No plastic for 30 days! That’s the challenge the Rev. Cary James Jr. and his 16-year-old son, Caleb, recently undertook in support of their roles as EarthKeepers, trained by the General Board of Global Ministries of The United Methodist Church, to address topics such as environmental justice, green technology and waste reduction in their communities. Hear about the outcome of the “no plastic for a month” endeavor along with why the James family is passionate about environmental stewardship.
- Learn more about Global Ministries EarthKeepers program..
- Cary James Jr. is a United Methodist minister in the Baltimore-Washington Conference. Read about the conference's commitment to creation care.
- the United Methodist Church's Social Principles address caring for the natural world.
- Plastic pollution impacts us all, as explained by this video.
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This episode posted on April 29, 2022.
Crystal Caviness, host: No plastic for 30 days. That’s the challenge the Reverend Cary James, Jr. and his 16-year-old son ,Caleb, recently undertook in support of their roles as Earth Keepers, trained by the General Board of Global Ministries of the United Methodist Church to address topics such as environmental justice, green technology and waste reduction in their communities. Hear about the outcome of the no-plastic-for-a-month endeavor along with why the James family is passionate about environmental stewardship.
Crystal: Cary and Caleb, welcome to “Get Your Spirit in Shape.”
Cary: Thanks, Crystal, for having us today.
Caleb: Thank you.
Crystal: Well, I’m so excited. We’re going to talk about creation care and taking care of the earth. April is Earth Month. And you guys are both in pretty unique positions to talk about that and what that means, and what that means for you personally and what that means in the church. I’m just really excited to get that conversation going. Before we start, however, I’d like for each of you to tell me just a little bit about yourselves.
Cary: My name is Cary James. I currently serve as the pastor at Jones Memorial United Methodist Church in Washington, D.C. Prior to serving in ministry, my prior career was an environmental engineer.
Crystal: I didn’t know that. That’s makes a lot…just makes sense, then, doesn’t it?
Cary: It does. So, I grew up on a farm as well. And so this gives me an opportunity to kind of combine everything together—creation care, my love of farm, my love of creation, my love of gardening and just being outdoors. And so God has afforded me the opportunity to bring it all together and do it in the church as well as do it in our community, and care for our creation.
Caleb: Well, my name is Caleb James. I’m 16-years-old. I currently go to North County High School in Glen Burnie (Maryland). And at that school I’m in the STEM program. In your freshman year you get to choose a pathway. And the pathway I chose was green technology because I want to learn more about the environment and stuff like that. And I’m not 100% sure what I want to do in my future, but I know I do want to do something with the environment and how I can help sustain it and learn more about that.
Crystal: Thank you Caleb and Cary. I love hearing your stories because, Cary, you come out of a farming background, you grew up on a farm. And Caleb, you’re looking at green technology. So, it looks like we’ve got these two kind of like bookends…
Cary: Bookends, right.
Crystal: Kind of agrarian and then this real techie side of environmental care and environmental justice. You live in the Washington, D.C. area. You serve a church in D.C. So, you are kind of far fro your farming roots. Let’s talk about just your interest that led you both to become Earth Keepers, which is a global ministry program where Global Ministry trains United Methodists to equip them to take care of the environment and to launch…you create and launch programs in your communities. You both have gone through that training program and are certified as Earth Keepers. So let’s talk about kind of the path that led you to that.
Cary: I took my first course in environmental law about 30 years ago. And when I took that course it really opened my eyes up to the environmental injustice in America. And when I learned a lot about how cities were designed and where incinerators and dumps and things of that nature were placed, it was primarily placed in areas of minorities as well as impoverished areas. And so that was an eye opener for me about 30 years ago. And most of my time in serving as a pastor I’ve served in Baltimore, which is a city urban area, and Washington, D.C., which is an urban area. And so in both of those locations I noticed around the church we didn’t have a grocery store. We had a lot of fast food places. We had a lot of carryout. And I would notice the children in our community, they would go to school and they would stop by the store and get a bag of potato chips and a soda, and that was their breakfast. High sugar; high carbs. We also noticed that there was a lot of childhood obesity because we’re in a food insecure area. Some call it a food desert. And so as I saw all of those things and even the members in our congregation, some of them had to have a foot or a leg amputated because they had diabetes and primarily because of their diet, not being able to get healthy food. Not having access to fruit and vegetables and things of that nature. And I saw the connection. It brought me back full circle to what can we do to care for our planet, you know, to do something about the environmental racism, environmental injustice. And I heard more about Earth Keeper and that’s what I consider myself, an earth keeper. And I’d researched and talked to some people who had gone through the program, and I said that’s something that I want to do so that I can do what I believe God has always called me to do, to care for the planet and do it through my parish, through the church, through the community. And so I went through the training about 3 years ago. And it opened my eyes up to a lot of the things that I already knew about and introduced me to a wide network of people who cared about the planet like I did, who cared about creation like I do. And so going through that program really extended my network, extended my family, and also gave us resources to be able to try to, you know, do what we can to bring about change in the community. And so after I went through it and Caleb saw (my son) how we were living at home, we made decision changes. We’ve started composting and started doing other things because I become more aware that my decision affects others.
