What I’ve learned making a film about Orthodoxy and climate change

This article originally published in the online journal, Orthodoxy in Dialogue. Click here (or on image) to read the article in it's original platform.
This article originally published in the online journal, Orthodoxy in Dialogue. Click here (or on image) to read the article on it’s original platform.

“The whole earth is the living icon of the Face of God.” ~ St John of Damascus

For nine months now, I’ve been making a film about the Orthodox Church and climate change. I have seventy hours of interviews with hierarchs, clergy, monks, lay leaders, and scientists in the can so far, and I have hundreds of hours of beautiful, impactful, and current footage of landscapes, churches, wildlife, and of areas being affected now by climate change. The film has taken me to every corner of the natural and Orthodox world in North America, starting with remote Alaska, but also including many cities like New York, Las Vegas, and San Francisco. In truth, this whole crazy endeavour seems like an impossibility to me. I have no idea how we got this much and this far already – probably a combination of the Church’s prayers and our guardian angels working overtime. Nothing like this has been done before in modern Orthodox history. I have mad respect for the Orthodox Fellowship of the Transfiguration, and it’s advisory committee, for having the vision, and patience, to produce such an endeavour. In all honesty, however, the huge scope of their vision, which has been guiding the making of this film, is simply what the times we are living in call for anyway. We have entered the bare-knuckle round in an unfolding world-wide climate crisis, the magnitude of which is only now coming into focus.

Let me explain—

I am often asked what kind of story is emerging in the making of this documentary. My answer is simple: climate change is very real, it’s worse than we feared, it’s already displacing Orthodox Christians, and it’s time to stop dismissing, avoiding, polarizing, and politicizing what’s actually happening and get to work on solutions, preparations, adaption, and mitigation. In other words, it’s time to talk with our friends, our families, our neighbors, and our children. And it’s time for parishes to have a come-to-the-Lord moment about this topic.

We are entering what I call the ‘lenten season of human civilization’ because every aspect of life as we know it is changing now and in a decade will be utterly different – asceticism, new models of thinking, grief, repentance, and ultimately the saving act of God approach. Please understand that this is not a political statement; it’s also not simply my statement. This is what the UN is stating, as well as the IPCC, and the governments of 196 (out of the 198) countries in the world, the hierarchs of our own Church, the indigenous Orthodox people in Alaska, and practically every legitimate scientist alive on earth (who don’t have shares in a petroleum company).

The world’s biosphere does not care about which party is in the American White House, or even if an America or a Canada exist at all; the ecosystems of the actual Earth we all live on only obey the will of God and the law of nature (aka the will of God). With my own eyes, and with my own ears, I have seen northern lakes bubbling with methane because the permafrost is rapidly melting, major lakes almost dry, glaciers receding, forest fire damage from the worst wildfires in California history, coastlines with ‘bath-tub’ rings of plastic and garbage, the tears of Orthodox people facing relocation, food-insecurity, and water scarcity because of their changing ecosystem, and the strong voices of our hierarchs and leaders asking us all to stop arguing about the issue and get back to what we all should be doing anyway: actively love the earth God created.

Well, that’s half the story emerging, anyway. The other half is that it turns out the Orthodox Church is not just the ‘best kept secret in North America’, as I used to hear it called years ago; it’s also ‘the most reluctant prophet’ about our changing climate. For instance, the Patriarchate of Constantinople has been out front calling the world to environmental care for decades, long before it was fashionable (ie. here, here, and here). Similarly, the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of the United States of America signed a collective statement calling our church to act on the environment in 2007. Furthermore, any simple parish bible study would reveal that our Church’s theology of creation-care is embedded and revealed in every liturgy, every scripture reading, and in every aspect of how our Lord calls us to live on His Earth (for resources, start here).

Here’s what this documentary also discovered: Orthodox Christians can get past the political lenses and biases, and we can start talking about a changing climate, instead of ‘climate change’; about loving creation, rather ‘environmentalism’; about melting permafrosts, unravelling ecosystems, intensifying storms, and acidifying oceans, rather than ‘global warming’; and about sustainable, healthy energy sources, rather than ‘the end of oil’. In other words, once we Orthodox have our own conversation, apart from the clamorous one between CNN and FOX, we have a great deal to say about creation being the face of God, about our role in nature, about living liturgically as living ecologically, about the changing climate and the resurrection of Christ, about how to live with gratitude, how to fast, accept suffering, about co-suffering, about grieving, about death, about why the earth exists in the first place – in short, about every aspect of what the rest of the world is facing with us over the next century. This documentary discovered how bright our light shines and how deeply the world needs this light.

I started this documentary journey without agendas. I genuinely wanted to see what’s happening for myself. I wanted to hear from our Church directly. Neither what I have seen or heard has been easy for me. There is so much grief and change and ecosystem collapse right now that it’s frankly just hard to look at, let alone metabolize. However, I have been inspired along the way by the examples of Orthodox Christians (across party lines) working together to ‘green’ their parishes, seminaries, campuses, and homes. The indigenous people of Orthodox Alaska showed me how an authentic Orthodox way of life is already simpler, more sustainable, rewarding in itself, and in balance with the natural world. Our theologians revealed to me how our spiritual foundations formed at the same time as the earth’s, and that it’s not political environmental activism we need to accept or reject, but a return to these foundations which reveals the rich theological depth on the subject of creation and its care. Most of all, God has shown me continuously how profoundly present He is in His creation, and how beautiful His Face, which is exceeding fair, really is if our hearts are open to seeing it raw and real in the natural world around and in us.

This documentary film, to be released internationally and accompanied by a parish-level education campaign in September this year, will show the truth and the beauty we have witnessed, as we have witnessed it. The producing organization, the OFT, wants this documentary to express THE Church’s experience and voice on the changing climate. That is what we will all see in September. To be clear, our Church is only starting to wake up and speak up, and we have a lot to say and do when we really get going on this, and a lot to work out as well. However, this film is not meant to divide, but to inspire and guide conversations about what’s happening in our natural world without fear, without worldly politics, and without borders. In a way, the film is a close examination of the elephant in the room. It will not be an easy examination, nor an easy conversation. When I told one prominent Orthodox cleric in an interview that we had to cancel shooting in one location because everyone declined to be on camera about climate change (‘we might lose parishioners or funding’), he exclaimed: “Climate change. Climate change. Climate change. There! I said it!” It’s time for us to have these conversations, to say these hard truths out loud, to truly take the time to acknowledge the times in which we live.

All of us making this impossible film ask you to pray for us most of all. If you are so inclined, please also support the film’s Kickstarter campaign here by sharing the link or donating directly for rewards. We look forward to your experience of The Face of God film in September, but you can start getting tastes of the interviews, the film journal, the film’s outline, and some of the footage we are collecting by visiting and following us on our website: faceofgodfilm.com (hint: if you refresh the film’s webpage, you will get a different movie still every time). And always, don’t hesitate to reach out with questions, requests, and resources!

Now back to filming, editing, and ‘the hard work of hope’!

Kaleeg W. Hainsworth

Dad of three kids, author (An Altar in the Wilderness), priest in awesome church, President of Bright Wing Media, designer, author, speaker, podcaster, backpacker, ecologist, film maker

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