Not everyone reading this article lives in a place filled with forests or has an affinity for appreciating trees. For those living on the open plains, in the desert, parts of many cities, and on wind-swept islands, trees may feel out of place. This may be true for you.
Regardless of whether trees are part of your landscape, the benefits of trees reach all of us in daily life. Take a deep breath or read words printed on paper—you just involved the work of trees. Walk into a restroom and you might be surprised that tree products are likely in your toothpaste, soap, shampoo, and cleaning products, not just in that toilet paper and facial tissue. There’s a decent chance you started your day with coffee or tea—using filters, opening a kitchen cabinet—or ate baked goods containing tree nuts. Maybe today you drank orange or apple juice, sprinkled cinnamon on toast or oatmeal, or ate bacon or lunch meat smoked with apple or hickory wood. Are you sitting in a wooden chair, at a desk or table, or have wood-framed photos nearby?
Almost unknowingly, our days are blessed by trees.
When talking about appreciating trees, I think of children and my own childhood experience of trees. As a kid when my family went to parks for hiking or to my great grandma’s woods for camping, I could spend hours exploring, hunting, and pretending. When the adults from church played softball on Sunday nights, we kids would play hide-and-seek in the nearby woods and catch jars of lightning bugs, sometimes getting poison ivy and chiggers. Me and my friends would make shelters out of sticks and branches in the woods, pretending to be surviving in the wilderness. I’m sure it wasn’t just me. Children in many parts of the world also see living trees as a place to play, climb, and find shade, protection.
Not all children are blessed with nearby trees that are living and protected. Trees are also an economic means for survival. Children may be sent out to search far and wide for firewood for the necessities of cooking, boiling water, and staying warm. Communities desperate for income may feel forced to cut the trees around them to sell as timber or for artistic creations to sell at market. Such efforts may not even generate much income. In other cases, communities are becoming more treeless as hungry herds of livestock devour bark and foliage or as large companies clear forests to make way for commodity crops or cattle ranches. As forests get cleared, microclimates change. Tropical soils bake and crack in the sun. When torrential rains come, these barren areas cleared of trees experience devastating floods that wash away soil, crops, livestock, homes, and entire communities.
We know that deforestation of millions of acres of forest each year is contributing to climate change. Many of us grieve over such suffering and the terrible realities we read and hear about. The future can feel bleak, and many of us younger folks wonder what our future world will look like in 20 and 50 years.
What can people of faith do in response to the desperate realities of climate change, deforestation, and poverty nearby and in faraway places? I believe the example of Jesus as seen in the Gospels can teach us two important responses: 1) lament, 2) offering our resources and our service out of a deep sense of care.
First, we can lament. Lament may be unfamiliar in many North American churches and Christian traditions today, and it can be hard work. But lament is a practice we can learn and lean into. When feelings of sadness and guilt fester quietly within us, the end results can be overwhelming, sending us into depression and despair. Not only can we turn to the vast body of Psalms and words of the Old Testament prophets to witness lament, Jesus also shows examples of lament. He wept over Jerusalem, and he called out injustice. Have you ever wept over the losses and destruction to the land you see and hear about? Indeed, lament is cathartic for our souls, but so is public witness. And this public witness gets political, too. Our lament can be an avenue for changing hearts and minds, inspiring advocacy for policies that slow the effects of climate change.
Praying with words can fall short. Words don’t always come. Rituals—in private, in worship, in public spaces—can also express lament. We have much to learn from Jewish as well as indigenous traditions on how rituals can release sadness, anger, and dismay. As Christians we can also pledge our intent to believe in God’s goodness and care for the Earth. I encourage you and your congregation to explore lament—lamenting over the destruction of the Earth—as a faithful and Biblical act. Be creative.
After offering lament for the destruction of the Earth and fostering a connection to that destruction, we can take direct action by giving resources and through our service. Direct action, giving and service perhaps feel natural to many Anabaptists. Sure, giving resources and service is exceedingly important, but so is explicitly naming the wrongs done, confessing our complicity, and turning to God who is greater than our human efforts alone. I think a combined commitment is critical.
Mennonite Men’s JoinTrees project to help restore the Earth has a tangible opportunity for individuals, congregations, companies, and groups to take direct action by funding tree planting efforts around the world. Up until now, JoinTrees has enabled the planting of more than 180,000 trees, mostly with Mennonite communities in North and Central America. Recent applications are coming from Anabaptist communities in Benin, Angola, Democratic Republic of Congo as well. Once these new projects get funded, JoinTrees could help facilitate more than 121,000 more trees being planted. Our wider goal is to help plant one million trees by the year 2030.
In many of these approved JoinTrees projects, resources are needed for more than just the trees themselves—these projects need tree caretakers and supplies to ensure trees get watered and not destroyed by wildlife. Some projects reforest 14-28 hectares and could make huge impacts in communities struggling with deforestation. In some of the project applications, the trees planted will be fruit and nut trees or trees that later could be thinned or trimmed for firewood, thereby reducing pressure to cut down intact forests. Trees can be grown in rows, allowing other crops or even livestock to be raised in between. In short, these projects could be vital to sustaining and inspiring communities, and this bit of hope may catalyze others to follow suit. We need your help to fund such projects.
I hope and pray you, your congregation, and your contacts will consider engaging JoinTrees and these incredible partners throughout North America and around the world. Consider offering a fundraiser or inviting representatives of Mennonite Men to speak to your congregation or company about JoinTrees. Pray with us. Plant with us. Support us. May you be transformed by the act of tree planting as a form of prayer for peace and new life, a prayer of hope for communities in need, a prayer to the living Christ who is transforming and healing the Earth, one community and one tree at a time.
Jon Zirkle is a Mennonite Men board member and on the JoinTrees sub-committee. He directs a farmland conservation non-profit called Wood-Land-Lakes RC & D, as well as educational farm Bushelcraft Farm. Prior to this work, Jon was farm manager and an educator at Merry Lea Environmental Learning of Goshen College where he taught college students and helped design a five-acre agroforestry project. Jon is a part-time student at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary and part of the Rooted & Grounded conference (September 2023) planning committee. Attending Assembly Mennonite and Southside Fellowship, he and his wife live in Goshen, IN and enjoy their backyard garden, chickens, and fruit trees.