Caleb: I wouldn’t say my love and interest in the environment was hereditary, but I would say it was very much stemmed from my father and what he studied throughout his lifetime. And I was enjoying the outdoors and loving…and I’m trying to understand, like, how everything is shaped and how it, you know, all became this way. And then, so, he went to Jones Church a little earlier last year and it opened my eyes up to a completely different environment where people aren’t able to get (like he said) healthy foods. It’s a food desert. And it really, like, opened my eyes and talked to me. So I was always wondering what we could do. And then Earth Keepers came up one day and we did the training. And it very much helped us. And just recently I learned more about environmental injustice and how it really is affecting minorities and how we need to step up and change. It’s like the environment is an outlet for injustice. I didn’t realize that until recently.
Crystal: I was going to say exactly the same thing, Caleb. I don’t know that I would have connected. You know, I think creation care and I think about clean water and clean air and climate change. But Cary, I hear you talking about how that’s affecting people—the food that they’re eating, their health in such a, you know, significant way. I agree with you, Caleb. I hadn’t really put the two together. And that makes it seem it’s all around us. I mean, of course the air is all around us, the water is all around us, but it’s affecting our neighbors in a really acute way, as well. I know with Earth Keepers you have to pick a project to be a part of that. That’s kind of part of the training. Can you talk about what you chose for yourself or your community?
Caleb: So, the timing of this was absolutely perfect because I’m a Boy Scout. I was at the final stage of becoming an Eagle Scout. It was like the last final thing, becoming an Eagle Scout. And what you need to do in order to get that is do an Eagle Scout project, that helps them start an organization. And it hit me, what if we do the project to help my Eagle Scout program and the Earth Keepers requirement. So we did a garden, and I primarily did it myself as a part of the Eagle Scout thing. And we had our green team at church, and some of the people from my troop come and build 3 raised ring gardens, which we’re going to use to distribute vegetables in a food desert and in our church, to the people who can’t, you know, get the healthy foods that aren’t available at their grocery stores around them.
Crystal: That’s an awesome idea. Wow. What perfect timing for you to satisfy your Eagle Scout requirement as well. Cary, a few years ago what was your project?
Cary: My project…I initially started from really, you know, thinking about the food insecure area and thinking about the church as a network. And so I decided to work on a project that I entitled ‘Soil to the Sanctuary.’ And so using church property, no matter what size of property you have, to grow fruits and vegetables, and to use the church as a network, as a famers’ market to distribute those free or at a nominal cost in the community. And so that was my project—to do gardening at the church and to tap into other churches to teach them how to do an urban garden, how to do a garden at their house, in a bucket or in, you know, whatever they have because a lot of people think you need all of this land to do a garden. And that was my project, to do the garden on church property and also to help other churches use their property in such a way that they could grow vegetables and fruit on their property. And we’re still growing the network and still working to show other congregations it doesn’t take much space to do that. And so I’m excited to do that project to really tap into the soil, tap into the sanctuary and again, it took us back to creation. We were made from the soil. And so what better way…we were made from the soil…to come back full circle and teach people about the soil and the connection to us as God’s creation, and a connection to our food as the food source.
Crystal: Caleb, I’m gonna ask you this because you’re 16. Last year in your Earth Keeper course, you were 15, obviously, which is a pretty young age to take on the project, something that just has such significance. What inside of you drove you to want to do this? What was your motivation there?
Caleb: Definitely to help others and to shape my future because if no one stands up on this then I’m not gonna have any food when I’m older, or the generations that are younger than me aren’t gonna have food either. So it’s imperative that at least someone steps up and does this in order to make a room for our future and our earth to be sustained because if we don’t, then our earth is gonna perish.
