Cal-Nevada UMVIM volunteer and environmental champion Jim Roberts dies

December 05, 2007

The United Methodist Volunteers in Mission (UMVIM) program of the California-Nevada Annual Conference has lost one of its most dedicated servants. Jim Roberts, a lay minister at St. Mark’s UMC in Sacramento, died Nov. 25. He succumbed to a brain tumor at age 73 after giving his family gifts of gold sand dollars on Thanksgiving and putting the final touches on a book about his life.


It is likely to be a book well worth the read.


James Arthur Roberts graduated Stanford University with a geography degree and followed it up with a doctorate from the University of California, Los Angeles. He worked on projects ranging from the Alaska pipeline, to water usage from the south fork of the American River, to development in the city of Folsom and counties of Placer and Sonoma, according to friend and sometime-colleague Jim Hargrove. But it is his thumbprint on the nearly 40-year-old California Environmental Quality Act, the environmental bible for developers that governs the impact of development on land and water, that is his secular legacy.


Roberts helped write the "Guidelines for Implementation" of the CEQA law, which was enacted in 1970 and has since become a model in at least 14 other states. Through it, Jim Roberts helped change the landscapes of cities across the state – and spread a gospel of environmental laws to other parts of the world.


He taught environmental classes and consulted on or helped craft environmental legislation in 18 counties around the globe, largely in northern Europe, according to Hargrove.


"He strongly believed the earth needed protection," Hargrove said in The Sacramento Bee. "His philosophy was grounded in this need to insure that what we are doing to the earth has little to no adverse impact. To love the earth; to treat it as a treasure."


The philosophy is consistent with Roberts’ Christian faith – Genesis 2:15 tells us, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it” – and it was that faith which informed his last days and is responsible for his spiritual legacy.


He was a tireless advocate for justice for persons who had been marginalized by political and economic systems and natural disasters,” said longtime friend John McCormack, who also attends St. Mark’s. That was made manifest in recent years, McCormack said, in a partnership with Native Americans at the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota to develop educational and vocational programs: “He shared a special compassion for, and empathy with, the first inhabitants of the Americas.”


As UMVIM team members, Roberts and his wife of nearly 50 years, Sylvia, also spent considerable time on the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast, working on emergency relief projects – including conducting a full inventory of the Sager-Brown Warehouse in Baldwin, Louisiana, the major supply depot for United Methodist Relief in the United States.


His last productive days were spent getting a new project off the ground: establishing an interfaith supply depot in Sacramento for storage of items to be used in response to natural or manmade emergencies on the West Coast, and for distribution of school kits and health kits for displaced persons. The project will continue in his memory.


“Jim was not a talker but a doer,” McCormack said. “He walked the talk, serving as an example for all those who love justice, mercy and compassion. We honor Jim by continuing the work that he performed so faithfully.”


There also will be an opportunity to honor Jim Roberts at a Celebration of his Life. The service will take place on Saturday, December 15 at 2 p.m. at St. Mark’s United Methodist Church, 2391 Saint Mark’s Way, in Sacramento.


A loving family man, Roberts is survived by his wife, Sylvia Roberts of Sacramento; daughters, Karen McElfish of Arlington, Virginia and Krista Taylor of Colusa; son, Jay Roberts of Vancouver, Washington; and six grandchildren.


Donations in Jim Roberts’ name may be made to the St. Mark’s Memorial Fund.