The Eden Projects: Why We Hug Trees

By Debra Crawford

Christian circles often host discussions or sermon series about how to be good stewards of finances and possessions. While these are important and valuable biblical topics, another area of stewardship is often neglected: caring for creation. Scripture clearly reveals that God called God's people to be stewards of the planet created for us.

However, many view creation care as a liberal political issue and something to be avoided in the church. But when we read God's Word, we can see that it is first and foremost a spiritual issue of urgent priority. From the very beginning, Scripture informs us of God's plan and desire for us to care for all that God created (Genesis 2:15). Throughout the Bible we can see that when we fail to be stewards of the land, the land falls into turmoil and requires healing (Jeremiah 12:11, Romans 8:22). When the land needs to be healed, people suffer. This is a simple correlation—so why is it so hard for Christians to take a stand when it comes to caring for the environment? trees ethiopia

The following story, written by Brandon Hatmaker, senior pastor of Austin New Church in Austin, Tex., is an example of how many Christians struggle with this issue. Hatmaker shares how God worked in his life to help him gain a new understanding of how caring for creation can make an impact for eternity.

A few years ago I boarded a 737 with a small and diverse team of global leaders headed for Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. It was a mixed team of corporate CEOs, COOs, VPs, a denominational leader, a megachurch pastor, and a missional church planter. I was the church planter. The leader of our crew was the founder and CEO of the Eden Reforestation Projects, Stephen Fitch, a veteran to Ethiopian Airlines who has invested his life into the hope of being good news to the people spread across a handful of Third World countries.

Over the years, the Eden Projects have planted tens of millions of trees and provided thousands of jobs for the indigenous people in areas devastated by deforestation.  The resulting erosion and stripping of nutrients from the land has impacted more than just the wildlife and ability to farm. In a land where crops and livestock are the only currency, entire communities are being displaced as environmental refugees with no place to go, no land to own, and no skills for creating income. In a land of extreme poverty, add to it environmental issues, and hope seems like an unlikely commodity.

Our plan was to fly in to Addis, load into a caravan to head down the rift valley towards the community of Awassa, and visit the nursery and planting sites for Eden on the Udo escarpment and eventually the Sidama Highlands.

Since [my wife] Jen and I had already started the long journey of adopting from Ethiopia, I put in my request, more than once, to visit some orphanages along the way. I knew Stephen's hope for each of us was to see the projects firsthand, see how great the need really is, and gain a new appreciation for what they were accomplishing.

But here's my confession: Although I had discovered a newly found appreciation for serving the least and seeking to be good news, at the time, I still didn't quite get it. I knew that what Eden was doing was good, but I was struggling a bit seeing how trees could impact eternity. I was having a hard time connecting the dots. And I realized that out of spiritual self-preservation, my personal focus on the trip had been mentally hijacked from the Eden Projects to my adoption journey. It seemed more noble, more worthy, and more justifiable to my conservative upbringing and imagined critics.

I came to realize that I was subconsciously trying to rescue my reasoning for going. I had grown up knowing a church that did very little in the area of social justice. I can't remember once being taught to engage needs other than spiritual. In fact, although I grew up in church, I can't remember ever serving the poor until I took a group of youth on a mission trip to Mexico as a young youth pastor.

So when other pastors and friends asked me why I was going to Ethiopia—and the truth was to plant trees—I was a bit embarrassed. I was afraid I'd be labeled. I was afraid they'd think it would be a waste of time and money. I was selfishly having a hard time connecting the dots between planting trees to help these environmental refugees and the gospel. Although I recognized that I truly had some church baggage about being socially active, my issue was a matter of ministry validation. My struggle was really about seeking the approval of man versus the approval of God.  The objections to social action were flooding my mind.

The problem was me. Not my church. Not my culture. It was me. 

So I paused for a moment to pray and ask God to connect the dots between planting trees and healing lives. I asked for confidence and clarity for how it was good news.

This prayer was bigger than just this trip. Doubt had seeped in, and I was in need of a reminder of why we were called to serve the poor and to engage social need. As a pastor, I was asking God for an injection of confidence that compassion ministry and social action (the heartbeat of what became Austin New Church) was just as important to him as a healthy small group or women's Bible study event.

I ended my prayer feeling a bit optimistic. Instantly I felt the confidence that throughout the trip God would give me clarity. But nothing could prepare me for what would happen next.

Within seconds of my prayer, an Ethiopian man sitting in the row behind me asked me why we were flying to his home country. My mind flipped through the options for the most concise answer to a personally complicated question:

"We're planting trees."

I don't know why I landed on such a simple answer—especially one that was exactly opposite to how I might have normally answered.

Following my answer an elderly woman sitting next to him asked in her native language what I had said. When he told her, she began to wail. I don't mean cry a bit. I mean wail. Like in biblical proportions. He began to explain what she was saying through her tears:  

"She says that she has been praying for 38 years for God to forgive them for stripping their land and to please send someone to undo the destruction and plant trees."

