BURLINGTON - J. Matthew Sleeth is a rarity in this politically polarized country: He's a born-again Christian and a committed environmentalist. The Kentucky-based author of Serve God, Save the Planet: A Christian Call to Action embraces an avocation social conservatives typically regard with derision - he's an avowed "treehugger."
"The Bible starts with the tree of life," he explains. "The word tree is mentioned 500 times in the Bible. Christ worked with trees before he started his ministry. He died on a tree. And the last chapter of the Bible ends with the trees in heaven. So call me a treehugger."
Sleeth is part of a growing "creation care" movement among evangelicals convinced that the Bible calls them to be better stewards of the Earth. And the born-agains aren't the only religious communities taking action - Sleeth's Vermont visit comes during a week in which 50 congregations across the state will be screening Al Gore's global warming flick, An Inconvenient Truth. The events are coordinated by Vermont Interfaith Power and Light, which posts screening times on its website, www.vtipl.org.
Sleeth has already spoken at Rice High School, Middlebury College and St. Joseph's College in Rutland, and he'll preach during morning services at Burlington's First United Methodist Church on Sunday. That evening, he'll speak at an interfaith event at Ohavi Zedek Synagogue, following a 7 p.m. vegetarian potluck dinner. Both the dinner and Sleeth's talk are open to the public.
Sleeth, 50, says he doesn't have a PowerPoint presentation or a scripted speech. He just speaks from the heart about his love for Jesus Christ - and the planet.
He often starts by telling his own story. Five years ago, he was an emergency-room doctor in Maine when he began to feel as if he was "straightening the deck chairs on the Titanic," he says.
"When I started medicine," Sleeth recalls, "one in 19 women got breast cancer. And now it's one in nine. And actually, I was giving this talk in Austin, and an oncologist walked up and said, 'No, it's one in seven.'" He points out that other illnesses such as asthma are also on the rise.
Sleeth suspected the trend was connected to the destruction of the natural environment. This troubled the doctor, not only because of the medical implications, but also because of his religious beliefs. He quit his job, and began working to reduce his family's energy consumption and environmental impact. They sold their big house, and moved to a New Hampshire town across the Connecticut River from Vermont, where Sleeth's two children attended St. Johnsbury Academy; Sleeth's wife, Nancy, taught there for a time. The couple recently moved to Wilmore, Kentucky, where their son and daughter attend Asbury College. "We went from living a doctor-sized life to moving into a house that was the same footprint as our garage," he observes. "We're the poster family for downward mobility."
This downsizing had a dramatic effect. "We cut our electric use to a tenth of what the national average was," he says, "and our fossil fuel use to a third."
Sleeth suggests that this kind of change on a larger scale could have a real impact. "If everybody in the United States could do that," he says, "we would not need a single coal-fired plant. We could take all the nuke plants off line. We could just run off hydro and alternative. We wouldn't have to import oil."
He set out to convince others, especially his fellow Christians, to make similar changes. He wrote his book, out this year from left-leaning, White River Junction-based Chelsea Green Publishing. Zondervan, the Christian publisher that released Rick Warren's The Purpose Driven Life, has purchased the paperback rights.
Now the former doc's sole occupation is traveling the country promoting the book and its message. He speaks free of charge to anyone who will host him.
In his book and in his talks, Sleeth challenges evangelicals to take better care of the Earth by referencing Bible stories like the one of Joseph and the Egyptians; he advised them to store grain during years of plenty to prepare for future lean years. "Everybody who's read the Bible knows exactly what I'm talking about," he says. "It's a story about stewardship."
He believes his outreach is working. After one sermon he delivered to seven conservative Northeast Kingdom churches, he claims members went home and replaced every light bulb in their houses with energy-efficient bulbs. "To have everybody in seven churches go home and do that," he notes, "it's significant."
Sleeth laments the fact that concern for the environment is such a low priority for many evangelicals, and says it's probably because the issue has been linked to others that many born-agains do not support. He doesn't give examples, but it's safe to assume he means abortion and gay marriage. "It's kind of like buying a car," he posits. "If you want the power windows, you've gotta get the air conditioning, and there's no separating them."
But Sleeth believes that separation is vital to the survival of the planet. After all, he says, "The Bible says that the Lord makes the rain to fall on the wicked and the just. And unfortunately, acid rain does the same thing."