Lexington nonprofit to receive $3.2 million donation

Non-profit links Environment, Religion

gkocher1@herald-leader.comAugust 17, 2011 

Nancy and Matthew Sleeth are co-founders of Blessed Earth, a Lexington-based non-profit organization.

GREG KOCHER | STAFF — Greg Kocher | Staff

Blessed Earth, a Lexington-based non-profit organization that promotes environmental stewardship of the Earth, has received a $3.2 million donation over five years to further its work among churches and seminaries.

The donation came through The Kendeda Fund, a Delaware-based charitable organization that funds many environmental projects across the country. Some funded projects are secular, such as Trees Atlanta, a citizens' group that plants trees and conserves the city's urban forest. Others are of a more religious nature, such as GreenFaith, an interfaith environmental coalition in New Jersey.

For Blessed Earth, a tiny organization with an annual budget of $300,000 and a staff of only six, including three part-timers, the donation is "a game-changer," said Nancy Sleeth. She and her husband, Matthew, co-founded Blessed Earth five years ago.

Blessed Earth began in Wilmore but now operates out of the Sleeths' Lexington townhouse. The Sleeths are looking for office space and plan to add more staff.

Kendeda's donation will be used for two projects, the Sleeths said.

The first is called the Seminary Alliance, which they hope to launch next year on Earth Day, April 22. They want to partner with eight to 12 seminaries to train future ministers to be catalysts for environmental change.

"The promise of seminaries is that their students come out and manage 300,000-plus churches in the United States," Matthew Sleeth said. "When those graduates go out and are in their ministries, they will be called on to make decisions ... about the stewardship of their resources."

Blessed Earth hopes to have a role in developing curriculum and textbooks that deal with ministry and environmental issues. Some money might be used for endowments for the teaching of environmental issues.

Matthew Sleeth also hopes money could be distributed in the form of scholarships to seminary students interested in studying more about environmentalism.

The second project is the Church Stewardship Alliance, which initially was called the Genesis 2:15 Project, after the verse in the Bible that says, "Then the Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to tend and keep it."

That program will run from September 2012 to June 2013, during which time Matthew Sleeth will give monthly talks at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., on topics related to what the Bible says about the care for creation.

Using that as a model, Blessed Earth hopes to replicate the program at five influential churches in major U.S. cities.

Matthew Sleeth, an emergency-room doctor who left that job to speak about what the Bible says about taking care of the Earth, spoke about 900 times to various churches and other groups in the first three years of Blessed Earth's existence.

In 2010, Sleeth spoke from an Orlando, Fla., church in a simulcast to as many as 1,000 other churches and organizations around the United States and 26 other countries to speak about the Bible and environmentalism.

When they started out, the Sleeths moved from New England to Wilmore to be closer to their children. They lived in a house much smaller than their former house in Maine, raised a vegetable garden, started a compost pile and, instead of using a dryer, hung their clothes on a line in the back yard.

Blessed Earth is no stranger to The Kendeda Fund, which provided seed money to get the Kentucky organization off the ground. The Sleeths said they had previously received money from Kendeda, but the $3.2 million donation is the largest. A call to Kendeda on Tuesday was not immediately returned.

"What they like about our work is that we try to share the stewardship message with people that perhaps haven't heard it in language that they've understood," Nancy Sleeth said. "And ... they feel like they've gotten bang for the buck. We've reached hundreds of thousands of people with a small staff and a relatively small budget."

Both Sleeths have written books about "creation care," or how scriptural lessons of personal responsibility, simplicity and stewardship can be applied to modern life. They've also developed DVDs that echo that message. They see the Kendeda donation as an affirmation of their work.

"We've felt like this has been a calling that God has put before us, and we're going to do it no matter what," Nancy Sleeth said. "People we met along the way opened the doors for us, and we believe God is behind all of that. It grew and grew and grew in ways that never could have planned or predicted. ...It just feels like the timing is perfect. If we had been given this money five years ago, we wouldn't have been ready for it. We wouldn't have had the relationships in place."

While the Kendeda donation is sizable, Matthew Sleeth hopes it will be part of $10 million to $20 million raised to "carry out the projects the way I'd like to see them done."

"I haven't spoke to Bill Gates yet," he said of the Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist. "But I'll take his call."

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