Lizzy Alvarado, a 21-year-old college student, participates in “tree-sitting” as part of the Tar Sands Blockade. Alvarado has been involved in a ministry at Austin Heights Baptist Church that recycles and repurposes decorated bottles, making them into crafts that are sold to benefit Habitat for Humanity. (Photo courtesy of Tar Sands Blockade)
Lizzy Alvarado, a 21-year-old college student, participates in “tree-sitting” as part of the Tar Sands Blockade. Alvarado has been involved in a ministry at Austin Heights Baptist Church that recycles and repurposes decorated bottles, making them into crafts that are sold to benefit Habitat for Humanity. (Photo courtesy of Tar Sands Blockade)

Church reaches out to anti-oil protestors

An unlikely bond between environmental protestors and an East Texas Baptist church is opening the eyes and minds of both groups.

By Ken Camp

Hospitality offered by Austin Heights Baptist Church in Nacogdoches, Texas, shattered stereotypes of Christianity for secular-minded 20-somethings engaged in non-violent civil disobedience to stop a controversial oil pipeline from Canada. Meanwhile, budding friendships gave church members new perspective on a younger generation that traditional congregations are struggling to reach.

It all began a few weeks ago, when the church’s earth-care ministry showed a film about energy usage at Stephen F. Austin State University that was attended by a number of activists camped nearby to protest construction of the TransCanada Keystone XL Pipeline, a project viewed by some as essential to America’s energy security and to others as an environmental disaster.

Surprised to find a Baptist church in the area concerned about environmental issues, four or five of the blockaders attended worship services at Austin Heights the next morning. In the weeks that followed, the number of blockaders attending church grew, with up to 30 in worship services.

“These are mostly kids in their 20s who are a long way from home,” said Austin Heights Pastor Kyle Childress. “There are a few Texans, but most are from out-of-state -- places like New York, California and Chicago. They are urban, secular young people for the most part.”

Children said a handful of the young adults are church-going Christians, but most are not. “Most see the church as part of the problem,” he said.

Skeptical blockaders encountered an unexpected reception at Austin Heights Baptist Church. “We just practiced Christian hospitality,” Childress said.

The church invited the protesters to attend potluck meals. Some members offered the young people places to shower and wash their laundry.

Childress said conversations with the blockaders allowed members of Austin Heights to “put a human face on the direct actions these young people are undertaking.” The church’s hospitality, in turn, gave protesters a fresh perspective on Christianity.

“They had never heard this gospel stuff before, but they’re open and interested,” he said. “They don’t take anything for granted. They’ve asked me questions I’ve never been asked before.”

Twelve people were arrested Nov. 19 for chaining themselves to heavy machinery used to prepare the pipeline route and putting up a tree blockade by suspending themselves from 50-foot pine trees, effectively blocking the Keystone XL path.

Childress recalled one discussion with a young protestor about the pressure many churches feel to incorporate the latest technology into worship in order to appeal to young people.

“He told me, ‘If more churches were on the front lines of things that matter, they wouldn’t have any problem getting young people to church,’” Childress said. “Being with these kids who are so passionate and want to do something meaningful with their lives has helped our church put a face on the next generation of urban, unchurched young people.”

Childress said he hopes the church makes an equally lasting impression on the blockaders. “I sure would like it, when they leave this area, if they would walk away saying: ‘The church does care.'"