‘Every saint a steward’: Grassroots LDS group focused on the environment joins demonstration for Great Salt Lake

Capitol vigil: Latter-day Saint Earth Stewardship represents a worldwide effort by members of Utah’s predominant faith to translate their church’s teachings on caring for God’s creation into action.

Shelly Parkin doesn’t particularly want to wear a brine shrimp costume.

“I’m not one for dressing up much,” she said, “even on Halloween.”

But the West Jordan resident is prepared to make an exception for the Great Salt Lake.

A member of the environmental nonprofit Latter-day Saint Earth Stewardship, Parkin plans to represent her organization during daily demonstrations at the Utah Capitol throughout this year’s legislative season.

Part vigil, part celebration, the twice-daily hourlong walks around the building represent a collaboration among a long list of local organizations, among them Grow the Flow and Friends of Great Salt Lake. Its primary sponsor is Save Our Great Salt Lake.

Together, these groups plan to gather Monday through Friday from 8 to 9 a.m. and 5 to 6 p.m. through March 1 to walk, sing and otherwise call attention to the ailing lake — all with a little help from costumes and puppets representing the millions of bugs and birds that call it home.

Nan Seymour, a Utah-based poet guiding the effort along with the Making Waves for Great Salt Lake Artist Collaborative, described the endeavor as a “ministry of presence” rather than a direct protest and “an offering of relational repair.”

For Parkin, though, it’s even simpler: a chance to live her religion.

Called to the work

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Demonstrators with Making Waves for Great Salt Lake Artist Collaborative gather for a vigil for the Great Salt Lake at the Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 18, 2024.

Parkin, a lifelong member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, didn’t always think of herself as an environmentalist. The turning point came in 2019 while attending a Latter-day Saint Earth Stewardship event.

Sharon Eubank, then a counselor in the church’s global Relief Society organization, delivered what Parkin described as a barn burner connecting caring for the planet with caring for the poor.

Parkin was hooked.

“The whole concept of Earth stewardship has to do with love,” she explained. “The people that are most adversely affected by climate change are the people on the margins and the Savior taught us to love everybody, especially the poor, and to view everybody as our brother and sister.”

Randy Miguel, an LDSES board member, stressed a similar spiritual calling to the work.

As a teenager living in Georgia, he never thought much of his Latter-day Saint roots. His mother had stopped attending church when he was young. Religion — and environmentalism — was far from his thoughts. That changed when he became friends with a Latter-day Saint classmate, who invited him to return to church. Miguel went, and in the religious awakening that followed found himself thinking harder than ever about his responsibility to care for God’s creation.

“I was learning everything I could about the church,” he said, “and came across information about stewardship, and it resonated with me.”

It “just made sense” to Miguel that God expected his children to take care of his creation, “and use it wisely and responsibly.”

Like Parkin, Miguel views the work as going “hand in hand” with God’s commandment to love others. While a kid living in Los Angeles, he experienced firsthand that “just because you live in a first world country doesn’t mean you live a first world lifestyle.”

“There’s a lot of poverty and sickness and people living on the edge who are struggling to make ends meet,” Miguel said, explaining that part of environmentalism is recognizing “the responsibility to help those” in need.

‘Every saint a steward’

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Demonstrators with Making Waves for Great Salt Lake Artist Collaborative gather for a vigil for the Great Salt Lake at the Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 18, 2024.

For Latter-day Saints like Parkin and Miguel, LDSES has become a way to translate their faith’s teachings on caring for God’s creation into action.

Launched just over a decade ago and funded largely by The Nature Conservancy, the nonprofit is organized into 12 autonomous chapters spread across the globe — all united under the motto “every saint a steward.”

What work each group engages in depends on the needs of the local environments. So while Parkin is picking up trash at the Great Salt Lake, her counterparts in the Philippines are planting mangroves.

(LDSES) In 2023, LDSES launched a Philippines chapter. Its volunteers have since been busy planting mangrove trees critical for supporting coastal ecosystems.

The group also emphasizes education, which it facilitates through online and in-person events, including forums and book groups. Resources on its website, meanwhile, include a ward sustainability guide for Latter-day Saint congregations as well as a resource library, which bills itself as “a comprehensive collection of all the scriptures and quotes from general authorities regarding the creation of the Earth and our responsibility over it.”

In 2020, the group also began hosting monthly Zoom meetings in which Latter-day Saints from Samoa to Germany tune in to discuss environmental challenges and wins in their own lives and communities, including their own congregations.

“It’s really easy to sit in an LDS ward and never hear any of these subjects come up,” Parkin said. Meeting monthly is a “chance to feel like there are other people with some of the same concerns as you,” and learn how others are using recent speeches from Latter-day Saint leaders to raise issues concerning the environment at church.

Climate action vs. stewardship

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

According to a PRRI study published in October 2023, Latter-day Saints are among the least concerned about climate change when compared to other religious groups in the United States.

In all, 10% of Latter-day Saints say they are worried about climate change, with close to half (44%) placing the blame for it on natural phenomena, according to the report based on responses from 5,192 adults.

This particular finding told only part of the story. Because according to the same study, more than three-fourths (84%) — higher than any other group in the PRRI study — of Latter-day Saints say “living up to our God-given role as stewards to take care of the Earth” is either extremely or very important.

In other words, for U.S. Latter-day Saints — a group with a recent history of deep loyalty to the Republican Party — caring for the planet represents a sacred duty. They just prefer not to think of that duty within the context of the ongoing climate crisis, an issue the GOP has historically been reluctant to address.

What LDS leaders have taught

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Presiding Bishop Gérald Caussé, speaking at General Conference in 2022, calls on Latter-day Saints to use the planet's resources "more reverently and prudently."

After decades of nearly total silence on the topic, Latter-day Saint leaders have increasingly used their platform to speak to the threat posed by an ever-warming planet.

In 2018, Steven Snow, now an emeritus general authority Seventy, gave an address at Utah State University in which he affirmed “climate change is real, and it’s our responsibility as stewards to do what we can to limit the damage done to God’s creation.”

Presiding Bishop Gérald Caussé, speaking in General Conference in 2022, called on the faithful worldwide to “use the bountiful resources of the Earth more reverently and prudently,” an instruction echoed in a 2023 speech by his first counselor, W. Christopher Waddell, at the University of Utah.

And, in a 2017 address at church-owned Brigham Young University-Hawaii, apostle Dallin H. Oaks, now a member of the governing First Presidency and next in line to lead the global faith, warned of the rising ocean levels posed to coastal cities and noted that “global warming is also affecting agriculture and wildlife.”

He did not weigh in on what role humans play in climate change.

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