Before I could reply she put her hand on me and started praying—out loud —through her wailing and tears—for about 15 minutes.

We don't understand need as the world understands need. We typically serve how and where we want based on our wants, not the wants of those being served. Our offering of hope is riddled with agenda.

In a moment I had gained a new appreciation for what it meant to offer hope through engaging need. And I was incredibly humbled. Embarrassed a little. Many people have come before me to help with this need. Reforestation in Africa was obviously not starting with me.  To this point, I had done nothing outside of some financial support to the Eden Projects through our church. But it made no difference to this woman. No way around it. Anyone planting trees in Ethiopia was good news to her.

I saw it even more on the ground. I saw a tree planted, jobs created, schools funded, and churches starting. And more than anything… communities renewed with the hope of the gospel.

When the Eden Projects applied for 501c3 status, the organization prayerfully decided to list the organization as a non-faith-based, nonprofit. This decision has created some difficulty for us while trying to work with some members of the Christian community.  There seems to be a perception among some Christians that if you're doing something that cares for the environment but not directly focusing on evangelism, you're not doing kingdom work. We feel that this perception is erroneous. In fact, we have relationships in our project countries that would never have happened if we went in with an agenda of evangelization. By entering animist and Muslim villages with an offer of employment, restoration of their land, and a genuine desire to build relationships with them, we show that we care for them in a holistic Christ-like way, and ultimately we have seen entire villages become Christians and start new churches. Lives are being restored, while at the same time millions of trees are being planted to restore their land. We serve a mighty God who has given us the wisdom to know how to get things done, and we believe that is why, in just a few short years, the Eden Projects has become one of the leading reforestation organizations in the world.

Udo 3 hills 2005

The Three Hills Region of the Udo Escarpment, Ethiopia: before (left, in 2005), in progress (center, in 2007), and after (right, in 2014).

The Three Hills Region of the Udo Escarpment, Ethiopia: before (top, in 2005), in progress (center, in 2007), and after (bottom, in 2014).

Udo 3 hills 2014

We start by hiring local villagers to plant trees. This gives them a decent income so they can provide for their families. As we become established in an area, we educate and empower the local community to cultivate and steward forests, ensuring people can stay on their lands with viable options for the future—all for ten cents per tree. As a result of our "employ to plant" approach to reforestation, over 78 million trees have been planted, new healthy native forests are emerging, and the water tables are rising. Wildlife is returning as their habitat is restored, and the priority of lifting people out of the depths of poverty is simultaneously being achieved as we provide jobs to approximately 3,500 individuals. A short time ago, the villagers often did not know when their next meal would come. Now, they are eating well, sending their children to school, getting medical help as needed, starting their own small businesses, and, as mentioned earlier, starting churches.

This year, the Mahabana Village in Madagascar was able to build its very first school. Prior to the opening of this school, children in Mahabana did not receive any formal education unless they were sent away from home.

This year, the Mahabana Village in Madagascar was able to build its very first school. Prior to the opening of this school, children in Mahabana did not receive any formal education unless they were sent away from home.

The Udo Escarpment in Ethiopia has changed greatly since Pastor Hatmaker first went there. In 2005, our first trees were planted on this escarpment, and now, in 2014, we are excited to announce the completion of the Udo Three Hills project. The area is fully reforested and the local villages are prospering. The new trees are protecting the surrounding villages and farmland, making it possible for their farms to thrive once again. Hope has been restored, and a future that once seemed bleak is now bright as people are released from the grip of extreme poverty.

Eden currently has projects in Ethiopia, Madagascar, and Haiti, with a brand new project launching in Nepal within the next couple of months. We are excited for the new doors that are being opened and pray that people will continue to break through age-old political and religious barriers and embrace the great privilege we have of caring for creation.

Last year, we created an interactive Bible study called "A Convenient Answer". This small group DVD series was produced for us by Maranatha! Music and is helping to get the creation care conversation started in churches across the country.   We believe that creation care is a topic that Christians should be talking about and that together we can make a real world difference both spiritually and environmentally.

Some may call us tree huggers. Go ahead—to us that is a compliment, because that means that we are doing what God asked us to do. But we don't just care about trees—we are people huggers, too, and we agree with God that everything God created is "very good" (Genesis 1:31).

(If you are interested in getting a copy of the "A Convenient Answer" Bible study, they are available for a suggested donation of $10 each and can be ordered by contacting Debbie Crawford at (626) 872-3770 or at

Debra Crawford is the Director of Faith Relations and Emerging Generations for Eden Reforestation Projects. She is a writer, public speaker, and fundraiser who is committed to connecting with schools, churches, youth and children's programs throughout the world to inspire and inform them in ways to make a real world difference both spiritually and environmentally.  

Related reading:

Planting the Future

Worship God: Work the Land



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