Activist minister Lauren Matthew. Picture: Duncan Guy
Activist minister Lauren Matthew. Picture: Duncan Guy
The wall of warning in Glenwood, Durban, that sparked debate. Picture: Duncan Guy
The wall of warning in Glenwood, Durban, that sparked debate. Picture: Duncan Guy
Durban - Glenwood Methodist minister Lauren Matthew’s controversial painting on her church wall was intended to raise awareness about the global climate crisis, she told The Independent on Saturday.

The 41-year-old activist cleric and one-time agriculture student ruffled feathers when she collaborated with graffiti artist Ewok to paint a warning on the brick wall facing Lena Ahrens (formerly Manning) Road that the Earth might have “only 12 years left”.

“It was an extract from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report last year that reported that we have less than 12 years left to cut our considerable carbon footprint before we reach a critical 1.5°C above pre-industrial temperatures.

“But I’ll find another way to have the conversation,” she said.

At least the painted wall had started the discussion, she added.

The Manning Road Methodist Church is in correspondence with the heritage agency, Amafa, about removing the colourful graphic.

She hopes she can sit down with her detractors and find common ground on many issues.

“Doing nothing about climate change, or pretending it does not exist, is just not moving us forward,” she said.

“Many people treat it as something too big to handle. When facing something so colossal it seems ridiculous to look at the small actions we can make in our own lives in response. It seems naive, but we can make a difference.”

To Matthews, bringing the environment into religion is a “no-brainer”.

She even brought permaculture into her theological studies, producing an assignment on permaculture and grace being a model for ecclesiology (theology as applied to the nature and structure of the Christian church).

“In my first posting, in Orkney (North West), as a minister in training I planted a permaculture vegetable garden at the manse and got street children involved.”

Matthew said she always tried to tell the Manning Road Methodist Congregation there was more to the Biblical narrative than what had often been watered down to religious piety that was concerned with people’s private relationships with the church. She said Jesus had been held prisoner, in a way, by the mindset that limited Christianity to “do I go to church? Do I drink and do I swear?”

“The Biblical narrative speaks about justice and it is important to uphold the dignity and value of the people and groups we marginalise in our society. This is the heart of the Biblical narrative.

“So I try to bring the scriptures alive so we can be part of another narrative and environment is key. The Biblical text always links the desolation of the creation as a consequence of the injustices we perpetrate upon the people and the groups we ‘other’,” she said.

Matthew grew up talking about the environment, and at the age of about 10 became concerned about the ozone layer and how one’s lifestyle contributed to such crises.

Growing up in Chatsworth, environmental issues were on her doorstep, with the oil refinery and Sappi plant nearby.

She takes a liberation theology approach and believes that patriarchy and capitalism are connected.

Apartheid and its legacy had similar connectivity, she learned from her teachers at school.

“They made us realise that the way Chatsworth was designed was a deliberate choice, (the) consequence of a racist system,”she said.

“It affected how much time one spent in the traffic, what services one received.”

Her father’s family had been moved to Chatsworth from the Musgrave area to comply with apartheid’s Group Areas Act while her mother’s family were forcibly removed from the Pietermaritzburg central business district to Northdale.

Matthew credits her grandparents for providing her with the example of being proactive in their approach to religion.

“My grandmother taught adult education classes. She helped anybody she could and would always be showing me how the Gospel story asks us to push against societal injustices.”

Her work in Glenwood has led to involvement in groups concerned with gender-based violence and toxic masculinity.

The latter, she believes, is the root of much of the criticism Swedish teenage climate change activist Greta Thunberg has been subject to.

“The language against a 16-year-old is so misogynist, attacking her otherness, her autism and the way she dresses.”

This, Matthew said, was because she was pressing buttons that upset the capitalist system and toxic masculinity.

“They are two faces of the same coin.”

Back to the wall in Glenwood, she said that thanks to the climate change painting project, the church had found a caring group of people who wanted to do something positive in the area.

However, it’s not as if Manning Road Methodist Church had ever been short of people doing admirable things, as she discovered when she arrived there in 2016.

“They have always had a love for doing the right thing and being a community that makes a difference, including starting Makabongwe, a pre-school at Warwick Triangle, feeding schemes that provide home-cooked meals to homeless people in Glenwood every Sunday night and the Dalton (Hostel) Clinic and Creche, which we want to grow with the Denis Hurley Centre.”

The Independent on Saturday