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Couple makes environmentalism their mission

WILMORE — On Wednesday, the evening before the 40th observance of Earth Day, a Wilmore man will step to the pulpit in a large church in Florida and say that God wants us all to be environmentalists.

Through the miracle of modern technology, his words will be simulcast to as many as 1,000 other churches and organizations across the United States and 26 other countries.

"I hope I don't trip," Matthew Sleeth joked when asked whether he would be nervous about speaking to such a large audience.

"Hope for Creation: A Live Simulcast Event" is being billed as the largest-ever faith-based event involving Earth Day.

It also is part of a growing trend of Christians, especially evangelicals, taking up a "live lightly on the earth" philosophy that they long eschewed.

It will be the latest chapter in a compelling story of a physician who gave up a lucrative career working in hospital emergency rooms along the Maine coast and moved his family to a much smaller house to simplify their lives and get closer to God.

Sleeth traces his religious awakening to a conversation several years ago while on vacation with his wife, Nancy.

"What's the biggest problem in the world?" she asked.

"I think it's that the planet's dying," he replied.

"What are you going to do about it?" she asked.

He quit his job, leaving the family with only some savings and Nancy's teacher's salary, and began studying what the Bible says about taking care of the earth.

Then the couple moved to Wilmore to be closer to their children, both of whom were attending or planned to attend Asbury Theological Seminary.

They live in a circa-1960 ranch-style house that is much smaller than their former house in Maine. They have a vegetable garden and compost pile. A squirt bottle filled with water and vinegar has replaced the commercial kitchen and bathroom cleaners they once used.

They have a washing machine but no dryer. In the summer, clothes are hung on a line in the back yard, where the sun provides free energy. In the winter, they use a couple of lines strung in the basement. The added advantage, Nancy Sleeth said, is that the wet clothes add humidity to dry winter air.

When a vehicle needed replacing, they got a hybrid. When the old toilet had flushed its last flush, it was replaced with one that uses considerably less water.

They started a non-profit organization called Blessed Earth and began spreading their "creation care" message to others by speaking and writing books.

Their advice on environmentally friendly living is similar to advice offered in many other places, but it carries more weight for some listeners because of the overarching religious message.

"When we share why we've become better stewards or why we're on this journey ... we share what our motivation is: to show our love of God and to show our love for our neighbors," Nancy Sleeth said. "The bare minimum for loving your neighbors is making sure they have clean air, clean water and healthy soil to grow food."

Matthew Sleeth, 53, speaks at churches across the country. Most have been in the Bible Belt, states in the middle of the country and on the West Coast, he said. His message is that "large swaths" of the Bible carry the message that God wants people to take care of the world God created.

Nancy Sleeth, 49, usually sticks closer to home, and presents more how-to advice on consuming less.

"We share the same story because it's our family story, but because my background is in teaching, I do more workshops and focus on the practical: what people can do today, this week, this month, this year to be better stewards of God's creation," she said.

The Sleeths have worried about the fossil fuels they burn traveling to speaking engagements but say they try to offset the damage by reducing elsewhere and grouping trips.

Nancy Sleeth said she was sharing her concerns about travel when a friend asked her to think about "how many billions are spent spreading the other message, which is 'buy, buy, buy — consume, consume, consume.'"

Matthew Sleeth has written Serve God and Save the Planet: A Christian Call to Action (Zondervan, $15.99) and, new this spring, The Gospel According to the Earth: Why the Good Book is a Green Book (HarperCollins, $22.99). He also wrote the introduction to The Green Bible, and chapters or forewords for what he estimates is 15 to 20 other books.

Nancy Sleeth wrote Go Green, Save Green, (Tyndale, $14.99). Their daughter Emma Sleeth, 19, wrote Easy Being Green: One Student's Guide to Serving God and Saving the Planet (Zondervan/Youth Specialties, $12.99).

(Their son Clark Sleeth, 21, hasn't written a book, but he is no slacker. He is in medical school at the University of Kentucky, pursuing a career that his father abandoned but still misses.)

"It's satisfying to have something so straight-forward" as working in an emergency room, Matthew Sleeth said. "Someone has a cut, you sew it back up."

But he doesn't regret exchanging stitches for sermons.

"With rare exceptions, no one has ever heard a sermon about trees in the Bible or even about stewardship of anything but finances, so they're getting something that's new for them," he said.

Matthew Sleeth also has just completed a series of videos on the biblical vision of caring for the planet. One of the videos will debut during Wednesday's simulcast.

Part of the attraction of the videos, Nancy Sleeth said, is that churches can show them without Matthew Sleeth having to travel to the church.

Matthew Sleeth wrote a piece three years ago criticizing conservative Christian groups for trying to stop the National Association of Evangelicals from speaking out on global warming.

"I can say without reservation that global warming is real and is harming the least among us — our less fortunate global neighbors — disproportionately," he wrote.

Don't expect to hear that again Wednesday unless someone brings it up.

Promotions for the simulcast promise that it will contain "no politics, no agenda," and climate change is so political it could get in the way of the larger message, Matthew Sleeth said.

"I know I go to churches where the preponderance of the congregation is all Republican and I go to ones where they are Democrats and ones where I don't know," he said.

The "no politics" rule was effective at Lexington's Crossroads Christian Church, where Matthew Sleeth had spoken and the simulcast will be watched.

"We try not to take political positions that will polarize at our church," said Greg Chandler, who is Crossroads' creative arts lead pastor. Sleeth "never said a word about global warming or any of the divisive talking points you hear. He simply said that as believers we are responsible for caring for the planet."

The simulcast will originate from Northland Church in Orlando, the 12th-largest in the nation. In addition to speaking and singing, there also will be opportunities for questions and answers.

The take-away message?

'Just praise to God for making this planet and an acceptance that we're here to fill the role of steward," Matthew Sleeth said.

"I think that role used to be easier to fill in an agrarian society — if it didn't rain for three weeks, you started praying. Today there's more of a disconnect simply because of the way we lead our lives."

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