part of A Rocha provided endless missional opportunities.
Chris’ understanding of the importance of conservation was deepened when he realised that as a missionary, the environment is a fantastic platform to “gossip the gospel” because everybody is affected by it.
Protecting the marsh meant Chris worked in different villages, affording him the opportunity to help communities who had been at war against each other only a few years ago cooperate and reconcile.
“We were working on a wetland on the floor of the valley, and the community that was living on the mountain above had a forest that they wanted to protect.
“You can’t protect one without the other, because if you protect the wetland and don’t protect the woodland, then you have no water because that’s where the water comes from. But similarly if you lose the wetland, the animals of the woodland of the forest have nowhere to come down to drink [in summer].”
Working together on conservation projects gave him great opportunities to talk to those communities about reconciliation.
“It was a very powerful platform for working out gospel truths in people’s lives.”
Chris said that he had many chances to talk about why he was involved in the project at the Aammiq marsh.
“As Christians we have a huge amount to say about why we have this aching desire in our hearts to see and protect and conserve beauty. Outside the Christian tradition, many people don’t have answers to that, whereas of course we do.
“We love nature, because God loves nature and nature points us to God.”
As a missionary, Chris believed that he had been tasked with taking the whole gospel to the world, not just bits of the gospel.
“Too often we’ve been selective in what we think are the bits of the gospel that people need to hear.
“Clearly the broken relationship between mankind and God is hugely important and our individual salvation is a fundamental part of the gospel, but it is a part of the gospel and the whole gospel is much broader than that.
“It has implications for how we treat our fellow human beings, and how we also treat the earth.
Chris believes that it is easy for believers to prioritise certain behaviours over others, particularly when elevating the importance of evangelism over acts of social justice.
But, he says, “if we look at our Christian responsibilities in those ways, none of us will ever do anything except preach the gospel to an individual. If you set up a priority list like that then the answer is always going to be the same.
“However, if that’s what we do, we constrain the gospel. But God doesn’t ask us to live our lives like that, God asks us to unpack the whole gospel all of the time.
“So as a church, as individuals, as a missionary, actually within the context that we are found, we are tasked to live it out in all areas of relationships.
“That much more holistic understanding of how we live our lives gets us out of the binary choices which actually take us into a blind alley and muzzles parts of the gospel if we’re not careful.”
A Rocha is in the process of registering a branch in Australia, and they will offer Australian Christians the chance to get involved in nature conservation.
Chris Naylor is the executive director of A Rocha, and is the author of Postcards from the Middle East: How our family fell in love with the Arab world.