Renewed Earth, Ancient Trees

An interview with reformer Jason Fileta

By Sarah Zimmerman
Nov 20, 2019

The date is September 20, 2019. There is an anticipatory hum buzzing, growing louder around the world. People of all ages and nationalities are stirred, filled with a mixture of weariness and passion; they take to the streets in droves. They carry posters smeared with blue and green paint, chanting a steady stream of call and response: unrelenting echoes wrapping around the equator. It is the long-awaited Global Climate Strike. World civilians, regardless of political, religious, or cultural affiliation, are demanding legislation reform and environmental protection, pleading with their lawmakers to reprioritize as the planet is continuously compromised around us. It is part burial elegy, part sanguine hymn. 

As images surface from the international event, I am struck by the sheer magnitude and diversity of these protests. There is an outpouring of university students in Bangladesh. There is the young Swedish woman, Greta Thunberg, with her tangled hair and unwavering gaze, in Washington DC. There are grandparents and their grandchildren, marching hand-in-hand on the streets of New York City. Citizens protest in Manila, while neighbors young and old carry signs down a gravel road on the coast of Tanzania. Millions of people link arms around the world. 

We have been made to believe that climate change is a divisive issue. Some call it a sleight of hand, an empty threat amplified. Yet those arguments deteriorate underneath the united cries of the Global Climate Strike, composed of voices around the world and from both sides of the aisle. People bear witness to the destruction of their homes: throughout Africa the fields of subsistence farmers are wilting. Unpredictable rainfall and droughts ravage South America. Dense pollution descends upon Seoul and cities throughout Asia. Massive migrations sweep across continents as people seek sustainability after the fertility of their homeland falters and blows away. Society’s most vulnerable are pulled deeper into poverty, restricted by and dependent on unreliable rain and unfamiliar heat.

As the wake of these environmental shifts continue to come to light, it becomes impossible to extract environmental justice from the concept of social justice. The two lean on one another, and you cannot possess one fully without knowing the other.

Jason Fileta’s advocacy for a Christian response to climate change dates back long before September 20, 2019—he has been a conscious Christian and social justice advocate for well over a decade, seeking to embolden dismissed and marginalized communities around the world. Shaped by the Coptic Christian experience and raised in Chicago by immigrant parents, Jason has been privy to the price of injustice and the beauty of empowerment from a young age. Now the vice president of Tearfund USA, an international organization focused on ending extreme poverty and injustice, he is no stranger to the complex problems that stem from neglecting the earth, and the role that environmental destruction plays in global poverty. 

I first encountered Jason at Q, an annual conference for thought leaders held in downtown Nashville. He was the soft-spoken Egyptian man with a heavy ring on his middle finger and a fixed gaze framed by glasses reminiscent of the 80’s. He took the stage, gripped the podium. The title of his talk? “Climate Change is Impacting the Global Church.” 

Equal Parts Egyptian and American

The country of Egypt is roughly 90 percent desert, built upon the shared sediment of the ancient Saharan, Libyan, and Arabian deserts. This nation, devoid of lush forest and greenery, provided the backdrop for someone who would later become a champion for environmental justice within the church. Jason Fileta’s roots in social justice were planted here, formed by the weight of persecution his parents and their community weathered long before he was born.

The Fileta family left Egypt and immigrated to the United States in 1980, where Jason was born a few years later. “I grew up in a [household] where my parents…they tried really hard not to be super Egyptian, but they were. They couldn’t help it.” He laughs, setting the tone of his childhood, equal parts Egyptian and American. “My parents were always plugged into what was going on in Egypt, what life was like for their friends and family back there. My dad is from the south of Egypt, and that’s where there is a lot more discrimination against Christians; it’s [simply] a more difficult life if you’re a Christian. You have to work twice as hard to get paid half as much. It’s this constant wearing away of your dignity.”

