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Religion Unplugged

College freshman Mitch Hescox went hiking in the Sonoran desert at sunset in 1975. The inflated, blood-red sun painted the sky a multitude of colors. Royal purples, burnt oranges, neon pinks and baby blues illuminated the last light of the day. 

He approached a saguaro cactus with two arms curving up from its sides. To Hescox, in that moment, the cactus only revealed itself as one thing: the cross on which Jesus was crucified.

He fell on his hands and knees and began to weep. 

In the years before, Hescox had moved from his home in rural Pennsylvania to attend the University of Arizona. He had fallen away from his Christian faith, in what he later called his “Jonah experience” named after the Old Testament character that tried to run from God but was swallowed by a whale and forced to encounter God in its belly. His primary stumbling block was the theology of Creationism, the belief that a supernatural force created all life in the universe. Some Creationists support theories of evolution and that earth is millions of years old, but some do not.   

His experience in the desert changed him permanently.

“I just started, through the miracle of creation, to see the love of God,” Hescox said.

Sonoran Desert

The Sonoran Desert in Arizona. PICTURE: Jim Witkowski/Unsplash

Today, Rev Hescox serves as the president and CEO of the Evangelical Environmental Network, an organisation dedicated to educating the public and calling for action on creation care, a form of environmentalism. He’s been the head of the organisation for the past 10 years.

EEN was founded in 1993 by Dr Ron Sider, of the Palmer School of Theology, and Robert Seiple, the former president of World Vision International, a Christian humanitarian aid non-profit. Hescox says they began the organisation with two main focuses. 

“They really heard the call that how we deal with pollution really impacts human life. Plus, just the Biblical message. I think they saw that very few people in the United States heard preaching or even read the scriptures about how God calls us to care for creation.”

- Rev Mitch Hescox, president and CEO of the Evangelical Environmental Network, speaking about the founding of the EEN by Dr Ron Sider, of the Palmer School of Theology, and Robert Seiple, the former president of World Vision International, in 1993.

“They really heard the call that how we deal with pollution really impacts human life,” Hescox said. “Plus, just the Biblical message. I think they saw that very few people in the United States heard preaching or even read the scriptures about how God calls us to care for creation.”

The organisation’s practical mission involves education and advocacy around the country. Those involved hope to inspire individual, community and political efforts to counteract pollution and protect the environment. 

Hescox travels across the country to promote EEN’s Pro-Life Clean Energy Campagin.

Where’s the intersection between pro-life and clean energy? 

“People care about children’s health,” Hescox said. “And for me, being pro-life is more than just being anti-abortion. It is showing a complete, holistic care about life from conception to natural death.”

Those at EEN believe creating clean energy saves the lives of children - and that’s exactly why it’s so important. 

But it hasn’t been easily embraced by EEN’s target group, especially from the start. 

“It brought, quite honestly, a lot of pushback from Southern Baptists and others,” Hescox said, “who really saw climate change, I think, not as a spiritual issue, but as a way of interfering with their political power in the so-called Moral Majority and far right politics.”

Rev MItchell Hescox

Reverend Mitchell Hescox testifying in support of the Mercury and Air Toxics Rule at the EPA in March, 2019. PICTURE: Jeffrey Grounds Photography.

Hescox cites brothers Charles and David Koch, oil businessmen who have donated millions to libertarian and conservative groups, as one of the main reasons why evangelicals are so opposed to the issue of climate change. Starting in the early 2000s, the Koch brothers worked to convince conservatives that climate change was not an issue they should care about - specifically by vilifying climate change advocate Al Gore as a liberal. 

In 2015, 37 per cent of evangelicals polled by Pew Research said they believe there’s no solid evidence the planet is getting warmer, more so than any other religious group. Affiliation with the Republican Party is a stronger indicator than religion of a person’s views on climate change, but the majority of white evangelicals do vote Republican.

