What the Rev. Brooks Berndt did for his Hazel Dell church, he now hopes to do for many more congregations in the United Church of Christ family: get them actively fighting for environmental causes.
Berndt, 38 — “Pastor Brooks” to his flock — will leave the Pacific Northwest at the end of this month to take a new activism job — National Minister of Environmental Justice — at UCC headquarters in Cleveland, Ohio. It’s a natural continuation of his work over the last few years, as he’s led his First Congregational Church to demonstrate in public and to lobby policymakers in Olympia for left-leaning causes like stricter gun laws, marriage equality, labor empowerment and an end to the use of fossil fuels such as oil and coal.
“Christianity usually leads us to challenge the status quo,” he said. “That’s what Jesus was about, and I think that’s where our faith and values need to lead us.”
Berndt said faith-based activism is a family tradition. His father, a math professor, was involved in their Urbana, Ill., church’s humanitarian work and helped launch a center there for Latin American refugees from the wars of the 1980s. The books on the shelf at home were all about liberation theology — that’s an interpretation of Christianity focused on poverty and injustice — which grew out of Latin American Catholicism but was adopted by people-power movements everywhere, including in black America.
“Somehow that rubbed off on me,” said Berndt, who went on to study under Oakland, Calif., preacher the Rev. J. Alfred Smith Sr., president of the Progressive National Baptist Convention. Berndt and Smith eventually collected their back-and-forth letters about faith and activism in a book, “Sounding the Trumpet: How Churches can Answer God’s Call to Justice,” published in 2013.