As the Filetas embedded their family into life in the United States, the solidarity they carried for their brothers and sisters in Egypt remained, a key influence that developed Jason’s awareness of the rest of the world. “It’s been interesting to me now, in adulthood, [now that] I’m a dad and have friends with kids…seeing how important it is for people to shield their children from difficult things,” he says. “It’s very alien to me, because some of the things that formed me most were weeping with my parents over the bombing of the church in the south of Egypt, or crying out to God that he heal this person who doesn’t have access to a doctor. All these things that some modern parenting notions would lead you [away from]…to shield the child from the harsh reality of the world.”

Jason’s grandfather immigrated to the US alongside his daughter and son-in-law, living with Jason and his brothers throughout their childhood. He often watched his grandsons while their parents worked, cycling between classes and jobs as they adjusted to life in America. Within his first breath of our conversation, Jason attributes who and where he is now to the strength of his parents and the love modeled by his grandfather.

“My grandfather was this incredibly gentle and loving man, in a way that was really unique and noticeable. He’s kind of like this legendary figure…he’s almost like this character you read about in stories, where they smelled like violets, like lavender; there was this mist that followed them.

“There’s this story my mom told me where she had some injury on her leg [as a kid] and she was having a hard time falling asleep. Her bed was in the middle of the room, so there were no walls next to it, and she needed to prop her leg up in this particular position to be able to fall asleep. My grandpa sat down and said, ‘Just prop your leg up against me, until you can fall asleep.’ Then the next thing she knows, she wakes up, and it’s ten hours later, and he’s still sitting there.” 

The love that emanated from his grandfather and parents transformed Jason’s worldview from a young age. It was subversive, enduring, and embedded in the faith he claimed, clung to, and cherished.

Torn Down and Rebuilt

Starting in middle school and continuing into high school, Jason began to notice a rising tension within himself as his interaction with North American Christianity increased. He saw inconsistencies between the radical way he was led at home and the religion he observed elsewhere. He began deconstructing his faith in middle school, processing tough questions and further picking at the loose threads he was discovering in this unfamiliar form of Christianity. 

“I felt like I did not belong,” he says. “I felt like I couldn’t connect with the dominant culture of faith [at] my school or my church. The things that were valued there were not the things that I valued.” He became cynical in the face of the disconnect between the faith he saw in the world and his family’s faith, one “that was shaped by the people who lived or died by their identity as Christians.”

“I think the best thing that North American Christians can do to better engage in creation care, and specifically with climate change, is to humble ourselves and listen to our brothers and sisters in the Global South, to the poor specifically.”

Jason graduated high school and enrolled in Calvin University, a Christian college tucked away in western Michigan. Here, Jason’s deconstruction was welcomed, then restored. “Probably the most transformative thing about going to school there was [that] I was finally forced to…be with the people that I had so intensely judged the previous ten years of my life. I saw suburban, upper/middle class, white Evangelicals as the most apathetic, self-centered, consumerist people.

“Then in college, I studied abroad in Honduras, and I was led by people like this. I saw people like this teaching me all the things I ever wanted to learn about international development, politics, policy, poverty and injustice.” In Honduras, Jason worshipped with the people he had written off. They shared stories together and prayed together. In the face of extreme poverty, they dreamed of solutions together. He thought, “‘Maybe I got some of this wrong, and maybe I took too much of my weird high school and superimposed that over the Christian world, and the Bible, and who God says He is.’”

Around this time, Jason became consumed with reading Scripture. He pored over the Bible and, for the first time, read it front to back. “That was when I became who I am now. I realized that God was relentlessly loving…that redemption through Christ is not just for me, but that this redemption is for all of the things in the world that have broken my heart. This redemption would make right violence against Christians in Egypt. This redemption through Christ would make right poverty, discrimination, injustice—even down to the minute detail of my own personal feelings of alienation.”

As he immersed himself in the Bible and in community with other believers, “God spoke to me clearly, and I knew that what I needed to do was use the privilege I had and the power and position I had being raised in this country, being an American, [to] fight to get his people to work to end injustice and extreme poverty. That’s what I felt like I needed to do, and it was [due to] the very same people I had been so judgmental of as a kid.”

