Standing on stage in a Miami school auditorium, wildlife filmmaker Richard Kern watches his audience. Rows of city-raised middle schoolers sit crowded together, laughing, talking, and goofing off in their seats. They’re thinking about video games or basketball or whether the other kids really like them.
Then the digital projector clicks on, heads turn, and nature bursts in. Alligators glide through murky water, and birds flit from tree to tree in blurs of color. Coral reefs explode with life, and the Everglades’ mangroves and rivers of grass show themselves for the vast and intricate systems that they are. Periodically, Richard himself appears on camera, bearded and earnest, often wading waist-deep through swamps or ducking through leafy vegetation. Live onstage, Richard narrates the ins and outs of the marvelous ecosystem on-screen — and the city kids watch, enthralled with creation.
“Despite Miami’s close proximity to natural treasures such as the Everglades, most city dwellers just don’t know or understand their importance.”
This is the work of Encounters in Excellence, a Miami-based nonprofit that has been producing and presenting natural-history film lectures for local elementary and middle schools for four decades. Wildlife filmmaker Rich Kern and his wife, Judy, co-founded Encounters in 1977. About six years ago, their son Richard came on as the company’s executive director.
In addition to being filmmakers and educators, the Kerns are devout Christians. Richard is a deacon, and Rich Sr. has served as both a deacon and elder at Pinelands Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Cutler Bay, Florida.
Their faith spurs a desire to share not only their wonder at the beauty of nature, but also an ethic of creation care. For Rich Sr., Encounters’ videos and lectures aren’t just a fun way to teach science — although it’s true that the engaging videos are helpful in making ideas stick. Rather, he sees their work as a means of raising up an environmentally conscious generation that loves and cares for God’s creation.
Yet the Kerns have found that much of the church is suspicious of science, skeptical of issues such as climate change, and indifferent to learning how humans can better care for the natural world around them. As Christians working as wildlife filmmakers, constantly seeing the beauty of God’s creation and the harm people cause and have caused to it, the Kerns live in this tension.
Making an Impact
Back in the early years, Rich Sr. captured the wild on 16 mm film, shooting as a freelancer for the likes of National Geographic and the National Audubon Society, and touring the United States and Canada to give presentations. Occasionally on these trips, he would show his films in schools, and the kids loved it. They felt connected to these stories of nature’s power, beauty, and fragility. And somewhere on those long miles and months away from his family, lugging film reels and heavy projection equipment through snowstorms and over borders, the idea came: Why not do this for school kids back home in Miami full time? And so, Encounters in Excellence was born.
“That was back in 1977,” said Rich Sr. “Dade County School Board got interested, and we’ve kept it going all these years.”
These days, Encounters in Excellence looks a bit different. The gear is lighter for one thing — digital cameras instead of 16 mm film and reels. When Richard joined, he was able to bring in new ideas and technologies — the bounty of a younger generation of digital filmmakers. With his help, the team launched Odyssey Earth, a multimedia website intended to complement the Encounters lecture series and expand its potential audience to include anyone with computer access. New technology brings new possibilities, but the original school presentations are still going strong.
During the 2016-17 school year, Encounters in Excellence presented 178 shows to 83 schools, reaching more than 43,000 kids with its educational films and capturing imaginations with the glory and wonder of nature. It has also put together a whole collection of resources that teachers can use to continue the learning experience in the classroom. In a country that’s increasingly disconnected from the natural world, this is important work.
Despite Miami’s close proximity to natural treasures such as the Everglades, Biscayne Bay, and the Caribbean, Richard says that most city dwellers just don’t know or understand their importance: “It’s amazing how many kids I lecture to … especially in the inner city [who have never even seen these places]. I’ll ask, ‘How many have ever been to the Everglades on a field trip?’ And only a couple hands might go up. And some of these auditoriums have a couple hundred kids.
“There’s a real lack of environmental literacy in Miami,” Richard added. “The emphasis is on more of a consumerist, flashy, modern lifestyle, [and] there’s a huge gap that we’re trying to fill by getting these kids up to speed on why the environment that surrounds them is so important. Not only because it’s just remarkable and beautiful, but also because it’s economically important.”
