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Environment & Science

God is in the garden: a conversation with Scott Claassen

Scott Claassen took a year-long bike ride around the United States to talk to Christian communities about climate change. He documented his
Scott Claassen took a year-long bike ride around the United States to talk to Christian communities about climate change. He documented his "Carbon Sabbath" on a blog.
Molly Peterson/KPCC
Scott Claassen took a year-long bike ride around the United States to talk to Christian communities about climate change. He documented his
Scott Claassen at the Santa Monica headquarters of Thad's, an experimental missionary community of the Episcopal Church
Molly Peterson/KPCC

To mark Earth Day this year, we’ve been exploring how the faith of Southern Californians shapes their attitude towards nature.  We’re calling our series, “God is in the garden,” inspired by a quote from George Bernard Shaw:  "The best place to seek God is in a garden. You can dig for him there."

On Tuesday I profiled Rabbi Noah Farkas of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino. On Wednesday, it was Father Christian Mondor of Saints Simon and Jude Catholic Church in Huntington Beach.  On Thursday I featured Sheik Mustafa Umar, head of education at the Islamic Institute of Orange County. Today it's Scott Claassen; he's a leader of Thad’s, a community of missionary Episcopalians in Santa Monica. 

In June 2011, Claassen took a year off from cars and all other types of vehicles to bicycle 10,500 miles around the United States. He called it a Carbon Sabbath.

Sabbath, he’ll tell you, comes from rest. Not that riding a bike every day is a rest, however.

“Sabbath is really about pausing in your daily life and returning your gaze back to the divine,” Claassen says. “In taking a Carbon Sabbath my intention was to look at the divine presence in our lives apart from all of the frenzy that leads us to mindlessly contribute to climate change.”

Claassen’s a fifth generation Californian. He says nature along the Monterey Peninsula first gave him a sense of God. After college, he sought to learn about the world’s religions through travel. Then he went to Yale Divinity School.  Reading the gospel of John: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God. He immediately connected that with the environment.

"Rather than God speaking that word once and putting everything into motion, everything that we participate in now is God’s love," says Claassen. "So nature is the process of our interaction with God’s love.”

His passion for nature and his faith made him want to bike to Christian communities around America and talk to them about climate change.

“Basically I showed up in places and said, hey you want to talk about climate change?” he says, laughing at the simplicity of it all. “The majority of people I engaged were skeptical about climate change. And the majority of those folks welcomed me into their homes and risked themselves, became vulnerable in those conversations." 

Claassen says showing up dirty, sweaty, and in need, made him, in turn, seem vulnerable to his hosts. “Yeah, when somebody comes in and just needs water, you don’t ask, boy, do you really believe the right way? You give ‘em water.”

He says he learned how to listen better. In Ohio, he met with a local cycling club. “A woman from that club who had grown up thinking that the environment was not something we should honor or think about just said I think this is all just a bunch of – she might have used an expletive,” Claassen remembers. She ended up talking for 15 minutes about how someone in her family had lost a job related to EPA closing a plant. “So her opinion on climate change was completely clouded by this past experience. By the end of the night when I left she had donated 50 bucks to the Carbon Sabbath because she had talked with the rest of us,” Claassen says, quietly. “When you allow for silence, those opinions just come out.”

In large and small communities, coastal and heartland, conservative and liberal, the reactions of people he met along the way often surprised him.  “In more liberal communities I did not find that same vulnerability” that he found in Ohio. “I found a lot of folks who felt like they knew what was up and wanted to maintain the sense of us and them.”

Now back in Santa Monica, Claassen worries that environmentalists are paralyzed by the challenge of climate change. He feels they use language that’s fatalistic. To fight it, he draws on a Zen Buddhist saying, that peace is in every step. On his Carbon Sabbath, he says he found peace in every turn of the pedal.

“When I thought about cycling around the country for a whole year, it was overwhelming,” he says. “But when I thought about each pedal. every little thing that I did, it was all possible. “

Claassen says adapting to climate change and mitigating its effects work the same way, a little at a time.