As Christians around the world prepare for the impending detox that inevitably occurs during Lent, allow us to suggest a new kind of dietary sacrifice: going vegan. This year Lent kicks off on February 26th, and ends on April 9th, giving observers 40 days (not including Sundays) this Spring to honor this holy time in a personal way that encourages people to confront their sinfulness, recognize their mortality, and give thanks for the gift of salvation, according to the United Methodist Church’s website.
The background and meaning behind giving something up for the 6-week period of Lent is to symbolize and recognize the 40 days that Jesus Christ spent fasting in the desert and to honor his sacrifice. Lent is heavily associated with penance, abstinence, and self-denial, similar to holidays in other religions that focus on repenting for your sins and being given a clean slate (such as Yom Kippur in Judaism and Ramadan in Islamic culture). More often than not, people give up typical sources of pleasure, such as favorite foods, alcohol, meat, or other habits and behaviors that bring joy, as a way to honor Jesus’ sacrifice.
While all of those sacrifices are popular and worthy, perhaps this year is the year you should consider going vegan for Lent. Not only because it’s a nice excuse to try a plant-based diet and focus on your health, but also because environmental campaigners are touting the environmental benefits of a vegan lifestyle, and they’re backing up their claims with $1 million dollars and a call-to-action for world leaders, including Pope Francis and his 1.2 billion Roman Catholic followers.
In March of 2019 the Million Dollar Vegan campaign, led by a bold (and arguably brilliant) 12-year-old girl from Long Beach California named Genesis Butler, offered up $1 million to Pope Francis for the charity of his choice IF he accepted the challenge of going vegan for Lent that year.
Yes, $1 million dollars. To go vegan.
The Million Dollar Vegan campaign is on a mission to raise awareness about climate change and combat global warming by encouraging people in wealthy nations to cut back on meat eating as a way to reduce consumption of animal products, reduce pollution and protect forests and wildlife. Research shows that observing a vegan lifestyle — where you don’t eat any meat or animal products and stick to a plant-based diet — not only improves a person’s personal health (reducing the risk of heart disease, stroke, cancer, obesity, and diabetes, just to name a few) but also improves the health of the world and the planet we rely on.
“There is an animal side, a health side and an environmental side,” Butler told The Guardian in 2019. “If I tell people about the damage that the animal agriculture industry is doing to the planet, then some of them want to go vegan. I also tell them about health and how when you go vegan it can help prevent cancer, heart, disease and diabetes, or how animals have to die or suffer.”
The campaign gained a lot of traction from celebrities and environmental activists, and even the Pope himself responded to the vegan challenge. It’s no secret that the Pope has been outspoken about climate change and the need for action to tackle environmental issues. So, Butler reached out to the Pope via a letter and a plead for action, stating: “In your encyclical letter, Laudato si’, you stated that every effort to protect and improve our world will involve changes in lifestyle, production, and consumption. I agree with all my heart and seek your support in tackling one of the largest underlying causes of the problems we face: animal agriculture.”
His response, which was signed by senior priest and Assessor for General Affairs, Paolo Borgia, and delivered to Genesis, stated: “His Holiness Pope Francis has received your letter, and he has asked me to thank you. He appreciates the concerns about care for the world, our common home, which prompted you to write to him. The Holy Father will remember you in his prayers, and he sends you his blessing.”
While the Pope may not have gone vegan last year, and he did not receive the $1 million for charity, the campaign was successful in many ways. Million Dollar Vegan reached a huge global audience with tons of media coverage, more than 45,000 people downloaded the Vegan Starter Kit and their website received 600,000 visits within its first nine months. Their second campaign — to Make America Healthy Again! — reached more than 330 million people in the U.S., and many thousands more across Latin America and Europe, according to their website.
“We are launching this deliberately bold, audacious campaign to jolt our world leaders from their complacency,” said Matthew Glover, CEO of Million Dollar Vegan. “We are thankful that Pope Francis has spoken out and that is why we are humbly asking him to try vegan for Lent, and set an example of how each of us can align our principles of caring and compassion with our actions.”
It’s certainly a new way of thinking about this religious observance and time of reflection. So when you consider what you might give up this year for Lent, and you ponder how your sacrifice might help you in your own life — and might benefit the environment on a much larger scale — consider going vegan. It just might change the world, and your world.