The Austin Chronicle

One Doc's Medicine: Serve God, save the planet

By Daniel Mottola, September 22, 2006, News

An unusual doctor visited Austin last week – a former emergency-room director turned evangelical environmental crusader, who has taken to showing others how caring more for our planet while cutting back consumption can bring individual spiritual peace and help save our ailing planet. People in both environmental and religious communities believe Dr. J. Matthew Sleeth, once chief of staff at a prominent New England hospital, may also have the metaphysical medicine to heal the two groups' largely disjointed relationship.

Sleeth's treatment is a simple regimen of downsizing one's life – a procedure he and his family have undergone. In spreading the word about this therapeutic transformation (at times to less than receptive congregations), Sleeth focuses more on building relationships than changing minds. Though he fluidly cites Bible verses to reinforce his points, his tone in preaching sounds less like a hysterical auctioneer and more like the soft-spoken bedside manner of a trusted family physician. Sleeth was in town to speak at University Presbyterian Church about his new book, Serve God, Save the Planet: A Christian Call to Action.

A big part of Sleeth's message is how, upon realizing what an excessive and unsustainable lifestyle he and his family were leading, they slashed their energy use and consumption. He describes moving into a house the size of his former garage; dispensing with appliances such as the clothes dryer, dishwasher, extra TV, and refrigerator; and replacing fancy cars with a single, more efficient one. Sleeth said he thinks most people know things like global warming and oil addiction are problematic but "just don't think they can make the necessary changes" to stop them. He said "somewhere between Christ's life and a McMansion, two cars, and three TVs, we'll get closer to God." An easy solution to the proposed construction of 17 polluting coal plants in Texas, then, is to diminish the demand for electricity by using less. He references the popular Christian notions that spiritual wealth outweighs material wealth in the eyes of God as a remedy for materialism and that Earth is the Lord's holy place and that he reveals himself through his creation. For comic relief, Sleeth's wife, Nancy, says the goal of the family's green crusade is to put the conserve back in conservative and the fun back into fundamentalist.

Sleeth says he's been talking environmentalism with various Christian groups, large and small, since 2003 and receiving a generally positive response. That could be because he speaks as articulately and confidently about medical procedures as he does about Bible scripture and eco-jargon.

Following his talk at a suburban Houston church, local green activist Isabella Schmidt, a Catholic, described the difficulty she was having initiating environmental dialogue with other area Christian congregations, who quickly dismissed the Earth talk as an unacceptably political topic. Sleeth, stressing the importance of human interaction, suggested that she ask to discuss the matters with church leaders over a shared meal and emphasize the specific and personal implications of ecological degradation as they apply to the congregation, rather than throwing out stark, generic statistics. "You become a person on the church's agenda, not vice versa," he said.

Bee Moorhead, executive director of Texas Impact, the Austin-based interfaith group that brought Sleeth here, is someone whose daily work is partially devoted to bridging the church/environmental chasm. She cautioned environmental groups against looking at someone like Sleeth opportunistically. "As long as secular environmentalists see this as a one-way street, as 'we need some of those evangelicals,' it won't work out. It's necessary for them to think about what being in a relationship with a church really means." On the other hand, in many churches, Moorhead said, differentiating charity and justice is a problem. "Charity operates in the status quo, while justice challenges the status quo," she said. "Sleeth is good at starting out on the charity side and pointing a congregation toward the justice side."

For more on Sleeth and his book, see

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