If there’s anyone who’s prepared to take on the job of changing evangelicals’ minds, it’s likely Hescox. 

“I just looked at him and said: ‘Have you ever been inside an underground coal mine? Do you know what the life of a coal miner is really like?’ You know, I’ve been there; I’ve done that. Both of my grandfathers died from black lung."

- Mitch Hescox describing an encounter he had recently with someone worried that creating clean energy hurts the jobs of coal miners.

Unlike most climate change advocates, he has an in-depth knowledge of the fossil fuel industry. His grandfathers, father and most of his uncles were coal miners, and he worked for Allis Mineral Systems for several years.

Often, Hescox says he finds himself being confronted by those who worry that creating clean energy hurts the jobs of coal miners. He described an encounter he had recently. 

“I just looked at him and said: ‘Have you ever been inside an underground coal mine? Do you know what the life of a coal miner is really like?’ You know, I’ve been there; I’ve done that. Both of my grandfathers died from black lung,” he said. 

After leaving the coal industry, Hescox went to seminary and became a pastor of Grace Church in Shrewsbury, Pennsylvania, where he served for 18 years.  

Hescox believes he has been called to serve at the EEN, at the intersection of science and faith.

He often cites Matthew 25, a passage that discusses the final judgement: Those who inherit the kingdom are those who cared for the Lord in their time on earth, he said. How did they care for the Lord?

“And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me’” (Matthew 25:40).

Lake Louise Canada

One of the questions Hescox asks Christians when talking about creation care is how many people have experienced God outside in some beautiful setting, a question which usually elicits a majority positive response. Pictured is Lake Louise, Canada. PICTURE: Mark Koch/Unsplash.

In all his years of close involvement with fossil fuels, the church and the combination of the two, Hescox has realised what it takes to get evangelicals to care about environmental issues. 

“It has to take something that’s personal to you,” Hescox said. “It has to take something personal in your value system.” 

He’s come to recognise, most importantly, that evangelicals tend to have very different value systems than others - especially those who tend to be the strongest advocates of climate change.

“A lot of people who are progressive want to see us all under one big tent working on climate together,” he said. “My goal is not having a great big tent; my goal is having a lot of little tents that touch each other so we can get results.”

Hescox cites The Bowen Center’s Family Systems Theory - which he learned in seminary - as the primary force. The theory states that “Families so profoundly affect their members’ thoughts, feelings and actions that it often seems as if people are living under the same ‘emotional skin.’” 

This explains why family members are so protective of one another, and why traditional arguments in favour of climate change won’t work for many Christians.

“One of the things I discovered 10 years ago is that it’s not about polar bears, and it’s not about a future event,” Hescox said. “It’s about defending the health of our children right now.” 


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To take it a step further, Hescox asks a question that mirrors his own experience: “How many people have experienced God outside in some beautiful setting?” 

This usually receives positive responses.

“Almost everybody has, because God has created this world as a testimony,” Hescox said. “And I think it’s really easy to find God in the midst of natural beauty and wonder. Helping people realise that is a good way of getting them over the politics.”

Getting people over the politics and getting them interested in the cause is going well, Hescox said. He’s seen growth even in the past five years. 

Hescox hosted a climate initiative event at Evangel University in 2014. Five people showed up. When he did the same event earlier this year, there were over 600 attendees.

Last fall, at an event in Colorado, approximately 30,000 signatures were added to the Pro-Life Clean Energy Campaign. 

The mission of EEN is gaining traction as more believe in the importance of caring for the environment. Much of the success can be attributed to Hescox, his devotion to the cause and his unique message.

But when it comes down to it - throughout the complications, the politics and the changes - Hescox views his leadership role very simply. 

“I just care for the least of these, and I’m an evangelist. And that’s it,” he said.

Jillian Cheney is a journalism student at The King’s College. She’s the editor of EST Magazine and president of the TKC chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Find her on Twitter @_jilliancheney.