That’s a point they try to emphasize. South Florida’s natural resources bring in millions of tourists every year and provide the water for millions more residents. People’s livelihoods and futures are attached to how well the Everglades, the bays, and the aquifers are cared for. In other words, whether you like it or not, you are part of the ecosystem, and you can make a difference in it for good or bad.
“We are environmentalists,” explained Rich Sr. “So we are concerned about what we see all around the world and close to home. [And] we live close to the Everglades … a prime example of what could go wrong environmentally. But a lot of people are just consumers. They don’t pay much attention.”
Finding God in the Wonder
There’s also an element of sheer enthusiasm, joy, and a sense of wonder in the Kerns’ work. When Rich Sr. and Richard look closely at the natural world through their cameras, they see God’s fingerprints everywhere, and they want to share that beauty with others.
The passion is evident in Rich Sr.’s voice when he describes the insight and perspective that come with studying the sciences firsthand. He gushes about natural cycles: geological uplift and seafloor spreading, rocks weathered down and then lifted up again, the carbon cycle and the water cycle. He talks about how powerful it has been for him personally to study the cell — the mind-bogglingly complex interaction between DNA and RNA, which serves as an argument for the existence of our designer, creator God.
“I see this type of intricacy as an example of God’s love and provision,” Rich Sr. said. “Science has done a tremendous service for us as Christians by probing the mysteries of the physical world. … Every time science sheds light on the complexity of things, [it] inadvertently shows the immensity of God’s creative power.”
Though they can’t explicitly talk about their faith during their presentations at public schools, the Kerns can do their best to convey this sense of wonder. And it seems to be working.
“It’s not unusual to have teachers say things like, ‘The students came back to the classroom, and they couldn’t stop talking about it,’” said Rich Sr. “Forty years of kids saying things like that.”
Visual media have the ability to bring to life and explain things that a textbook just can’t convey. With some things in nature, you just have to see to understand — and when that understanding happens with these kids, it’s as if a switch flips. That’s the Kerns’ goal.
“That eureka moment. That aha moment,” Richard said. “My hope is that our films would be the catalyst that flips the switch that makes them say, ‘Wow, I’ve never even thought about how connected I am to my own environment.’ That my choices as a consumer, as a voter, impact the future of these natural resources that are special, not only because they are unique and beautiful and created by God, but also because they are important to our own livelihoods. And that we do have the ability to make an impact.”
Living in the Tension
In his book “What Are People For?” American author Wendell Berry writes:
“The ecological teaching of the Bible is simply inescapable: God made the world because He wanted it made. He thinks the world is good, and He loves it. It is His world; He has never relinquished title to it. And He has never revoked the conditions, bearing on His gift to us of the use of it, that oblige us to take excellent care of it.”
“There’s a lot more Scripture that builds an environmental ethic … than you might imagine, and I don’t think Christians are too aware of it,” said Rich Sr. “I think that [the church] ought to be a leader in this area, but [it’s] definitely not.”
Many Christians, Richard observes, are conservative with how they spend and invest their money, but they don’t extend that same outlook to the environment — preserving and saving it as an investment for future generations.
“It’s relevant to the church. We should talk about it more,” said Richard. “Climate change seems to be threatening some of the poorest people on this planet. … If we’re called to love our neighbors as ourselves, but we’re not concerned with what’s going to happen to people in 50 or 100 years … I think that’s a moral shortcoming, and it’s not taking God’s command seriously.
“Being good stewards of the environment has absolutely nothing to do with left or right politics,” he added. “It’s just common sense, for one thing. It’s survival.”
For now, Encounters in Excellence will continue to do its part, both as Christians and as filmmakers, in telling the stories of the natural world — exploring the beauty of God’s creation and educating a generation to know and steward the glorious, intricate, fragile gifts of nature that He has given us.
Andrew Shaughnessy is a freelance writer based out of Chattanooga, Tennessee. A graduate of Covenant College, he has lived and worked in England, South Sudan, and India, honing his craft with a focus on non-profits, startups, and international affairs. When he’s not writing, you can usually find him with a book in hand, drinking local coffee, or biking and climbing in the mountains.