I grew up attending churches surrounded by parking lots and populated by congregations that didn’t connect their spirituality to ecology. So when I first heard about the church forests of Ethiopia, I was intrigued.
One of my great passions has been the environment, fighting for it, telling stories of its abuse and our need to be caretakers and champions of our shared home. I was eager to meet people whose religion had some built-in practice of respecting trees and preserving biodiversity. And that belief, coupled with the ballooning threat of climate change and a growing sense of despair, propelled me to visit the church forests of Ethiopia.
A few months later I was in the office of a forest ecologist, Alemayehu Wassie Eshete, who started his interview by telling me, “A church, to be a church, must be enveloped by a forest.”
I had never heard those words before or that idea, but I was hearing a truth I already knew: The church should be immersed in creation, enjoying and protecting the forest and shores and mountains, the whole earth.
As I spent time with Dr. Alemayehu and filmed in the little pockets of old-growth forest that surround the churches of Ethiopia, my moments of awe at the beauty of the church forests were countered by feelings of despair. They were so small. So much of the surrounding forest had already disappeared.
I wrestled with judging the Ethiopian Church for holding its beliefs imperfectly, like all things human. Why not save more of the forest than just a small patch around the church? Where was the church when 97 percent of Ethiopia’s primary forest was destroyed?
For me, these little blips of green forest rising out of vast swaths of deforested brown earth represent hope. They are a powerful intersection of faith and science doing some good in the world.
E.O. Wilson, in his book “Half-Earth,” declared the church forests of Ethiopia “one of the best places in the biosphere.” They are proof that when faith and science make common cause on ecological issues, it results in a model that bears repeating. We have the blueprint of life held in these tiny circles of faith, and that’s something to rejoice over and protect and expand with every resource we can muster.