Crystal: As people and your friends are watching you do this, what are they saying to you? What kind of feedback are you getting?
Caleb: Um, they’re very…are excited for me. And a lot didn’t expect it from me because I’m very, like, not outgoing as much at school. I’m like timid and like work heavy. So when they heard I was doing all this, they were inspired and were happy to hear. And hopefully doing something on their own that is similar to this to help the earth become more sustained.
Crystal: Why does the church need to be in this space?
Caleb: I think the church needs to be in this space because we have a lot of influence. We have a lot of members that can help with this. Like, a lot of people have these amazing ideas, but don’t have the community or like the place to do these ideas. So the church is an amazing place where people can get all the people, get all the stuff they need and do these projects that’ll help the world.
Crystal: Cary, I’m going to ask you the same question I asked Caleb. What are your peers saying when they see you doing this work, when you’re planting these gardens and this fruit? What do you hear? What kind of feedback are you getting?
Cary: Initially it was mockery, kind of like Noah. What are you doing in urban areas talking about a farm, talking about garden? So now I’ve been doing this for a few years now. Now they’re inspired and they’re doing it as well. And it’s really teaching not only my peers, but it’s teaching the younger generation that one person truly can make a difference. And so we’re trying to spread this word. We’re having a community event coming up in May where we’re going to give away, for free, native plants to the Washington, D.C. area and encourage people, again, you don’t need much land to plant native plants or a garden. And so, again, it’s catching on. It’s inspiring other people. And people really don’t know the benefits of just planting one plant, what it does for the air quality, what it does for the environment, what it does for us as people breathing in oxygen. And so one plant can make a difference. And so now it’s gone from mockery to can you really help me do that? Can you help our congregation do that? And people are really inspired by it, not only my peers, but even government officials are inspired that our church, our congregation, is really making a difference in this area of creation care and climate change.
Crystal: How would you say that this is an expression of your faith?
Cary: For me personally I believe that this is an expression of my faith because it brings us back full circle that God is the creator of everything including animals, including soil, including us. Everything in creation is created by God. And when we look at Genesis God called us to be caretakers of creation. And so if we truly understand our role as a caretaker, being a steward…. We don’t own the land. But we should be a good steward. And unfortunately I have had some of the lament services and some services of apology for my generation and generations prior to me. We abused the land. And for Caleb and younger generations we have really robbed the resources in the earth. And so we can, moving from this point forward, make a difference. But again, God calls us to this. God calls us to this work, to be a steward of creation. Most of us know John 3:16. We see it all over the place. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son so that anyone who believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” But many people don’t continue with the very next verse. And the very next verse alludes to that Jesus came to heal the land or heal the world. And so God calls us to be agents of change, agents of healing, to be agents of stewardship of the earth and of the resources that God has afforded us—the air, the water, all of the resources that we have. We should be good stewards of that and know that our decision not only affects us, but it affects future generations as well. So this is the work that God calls all of us to, not matter your faith. God calls all of us to this work because we only have one earth. And all of us have to do our part to sustain it and care for it.
Crystal: Caleb, I’m kind of assuming that you’re in full agreement here. What are you thinking?
Caleb: Yes. There’s this Bible verse, Genesis 2, verse 7, that reads, “The Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” Like, he said, we came from the ground. We came from God’s creation. So why are we destroying it? Why are we not being…sustaining it? Like, it’s our job to sustain….’cause it’s where we came from. It’s our roots. So it’s our job to sustain it and make sure more people can come from the creation, more people are able to enjoy the creation that we’ve had in previous years. I’m very much agreeing with when he said. It’s not just like for United Methodists. It’s for everyone. Everyone who is created as humans.
Crystal: What would you say to someone who says, you know, I don’t know where to start? It seems overwhelming. It’s a big job. What would you say to them?
Caleb: I think simply picking up trash you see on the street or in the grass is the easiest thing you can do—observing the issue and acting on it. And that can make a huge difference.
Cary: And I think sometimes people don’t do anything because they’re just so overwhelmed. And quite honestly, Crystal, you know, we’ve heard kind of the doom and gloom, you know, that we’ve brought the planet so much it’s gonna be gloom and destruction. We’re not going to make it. We’re not going to survive. And there’s a lot of truth to that. But also there are a lot of things that we can do—simple things. One of the things we worked on last year for Earth Month is to simply refuse plastic.
