Woe to the Label Makers

Guest post by Thomas D. Rowley of A Rocha USA. [Tom is a friend and colleague, and if you don’t knwo about the work of A Rocha, you should.–RP]

When I was a kid, my mother—queen of catalog shopping—bought a hand-held, squeeze-trigger device with a dial on top. It being the early seventies and I being a TV-addicted adolescent boy, my recognition of the contraption was instant: Star Trek Phaser!

Instant, but wrong.

It was, alas, a label maker—one of those things with which you squeezed out letter by raised letter on thin plastic tape such useful identifiers as “wedding photos,” “washers,” and “underwear.” And though useless against such menaces as the dreaded Salt Vampire of planet M-113, it was for a while fun. Soon every box, drawer and cabinet in our house had a label stuck on it. Now, the theory went, everything had a place. Everything could be stowed properly, found easily and used efficiently. Life under control.

Or not.

It turned out that wedding photos also contained grandparents, aunts and uncles. Should they be filed under “relatives” instead? Washers come in several kinds: flat, lock, and rubber to name a few. Could one box hold them all? (At least we got the underwear right.) Labels, it turns out, are tricky business.

Especially when slapped on people. Take me, for example.

When I lived and worked in Washington, DC, I was often the “conservative” in the crowd. Why? Because I owned cowboy boots, read the Bible and voted Republican at times. Now back in small-town Texas, I’m regularly viewed as that “liberal” who wears Birkenstocks (for the arch support), works for “some kind of environmentalist group” and votes Democratic at times. (For the record, I still have the boots, read the Bible and vote Republican in some elections.)

In which drawer do I belong?

None, I hope. And that is the point. Labels are all too often an excuse to stick someone in a drawer. A means of dismissal. At A Rocha, a Christian conservation organization with community-based projects in 19 countries, we see it all the time. For many who care about the environment, “Christians” are the bad guys; for many who follow Jesus, “environmentalists” wear the black hats—if not little red horns.

But little by little, the glue on the back of those labels is failing. Christians—even so-called “conservative” ones—are starting to take seriously the biblical command to steward the Earth. For their part, environmentalists—seeing the need to have all hands on deck—are starting to welcome Christian involvement. (Witness E. O. Wilson’s appeal in his book Creation.) Consequently, and perhaps miraculously, the two camps are beginning to get along, at least well enough to cooperate occasionally.

We see this, too, all the time.

In Boise, Idaho, A Rocha is mobilizing churchgoers to help the local chapter of Trout Unlimited plant streamside trees to shade the water and improve fish habitat. In northwest Washington, we’re working with environmental groups and farmers alike on eco-friendly ways to protect the region’s blueberry crop from ravenous Starlings—an invasive exotic species that devours some 40 percent of the annual harvest. In Lebanon, we partner with the Society for the Protection of Nature to identify and protect endangered habitats critical to migrating birds. In Kenya, working with a range of interests, we crafted a program that both protects the last remaining stands of the Arabuko-Sokoke Forest and generates income with which families living in and around the forest can now send their children to school and help free the next generation from poverty’s grip.

Through these efforts and many others like them, common cause between Christians and environmentalists (and advocates for the poor, health care, farming and more) is forged, conversations begin, labels peel away and behind them persons—sometimes friends even—emerge. It’s a wonder what the sweat of shared work can do—not just for the goal, but also to the people pursuing it.

That doesn’t mean we will all agree on everything—whether the root cause of a problem or its ultimate solution. And certainly not on politics! But evidence is growing that we can, and do, agree on this: the Earth—however one thinks it came into being—is worth caring for. And that seems a pretty good place to start.

So, as Jesus himself might say, woe to the label makers that seek to dismiss, divide and put us all into drawers. Let’s turn them all into Phasers, go outside and together zap some Tribbles—those fuzzy pink but dastardly invasive exotics.

*Rowley is executive director of A Rocha USA, a nonprofit conservation organization mobilizing Christians to steward the Earth.
See previous commentaries by Tom Rowley at http://arocha-usablog.org

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