East Texas church extends hospitality to environmental activists

NACOGDOCHES—When an East Texas church offered hospitality to environmental protesters, members of the congregation gained a new perspective about the next generation, and some secular-oriented 20-somethings discovered a new understanding of the gospel.

Environmental activists with Tar Sands Blockade seek to block construction of the TransCanada Keystone XL Pipeline through East Texas. Austin Heights Baptist Church in Nacogdoches extended hospitality to the protesters. (PHOTO/Laura Borealis/Tar Sands Blockade Facebook page)

Tar Sands Blockade arrived a few weeks ago in Nacogdoches County to protest construction of the TransCanada Keystone XL Pipeline. The extension of the pipeline through Nebraska stalled after President Obama rejected the company’s application, due to concern about the environmental impact on the Sandhills region and Ogallala Aquifer. However, construction continues on the segment from Cushing, Okla., to Southeast Texas—including western Nacogdoches County.

Environmental activists from around the nation camped near Nacogdoches in the pipeline’s path to block the clear-cutting and construction crews. In recent weeks, a growing number of the protesters bonded with Austin Heights Baptist Church in Nacogdoches.

“Our earth-care ministry group has been involved for years in environmental projects—recycling, environmental education discussion groups, looking at how our church can reduce its carbon footprint,” Pastor Kyle Childress said.

On a Saturday several weeks ago, the ministry group showed a movie at Stephen F. Austin State University about earth care and energy usage, and several Tar Sands Blockade protesters attended.

Surprised to find an East Texas Baptist church concerned about environmental issues, four or five of the blockaders attended worship services at Austin Heights the next morning. In the weeks that followed, the number of blockaders attending church grew, with up to 30 in worship services.

Lizzy Alvarado, a 21-year-old college student, participates in “tree-sittingâ€Â as part of the Tar Sands Blockade to block construction of the TransCanada Keystone XL Pipeline through East Texas. Alvarado, a student a Stephen F. Austin State University, has been involved in a ministry at Austin Heights Baptist Church that recycles and repurposes decorated bottles, making them into crafts that are sold to benefit Habitat for Humanity. (PHOTO/Tar Sands Blockade)

“These are mostly kids in their 20s who are a long way from home. There are a few Texans, but most are from out-of-state—places like New York, California and Chicago. They are urban, secular young people for the most part,” Childress said. “A handful of them are churchgoing Christians, but most aren’t. Most see the church as part of the problem.”

However, the blockaders encountered an unexpected reception at Austin Heights Baptist Church.

“We just practiced Christian hospitality,” Childress said.

The church invited the protesters to attend potluck meals. Some members offered the young people places to shower and wash their laundry.

Conversations with the blockaders allowed members of Austin Heights to “put a human face on the direct actions these young people are undertaking,” Childress said. And the church’s hospitality, in turn, gave protesters a new perspective on Christianity.

“They had never heard this gospel stuff before. But they’re open and interested. They don’t take anything for granted. They’ve asked me questions I’ve never been asked before,” he said.

During one encounter, Childress talked to a 20-something protester about the pressure many churches feel to incorporate the latest technology into worship in order to appeal to young people.

“He told me, ‘If more churches were on the front lines of things that matter, they wouldn’t have any problem getting young people to church,’” he recalled. “Being with these kids who are so passionate and want to do something meaningful with their lives has helped our church put a face on the next generation of urban, unchurched young people.”

Childress hopes the church makes an equally lasting impression on the blockaders.

“I sure would like it, when they leave this area, if they would walk away saying: ‘The church does care. Maybe there’s more to this Jesus thing than I thought.’”

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