Profiles: Finding a Calling in Creation - David Baumgart Turner

Danielle Tumminio

When David Baumgart Turner’s ancestors made the arduous ocean journey from Connecticut to Hawaii at the beginning of the nineteenth century, they came to convert the tropical islanders to Christianity.

Two centuries later, with a master of divinity degree from Yale Divinity School in hand, Baumgart Turner made that same journey with what has become an entirely different mission – to preach the gospel of sustainability.

“I find it exciting to be in Hawaii at this time. As a missionary descendant, and as one who embraces these islands and their culture, there is an opportunity to be a bridge to bring these two traditions together,” says Baumgart Turner, referring to native Hawaiian polytheistic spirituality. “Though this should have happened two hundred years ago, it didn’t. Now is the time.”

It wasn’t something Turner was able to act upon immediately after graduation from YDS in 1987 as a united Church of Christ minister. But, two years ago, Turner made a bold move. He quit his job as a chaplain in Honolulu’s prestigious Punahou School. Then, as now, he had few peers making sustainable ministry their full-time work. He had no organization to back him up.

The work has not been easy. Creating a new ministry has put a financial strain on his family, which is now primarily supported by his wife, Kirsten, a consultant on sustainability issues. Turner finds some people opposed to the mindset of sustainability, which requires awareness that personal choices can affect those who live thousands of miles away. “The voice of sustainability is a prophetic voice,” Turner says. “It reflects how our culture needs to change the ways we live….Change doesn’t come easy.”

During the past two years, David has been leading work- shops on greening congregations, starting organizations, consulting, offering presentations to churches and schools, and implementing programs for youth. Last summer, he started a camp for young people where small groups spent up to six weeks kayaking and backpacking in either Scotland or Hawaii; he initiated a similar program in Alaska in which the emphasis was on community service. The children’s transformation was palpable: “By the time they were done, they were seeing the world in different ways,” Turner says, “and it changed the way in which they lived when they went home. Their parents wrote me notes that said, ‘You returned the child we thought we had lost.’ Comments like that were amazing.”

Baumgart Turner’s own fifteen-year-old son, maika — a diehard carnivore — questions his father’s vegetarian diet, but both he and his eleven-year-old sister, Nai’a, embrace the family’s sustainability-based lifestyle.

The family rides in a Jetta fueled by french-fry oil. Their clothes dry in the Hawaiian breeze. Their house is powered by photovoltaic cells on the roof. They’ve got radiant barriers in the attic to avoid air conditioning, a double-chambered com- poster, and fruits and vegetables growing in the backyard. In short, their carbon footprint is not that much bigger than that of their missionary ancestors.

Environmental awareness is so integral to their lives that when maika saw An Inconvenient Truth, he came home and announced, “I was bored to tears. There was nothing new that Al Gore was telling me.”

Danielle Tumminio received a B.A. from Yale in 2003 and is currently a student at Yale Divinity School.