Athens Chaplain Cultivates Conversations Beyond Place, Faiths and Generations

The Rev. Craig “Chester” Topple interacts with Mackie, his family’s dog. For Topple, spending time in creation and interacting with creatures offers a “God experience.” “I love that dog spelled backwards is God,” Topple said. (Photo/Caroline Odom)

The Rev. Chester “Craig” Topple gathered under a blue umbrella with three residents of St. Mary’s Highland Hills Village, an age-in-place community in Athens where he serves as chaplain. 

With gentle yet direct questioning, Topple encouraged reflection from the women — What was your first memory of a deep connection to nature? When was a time you became concerned about the environment? Where do you find hope? 

Around the table, Kyker was quick to offer her thoughts, from stories about her home state of Alabama’s beaches to tips from her eco-conscious daughter and son-in-law. Like other people at the table, her tone indicated worry. “I got concerned early on when there was so many people who denied that there was a problem,” Kyker said. 

Kyker has expressed these concerns throughout her seven years at Highland Hills. This led to her asking Topple to visit with the women on a sunny November afternoon.

As Topple made eye contact with each woman and nodded along, he reminded them of the impact of individuals. “Your voices matter,” Topple said.

Topple has several titles: chaplain at St. Mary’s Health Care System, father to two daughters, ordained minister of the Presbyterian church and part-time pastor at Pleasant Hill Presbyterian Church in Statham, Georgia. He also calls himself an “earth keeper.”

Through his work, family and his community ties, Topple works at local and national levels to bring awareness to climate concerns and promote care of the earth.

 Why It’s Newsworthy: As climate change issues gain prominence in the public sphere, faith leaders across religions and denominations are responding.  

 

A Mandate to Care

Topple spent childhood wandering the woods behind his grandfather’s house in Decatur, Georgia. As a child of the 1980s, he heard about the disappearing ozone layer.

“It sort of created that consciousness,” Topple said. “It’s stuck with me as what I feel like is a key, integral piece of my identity.”

The Rev. Craig “Chester” Topple speaks about earth care and Christian theology from a bench in Athens’ Bishop Park. Topple moved to Athens in 2013. (Photo/Caroline Odom)

When Topple studied at Columbia Theological Seminary, a Presbyterian school in Decatur, he was shocked that so few of his peers expressed care for the environment.

Topics like abortion and same-sex marriage often divide churches. But caring for creation is something that seems clearly mandated in the Bible’s creation story in the book of Genesis (Genesis 1: 26-28), Topple said. 

“And yet people either just ignore what’s happening, or worse, just abuse it because of some theology that I find not very healthy,” Topple said.

That mandate is why his family places a bucket beneath the tub faucet to collect water for flushing the toilet.

It’s why he drives an electric car.

It’s why he hikes with his family and shares the experience

It’s why he participates in Earth Keepers 360, a coalition that “equips and engages spiritual leaders so they can make a difference in their communities and the world,” according to the organization’s website.

Caring for the World from Athens

Before moving to Athens, in 2013, Topple lived in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he became “fast friends” with Rev. Andrew Black. When Black, also a Presbyterian minister, established Earth Keepers 360, Topple came to mind, Black said.

Topple advocated with Earth Keepers for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. This area in Alaska, “one of the last really wildly incredible places on earth,” is threatened by drilling, Black said. 

“Here, you have a pastor in Georgia who understands that his role is not just to care for communities in Georgia but to care for the whole earth,” Black said. “When he’s weighing in on issues like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, it’s with that greater sense of duty that the Creator has instilled within us.”

From One Generation…

Within that greater sense of duty, Topple encourages climate awareness through his work with St. Mary’s. Topple is facilitating a partnership between St. Mary’s and Georgia Interfaith Power and Light (GIPL). 

GIPL partners with faith-based communities that want to take action regarding the environment. As a Catholic health care system, St. Mary’s qualifies and is in the planning stages with GIPL to reduce the environmental footprint of its facilities. This aligns with the Pope Francis’ emphasis on earth care shared in his 2015 letter to the Roman Catholic Church called “Laudato si.’”

As he closed the Highland Hills conversation, Topple suggested holding regular environmental discussions with residents. He even invited the women, nodding their heads as he spoke, to help form a Highland Hills “green team” as part of the GIPL process. 

 

“We’re here to just kind of address these concerns with different people who have different ideas,” Topple said. “They could contribute to the greening of Highland Hills.”

… To the Next

Climate issues won’t be solved with one effort, event, electric car or generation. But if there’s something Topple can do, he wants to do it, he said. 

Topple’s plea for Christians mirrors that of a September 2021 joint statement from leaders of the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Church of England: examine yourself and your relationship with God’s creation. The worst thing, Topple said, is doing nothing.

“This is the hard thing about doing the work. It takes endurance. It takes patience,” Topple said. “You have to take the long view and just stick with it.”

Caroline Odom is a senior majoring in journalism and risk management and insurance with a certificate in personal and organizational leadership.

 

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