Cary: And that is harder than it sounds.
Crystal: It sounds hard.
Cary: But, in fact, you know, if you think about, it it’s easy to do. So that means no plastic bags. That means no plastic water bottles. That means no plastic utensils, you know, forks, knives, things of that nature. And plastic is such a part of our society. But when we refuse plastic then we are creating a sustainable waterway for our fish and animals who live in the water. And so, again, something that simple we can do. If you’re not in a room, simply turn off your lights.
Crystal: I want to go back to your plastic-free month. What did that look like at the end of the month? What had you learned? What surprised you?
Cary: What surprised me the most was how much we use plastic. And in a lot of municipalities, thank God, they’re banning plastic or they’re charging you, you know, fifteen cents or a quarter for a plastic bag, or they’re really giving out reusable bags instead. And so we’re seeing traction even from the government. They understand now how bad plastic is. And so for me, I love water. And I was getting a 36-pack of water, you know, because I drink water so much. And I said, what if I put a filter on our faucet at home? What if we have a pitcher in our refrigerator that purifies the water and we don’t have to get all of these bottles of plastic and again, use recyclable bags instead of the plastic bags. And so again, we realized how much plastic we were using. And once we stopped we realized how much we can make a difference if we refuse it and not use it. And so it was, you know, great to really, for an entire month, to realize what we did for the planet just as one household. And other people in our congregation, other people in Washington, D.C. they joined on board as well. And I just can only imagine how much water, er how much plastic refused over that month. Another eye opener for me, Caleb and I other people from our Green team from Jones Memorial United Methodist Church, we went to clean up the Anacostia River, which is the major river around our church along with the Potomac River. And we collected over 500 lb. of plastic bottles in the river. Plastic bottles in the river.
Cary: People…. Single use plastic bottles, they would take a sip or finish the bottle and just throw it in the river, or it ended up in the river. And so that blew my mind. I think there were about 75 30-gallon trash bags full of plastic bottles that were in the river.
Crystal: A quarter of a ton of plastic that you fished out.
Cary: Fished out of one river in one day.
Crystal: Wow. That’s tragic that it was there in the first place.
Cary: Right. It is a tragedy. And again, as you get it, Crystal, I think we need to help other people see that. And some people are more visual. And when they saw us stand next to all of those trash bags it gave them a quantitative approach to…I’m using this bottle…and if I’m using 30 a month or 300 a month, all of those could be my bottles if they ended up in the waterway. And so that simple step of just refusing plastic can do a lot to save our planet. I’ve seen some research to indicate that if we continue down the path that we’re on now in 30 years the fish population, animal population, plant population in the ocean will decrease by 50% in 30 years, if we continue to pollute the waterways with plastic.
Crystal: Wow. Caleb. You hear a statistic like that, and how does that make you feel?
Caleb: It’s devastating. Like, future generations won’t even get to see sustainables. Like, animal life God created is sacred, and all we’re doing is polluting the oceans and destroying it, depriving other people of seeing this amazing creation. And another big issue is a lot of people are in denial. They’re like, oh, I have one plastic water bottle. If I don’t recycle it nothing will happen. I’m just one person. When millions and millions of people think like that, it adds up.
Crystal: Yeah. That’s what I’m hearing from both of you, is that, you know, that personal responsibility.
Cary: Yes, we all have personal responsibility. And that’s where it starts. So it may seem like a daunting task, but just start on a personal level, small changes that we make in one day eventually will have a domino effect and, you know, bring about, you know, a better planet, a better earth, a better creation. But it just starts with one step. It starts with one day. And all of us, on a personal level, can make a difference.
Crystal: Where’s the hope? Where’s the…what are you seeing that makes you feel hopeful?
Caleb: People are more open to change. They’re starting to see the issues really come to real life. And they see it right in front of themselves. They’re willing to actually help and change. And I feel like more of that mentality will hopefully make the future more bright and have a better future for the environment.
Cary: For me, I see hope in Caleb and his generation and other generations. I’m seeing a lot of people his age who could be doing a whole lot of things their teenage years. But they are writing their elected officials. They’re doing advocacy work. They’re marching. They’re protesting. They’re giving up meat. They’re giving up plastic. They’re doing a lot of those things to basically what I call a carbon fast. They’re reducing their carbon footprint for a day or for a month because they understand what could happen if we don’t do anything today. So that gives me hope, knowing that younger generations understand the enormity of the situation. But also they understand that they are and we are the solution to the problem that we face. So that gives me hope. That gives me excitement every day knowing when I see people like Gretchen and I see other young people speaking out, you know, on these issues. It gives me hope and it gives me joy.