Justice for People and the Planet

In wake of this revelation, Jason started building his life around the active redemption of which Jesus spoke. Following the pull of the Gospel’s transformative worldview, he spent the next decade carving out spaces where areas of injustice could be addressed and restored. Now, through his position at Tearfund USA, Jason mobilizes support and solidarity for communities worldwide, operating with the vision that the best solution to resolving poverty is to empower individuals to see their “own potential to overcome.” Using international church partnerships, Tearfund empowers communities to create and then execute their own solutions for healing.

Throughout his years of listening to those suffering from poverty, Jason found a surprising yet common narrative emerge: subtle changes in the environment were dramatically affecting communities around the world, and the global church as a whole. People became trapped in poverty by unpredictable and unfamiliar shifts in the environment. Crops were dying, impairing families’ ability to feed themselves or provide a steady income. Without income, people turned to less desirable or even damaging livelihoods. Floods forced people to relocate, sending whole communities into mass migrations. World hunger, water pollution—a lack of creation stewardship could be connected to every major issue facing these communities who so longed to flourish. 

As he listened to people’s stories and saw firsthand the suffering they endured, Jason began to see how intertwined social injustice and climate change were. “I think the best thing that North American Christians can do to better engage in creation care, and specifically with climate change, is to humble ourselves and listen to our brothers and sisters in the Global South, to the poor specifically,” he says. “To seek out their stories and their perspectives, and not to dismiss them. To listen when island nations tell us their land is disappearing. To listen when farmers tell us they can no longer grow food. To listen when refugees tell us they fled because of floods.”

And once we listen to them, he adds, we must act, led by the ones who are impacted firsthand. 

“We would do well not only to inform our views on climate change by these folks, but to actually learn how to live from them.” Families living in poverty around the world don’t have the luxury of overconsumption or waste. They live simply because they must, and we can emulate their example by rejecting excess and living with less. Jason sees adopting a simpler lifestyle as a form of obedience and solidarity: “not as a set of rules and regulations, but with steadfast faithfulness as a way to honor God, and honor his most vulnerable children who are impacted by the choices we make.” 

God Will Speak Through the Trees

In April 2019, a fire ravaged Paris’s Notre Dame Cathedral. Within days, a handful of wealthy individuals contributed the funds to fully resurrect the iconic church—yet there is often global silence when it comes to the destruction of the earth on which we depend, and which we were called to tend. I asked Jason: Why doesn’t this kind of destruction translate to our collective consciousness?

“No matter how directly we rely on the land for our flourishing, every one of us is intimately connected to the earth, and the damage it sustains.”

“It was as if our empathy for [Notre Dame] was deeper than the empathy many people are capable of feeling for our brothers and sisters,” he says. “I’m not saying that we shouldn’t mourn the destruction to this gorgeous and historic church, but I was stunned at the depth of emotion [people expressed]. Perhaps it is the place that Paris holds in people’s hearts, or the history of the cathedral that allows such depth of emotion. Maybe we don’t know the history of our forests and rivers. I think apathy toward the Amazon burning, or deforestation in general, speaks to our distance from these sacred places, or at least the illusion of distance.”

But the illusion of distance is just that—an illusion. No matter how directly we rely on the land for our flourishing, every one of us is intimately connected to the earth, and the damage it sustains.

Jason continues, “Somehow this notion that we should watch the world burn so that Jesus comes back sooner is not absurd to many people. We readjust this paradigm by using our minds and hearts to imagine how this world ought to be—how God created it to be, rather than use our minds to limit and domesticate the good news.

“I believe spending more time immersed in nature is always necessary, and perhaps one of the best ways to begin to shift our paradigm. God will disciple us and speak to us through the trees if we spend enough time with them.”

Photos by Parker Fitzgerald.

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