Leah Kostamo & Margaret Atwood in Ottawa

Written by conference participants Rev. Dr. Kara Mandryk (Henry Budd College for Ministry) & Dr. J. Keith Hyde (University College of the North)


In the stone pillared, once Oblate chapel of the grand Taberet Hall of University of Ottawa, Leah Kostamo, Co-founder of A Rocha Canada, confessed to a full house that she had hope. This was a risky move, as the crowd was gathered to hear a conversation entitled “The Future of Religion in Canada: Utopia and Dystopia?” featuring Leah and the inimitable Margaret Atwood.

It was no secret that the people gathered – academics, students, and members of the adoring public – came together to hear the cunning and sometimes cutting words of a Canadian literature icon. And Atwood did not disappoint. However, it was the impassioned yet calm, urgent yet gentle words of Leah that inspired. Her gracious warmth and clear conviction, along with a good dose of humour, easily won over the crowd as she opened the evening with words of guidance from Joanna Macy – see things as they are, see things as you want them to be, and take steps towards that vision.

As Leah spoke about her work with A Rocha, it became abundantly clear that her vision was rooted in the dire realities of the degradation of the earth, coupled with her unshakable belief that the “Christian message is one of hope.” And while Leah self-deprecatingly said she knew she would sound “Pollyannaish” to some, her presentation was not naïve.

Leah Kostamo with Margaret Atwood
Leah and Margaret share centre stage.

She did not avoid the stark realities of the results of climate change, citing multiple statistics on habitat loss, loss of life in the oceans, the realities of nature starved children, and the serious state of endangered species, among others. She faced these facts head on, encouraging the crowd to lament what was lost, and then find ways to bring about change. But this was no mere platitude to “be the change you want to see in the world”. Rather Leah unflinchingly and consistently rooted her ideas, actions, and way of life in Christian hope.

She spoke clearly of the call to care for creation that is present throughout the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. She acknowledged that the Christian Church has not taken this call seriously in the past and lamented that in the present there are still many Christians who seem to ignore the importance of stewardship and creation care.

In a particularly entertaining and moving story, Leah recounted the time when one of the A Rocha interns discovered an endangered species of fish – the Salish Sucker – on a routine count as part of her conservation work at the Brooksdale Environmental Centre in Surrey, B.C. As Leah told the story of the young woman’s conviction that God told her that she would encounter a surprise on that very day, you could feel the skepticism rise from the crowd. Leah herself gave voice to her own feelings of doubt that God would bother acting in such a fantastic way. And yet, when the intern found and later identified the miraculous fish as the Salish Sucker, a species that had not been observed in the area in decades, she rejoiced at God’s goodness.

As Leah told this story of faith and discovery, she said she was reminded of the spiritual hymn that claims “His eye is on the sparrow”. Leah, with great joy and humility, asked the crowd gathered there, “If God’s eye is indeed on the sparrow, then why not the sucker?”

The Salish Sucker (Catostomus sp.) is a provincially Red-listed species of freshwater fish.

While we knew that Leah was referring to the endangered Salish Sucker, both she and Atwood repeated the phrase “His eye is on the sucker” a number of times throughout the evening. And when those words “His eye is on the sucker” were spoken aloud in the midst of the academic elite, religious representatives and sceptics, and Atwood fans gathered in that grand room that was once a house of worship, the phrase took on the deeper meaning, the double meaning.

There was hope, the hope of the ‘sucker’. The hope of those who believe in the hope of Christ and try to live in a way that brings the kingdom of God here on earth as it is in heaven.

That type of work is reflected in the work of God at creation – the continuous planting and tending of the Garden that is the world that God created, Christ redeemed, and the Spirit enlivens. Yet in our current cultural climate, someone who roots themselves in the Christian virtue of hope might very well be seen as a ‘sucker’ – taken in by an antiquated belief system and a corrupt religious structure that have destined not only any who are deemed the other, but the earth itself, to dystopian doom.

Leah Kostamo, Margaret Atwood, Graeme Gibson, Markku Kostamo
Leah Kostamo, Margaret Atwood, Graeme Gibson and Markku Kostamo on a tour of A Rocha’s Brooksdale Environmental Centre in Surrey, BC.

Leah’s meditations were accompanied by the deft and insightful observations of Margaret Atwood, who detailed her fascination with utopian and dystopian fiction from an early age. Atwood traced the genesis of her work, The Handmaid’s Tale, to 17th Century Puritan America, the 1980’s Religious Right, and literary forms of dystopia, such as George Orwell’s 1984.

She pointed out that her novel was not an indictment of religion in itself, but rather she attributed oppression to the darker side of human nature. She referenced and quoted passages (even singing a hymn!) from her MaddAddam Trilogy, exploring the positive ways in which religious people can contribute to society.

Atwood delightedly observed how the Christian environmental stewardship organization A Rocha parallels the efforts of the fictional God’s Gardeners by seeking to cultivate a convergence of ecology, Scripture, and stewardship.

Leah Kostamo had the courage to publicly represent a complicated and sometimes damaging belief system to a crowd that probably wasn’t all that sympathetic. She had the courage to be a ‘sucker’ and to represent a vision of God’s creation and humanity’s role in it that has been neglected in Christian theology and liturgy.

Leah’s presentation and her work with A Rocha reminded the audience that there are other ‘suckers’ out there – ‘suckers’ who live and work and have their being in ways that honour God’s call to care and tend the earth and to teach and challenge the people. Leah Kostamo is clearly a ‘sucker’. And God’s eye is clearly on her, and the work of A Rocha.

While we need to hear Margaret Atwood’s timely warning of potential political and environmental disasters, we equally need to hear Leah Kostamo’s voice of hope that rings out in the midst of despair and cynicism and says – take small steps towards your vision of what the world can be with creativity and community.

This post was written by conference participants:

Rev. Dr. Kara Mandryk, Henry Budd College for Ministry
Dr. J. Keith Hyde, University College of the North


Plenty of Suckers

When A Rocha intern Audrey Epp found a Salish Sucker in the pond at Brooksdale in 2011, it was big news. This was the first individual anyone had seen in the watershed in about three decades!

In the spring of 2017 the team took on a new project. Having mapped out where in the watershed the fish were making their homes the question now became: How many Salish Suckers are here?

The results were astounding.

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Why Christian?

In an ever-growing field of environmental organizations, A Rocha is unique. We work in conservation because we believe certain things about God and the world.

In the words of John Wesley, we have found that “faith in Jesus Christ [leads] us beyond an exclusive concern for the well-being of other human beings to the broader concern for the well-being of the birds in our backyard, the fish in our rivers and every living creature on the face of the earth.”

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