Crystal: What would you say to someone who just wants to learn more, a starting place, learn more, where would they go to get some, you know, even some definitions? There are a lot of things that people may not fully understand, and just to go and start maybe 101.
Cary: One place that they can go from the United Methodist perspective, they can type in “United Methodist Church creation care.” And that one search will give them more information perhaps than they would like to know. But again, it breaks down some of terms. It will also point them to our Social Principles. It’ll point them to other places that we’re doing work. And again, one of the connections there when they type in that search will be environmental justice. And again, a lot of people don’t make that connection, that creation care/climate justice also is a part of environmental justice work as well. So that simple search will give them a lot of information, what is being done, what they can do, some of the terms that are used in creation care and it’ll also give them the theological underpinnings that will give them in some cases up to 25 scriptures about creation care. But that simple search will open their eye and get them started in this type of work. Also, if people want to find out more about Earth Keepers they can simply type in “Global Ministries Earth Keeper.” And they’ll find out more information about how they can go through the training like Caleb and I and many others have and learn more on how they can be keepers of the earth as an Earth Keeper.
Crystal: Caleb, why is it important to you that The United Methodist Church has Social Principles that address creation care and environmental justice?
Caleb: So, a lot of the Social Principles are strictly for United Methodists. But I feel like the one for creation care is very broad and for everyone. And if you go online, you can look at it and understand what’s going on and what we need to do for the environment. So I feel that…like how it has that much credibility, it is very important and people should take the time to do their research and understand how they really are impacting the environment. And adding on to what he said about Global Ministries, you can also do a research of the creation care network and see what a bunch of other people are doing as far as their projects and gain inspiration from them and maybe do something similar to that in your congregation or wherever you are, in your small community or your neighborhood ow wherever, in your school. And the simple change like that doesn’t just like make a change, it also opens peoples’ minds who are helping with that. And that could lead to more. It could make a positive domino effect.
Crystal: You both are certainly inspiring in the work that you’re doing. We have one question that we ask our guests. I’d like for both of you to answer that before we go. And that question is: how do you keep your own spirit in shape?
Cary: For me personally this type of work is one way is that I keep my spirit in shape because, again, we were made from the topsoil. We were made from the ground, the dirt, the soil. And for me, doing this type of work helps sustain me. Another thing I love to do is I love to meditate. I love to garden. I love to take prayer walks. And so meditation, prayer walks and just being out in nature you can hear the voice of God. One of my mentors, (of course I didn’t meet him)…George Washington Carver, who invented so many things from peanuts and sweet potatoes, he has in one of his quotes, “If you want to hear the voice of God take a walk in nature.” And so I’ve kept that quote to heart that whenever I want to feel God’s presence, I want to hear the voice of God, I’ll go outside and just take a walk, no matter where I am, in an urban area, in the country, rural, just take a step out in nature and because of our connection to creation and connection to God, I hear the voice of God and that sustains my spirit and that sustains my soul.
Caleb: What keeps me going is knowing that there is hope. That simple thought makes me want to keep going until we reach the goal. Another thing that keeps me going is seeing how beautiful the environment is and knowing that if I don’t help sustain it this is all gonna be gone. It’s gonna be lost. I want other people to see that, too. Like, you know, understand that if we don’t take these actions everything you see outside is gonna be gone. It’s not gonna be the same. And it’s not gonna be enjoyable for younger people.
Crystal: Caleb, your passion and to hear your enthusiasm is just so infectious and definitely inspiring and motivating. And I thank you both for being a guest on Get Your Spirit in Shape with us today, and for the work that you’re doing in your community that really is affecting the entire world. So thank you so much.
Cary: Thanks for having us, Crystal.
Crystal: That was the Reverend Cary James, Jr. and Caleb James sharing about their experience as EarthKeepers in The United Methodist Church. To learn more about EarthKeepers and creation care, go to UMC.org/podcast and look for this episode. In addition to the helpful links and a transcript of our conversation, you’ll find my email address so you can talk with me about Get Your Spirit in Shape. Thank you so much for joining us for today’s episode of Get Your Spirit in Shape. I look forward to the next time that we’re together. I’m Crystal Caviness.