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All in: faith, courage and living zero-waste

Climate change. Reconciliation. Plastic Pollution. Jo Herbert-James has dedicated her mind, voice, vocation and lifestyle to responding to what could be considered the most pressing issues of our day. Along the way, she’s put everything she believes in on the line – and found courage that can lead us all to take action in the face of doubt.

When Jo started working for a faith-based aid and development organisation, her faith was fresh and enthusiastic. She was still enjoying the highs of a powerful encounter with Jesus as a 17-year-old, supported and shaped by the church that had become a home for her. But her work exposed her to a world that unsteadied her.

“It became my day job to look at injustice all day, every day. We’d hear stories of war, of people fleeing for their lives, the fact that the majority of the world live in poverty. Then I’d go to church and they’d tell me that ‘God protects, God provides’ – and I’d think ‘wow – I’m not so sure he does’. I had this really difficult time of trying to fit these realities together. At one point I thought, ‘I either have to give up on my faith because none of that makes sense any more, or I need to quit my job’.”

Jo Herbert James
Jo Herbert-James' approach to sustainability takes in every facet of life – home, work, leisure, travel.

Rather than losing her faith, or her job, Jo decided that the only answer was to go deeper into the difficult questions. She read, studied theology, and wrestled her uncertainties gradually over a number of years.

“It takes courage to sit with those questions, to find peace with the fact that God doesn’t always intervene when I think he should. I either have to reimagine a God in my own image, or dismiss him, or accept him for who he is, which feels like a God that doesn’t always intervene and act. God is God, and I am not. In one sense it’s a very simple thing to say, but a very difficult thing to truly accept, to love God even when I have my own thinking of what he should be doing.”

Living zero-waste has been one of the most profound spiritual journeys I’ve ever been on.

Jo Herbert-James

While her wrestling didn’t necessarily give her all the answers, it meant that she could accompany others who found themselves on a similar journey – especially young people who were burdened by deep questions about faith, suffering, and why the church didn’t ‘get it’. And the time she took to understand God’s story has given her the courage she lives and works from today.

“If the whole arc of history and God’s story is bending towards justice and his Kingdom coming, my faith is within the truth of that story. The courage to keep going and step into it is found in this being God’s story: he will achieve his purposes, his kingdom will ultimately come. And I get to join in with it.”

Resolutely joining in with God’s story is one thing Jo lives out practically. After writing a theological essay on Leviticus, she decided to start living zero waste (the idea being, in a nutshell, “part of our priestly role is to keep the whole of the earth, as the place where the presence of God dwells, clean”). More than just remembering her reusable shopping bags and coffee cup, Jo’s approach to sustainability is considered in every facet of life – home, work, leisure, travel. Jo and her husband even purposefully planned their wedding to be waste-free. In a culture that celebrates personal freedom and endless possibilities, living within self-imposed limits has been a challenging and awkward journey, but a deeply refining one too.

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“I can tell you all the practicalities of living a zero-waste lifestyle, but I can also tell you that living zero-waste has been one of the most profound spiritual journeys I’ve ever been on. What it teaches me about my own heart in order to live like this is deeply uncomfortable. It exposes my heart, and the idols that sit within me, in a way that a lot of other things don't.”

It’s a beautiful example of the way that our day-to-day choices to respond to injustice can be holistically transformative. When our actions are shaped not only by the issue at hand, but by God’s heart and ways, our vision for restoration is clearer and encompasses more than just the physical or practical.

“Climate change is obviously the most pressing issue to address now. But at the heart of it, climate change is a much deeper issue of brokenness and polarisation, a lack of reconciliation. We’ve got to come together as a whole in order to tackle this issue. What the issue of climate change creates is an incredible opportunity to share the whole Gospel, and to reconnect the young generation to a deeply relevant and compelling faith that has something important to say on the issue. If the church could say something meaningful at this moment, the time really is now.”

For the church, the time to take action is now – and by the grace of God, our actions are anchored in his power and our eternal hope.

“The urgent needs of today call for action now, yet the risk of urgency is that you strive and burn out. But the risk of taking it slow, an ‘it’s in the future’ approach, is that we forget about the ‘right now’. There are times I get myself tied in knots to avoid waste. But there’s grace in it. In God’s economy there is always time for rest. It isn’t all for me to achieve, it will be fully achieved at some point, but that doesn’t let me off the working now.”

“If it was just me doing this, it makes no difference. However, it makes a massive difference to me and God, and it makes a massive difference to the eternal impact of my own decisions. First and foremost I live this way out of faithfulness to Christ, and I hope that it makes a difference. And ultimately it does, because when you join in with others, it does.”

Jo Herbert-James lives in the UK and was Tearfund UK’s former Theology and Network Manager. She was a speaker at The Justice Conference in 2019.

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