With the astonishing growth of veganism in the UK being driven by young people, how are Christian students responding to the increased awareness in animal issues and plant based diets? Tim Lornie, recent graduate from Cambridge University recounts his experiences of becoming vegan, student attitudes to animal advocacy and Christian faith.
Before I came to university, I had no interest or engagement with veganism but, by the time I left, animal advocacy came to be defining feature of my time as a student, and will remain a big part of my life going forwards. So what happened? This is the story of a mini vegan-explosion at Cambridge University – a tale of soy milk, hummus and a fair bit of campaigning!
Veganism and the Student World
17% of young people in the UK are vegetarian or vegan – nearly 1/5. Animal advocacy groups such as Mercy for Animals and Animal Equality are increasingly popular among student populations, and thanks to social media and virtual reality video campaigns, young people are more aware than ever of the horrors of factory farming and the environmental impacts of animal agriculture. The result is that increasing numbers of students are becoming empowered to advocate effectively on campuses, including at The University of Manchester, where a recent fresher’s campaign resulted in a large-scale menu change in university halls.
I joined this mass of veggie and vegan students in early 2015. Growing up, I was never an ‘animal person’, though I do remember being quite upset when I realised where sausages came from, and being fairly persuaded by a chapter on vegetarianism in an excellent little book called The Philosophy Files. During 6th form, I became involved in climate activism, and realised I needed to reduce my meat consumption. I had a half-hearted bash at vegetarianism, but it didn’t last beyond a couple of months.
All this changed when I arrived at university. My next-door neighbour, Will, was a passionate animal advocate, who cooked me amazing vegan food and gently challenged my beliefs about animals. After much debate, I gradually ran out of philosophical and theological arguments to justify my consumption of animal products, and became intellectually convinced of the case for veganism. The turning point, though, was watching this short video of a cow waiting in line to be slaughtered. I saw her pain and fear, and realised how real and important this animals’ feelings were. That same evening, I got on my knees and prayed. In my inner spirit, a small voice spoke: “Animals matter to me, and they should matter to you as well”. And so began my vegan adventure…
Vegan and Christian? Is It Just Me?!
Around the same time, a number of other Christians at my uni were experiencing a similar change of heart. More and more friends at church were reducing their meat and dairy intake, many going veggie or vegan. We began to have vegan BBQs and curry nights. One evening, we hosted an event called ‘Hungry for Justice’, at which a group of people spoke about the impacts of our food choices on animals, global hunger, and our health, both mental and physical (you can watch the event here!). By the end of my third year, the increasing numbers of vegans at my church, Holy Trinity, Cambridge, had become a running joke… and the percentage of vegan sandwiches at student lunch had reached another level!
What was going on here? Here are three quick reflections on what the Holy Spirit has been up to in Cambridge – reflections on leadership, community and scripture.
Standing Up, Speaking Up
Change requires bold people who will stand up and speak against the mainstream – people who are prepared to take a risk and say it like it is. I am particularly grateful to Will who encouraged more than 30 individuals to go vegan during our time at university. He was also instrumental in the growth of veggie/vegan Christians at our Cambridge church through his infectious dedication and living-by-example.
I am also grateful to Neil and Kerry, who staged innumerable vegan dinner parties, baked remarkable vegan cakes and demonstrated that caring about animals doesn’t have to be a chore, but can be full of joy and colour (see Kerry’s Instagram account!) Then there’s Miriam, who always reminds that reflecting God’s love for animals in our daily lives is not just another lifestyle choice, but rather an act of worship.
Christianity, Veganism and Community
Change, however, is never about individuals. It’s always about community. Some of my happiest memories from uni are of vegan dinner parties, spending hilarious evenings with inspiring people. Crucially, we were never pressured about things. Everyone was warmly welcome, whether or not they shared our views. For too long, animal advocacy has been perceived as judgmental and exclusive – an unfair perception anyway – we were determined to break that mould, and live in the opposite spirit.
We had the added blessing of an understanding and supportive church community. Holy Trinity made excellent provision for vegans at church events, and our beliefs were always treated with respect. My college chaplain, Keith, used to provide Oreos for us at practically every event we went to (yes, Oreos are vegan!). He even gave Will and I a whole evening as a platform to talk about our views. When the church is open, great things can happen!
How Does Veganism Fit In With Scripture?
Many people assume that vegans have to shoehorn their faith into their veganism, or vice versa. I’ve found the opposite to be true. While at uni, I’ve been part of Just Love, a nationwide network of students pursuing the biblical call to social justice. We gather regularly to read the scriptures, worship and pray, and to put our faith into action. Many of us have been transformed as we have realised the depth and breadth of the Biblical narrative on social justice, and some of us have begun to apply that narrative to the animal ethics debate.
Confronted with the impact of animal agriculture on global hunger, we dwelt on Isaiah’s challenge to “spend yourselves on behalf of the hungry” (Is 58). When weighing up the (admittedly fairly small) inconveniences and challenges brought by vegetarianism and veganism, we had Jesus’ words in our minds: “leave everything behind and follow me” (Lk 18:22). But it was more than just a generic sense of compassion and justice. We began to realise that the peacefulness of the Garden of Eden is more than a nice story, and were gripped by Isaiah’s picture of a reconciled nature, where the wolf lies down with the lamb (Is 11:6). We realised that God meant what he said through Habakkuk to an ancient empire – “your destruction of animals will terrify you” – and that he might well be saying the same thing to us in the West today (Hbk 2:17). Above all, we were challenged by the life and ethic of Jesus. What does it mean to follow a crucified God when 60 billion land animals are killed every year? Something has to give.
The Future of Student Animal Advocacy
Once, while preparing for a talk I was giving on animal ethics and Christianity, an image came to mind. It was of floodgates opening, and a huge torrent of water flowing through. I believe this picture illustrates how, despite mainstream Christianity’s indifference to animal issues, now is the time for a seismic shift in how the Church regards creation. With young people at the forefront of positive change for animals, I am confident UK universities will play a pivotal role in driving forward an ever more peaceable relationship with our animal neighbours. There is a lot of work to be done but, if my experience at university is anything to go by, I can surely hear the floodgates beginning to creak open.