The Convergence started out with a rally in St. Peter’s Square, where we brought banners and props made in partnership with the artists from the People’s Climate March in NYC last September, where our group of multi-faith leaders came together to thank Pope Francis for his encyclical, Laudato Si’. The continuity of the movement from the People’s Climate March really made me feel like I was part of a genuine movement. Those of us who identified as Catholic took the opportunity to ask people in St. Peter’s Square if they were interested in signing a petition created by the newly created Global Catholic Climate Movement, which has already been endorsed by Pope Francis. Leaders within the Global Catholic Climate Movement are aiming to get 1 million signatures before the United Nations climate negotiations in Paris this upcoming December.
During the rest of the convergence, we heard from seasoned leaders from many faith traditions as well as emerging leaders from across the world. I was able to see the common language about care for the Earth across all faith traditions: Hinduism, Baha’i, Islam, Judaism, Catholicism, Sikhism, and others. Learning from so many traditions which were new to me, while also being reminded of the ecologically spiritual rootedness of my Franciscan Catholic tradition, was an enlightening and spiritually liberating experience.
From Sister Kathleen Deignan at Iona College, I identified with her feeling from living in NYC that NYC is “desertified.” I am drawn to believe that the Catholicism rooted in the Celtic spirituality of Ireland, a family heritage which we both share, played a role in the progression of our spiritual understanding of our need to green the earth again.
During the U.S./Canada breakout session, I learned of the lobby training that Emily Wirzba does with students through her work at Friends Committee on National Legislation in Washington, D.C.; Daniel Blackman’s work in Atlanta to organize around a commemoration of the 10 year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina; and Austin Weisgrau’s work in Portland around fossil fuels and dialogue about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I also learned of Josh Smith’s work with Catholic youth in Canada and the Green Churches Network in Canada and Norman Levasque’s book “Greening Your Church.” I was reminded of Louis Tillman’s work to provide economic opportunity for youth through a church community garden in Chicago, as I happened to already meet him just a few short weeks ago through Wake Forest University’s Re:Generate fellowship program.
What I’ve found through my experiences is that the issues that affect disenfranchised communities are the same regardless of if the community is in the mountains of Peru, in the mountains of Appalachia, or in the streets of Harlem or the Bronx in the United States. Environmental injustices lead to health disparities, such as how children become contaminated with poisoning from toxic heavy metals such as lead, cadmium, or arsenic, because of pollution. People are robbed of their ability to sustainably grow food on the land and end up looking for nourishment from the fossil-fuel intensive industrialized food system, because of the interests of private development agencies and corporate monopolies. What this convergence added to the conversation was the explicit acknowledgement that when the church is silent against the companies that commit such atrocities, she is acting as an accomplice.
As shared by Rabbi Lawrence Troster from Rabbis and Cantors for the Earth, the climate crisis is not a political issue but a spiritual issue, so we need to approach it as such. Yet hearing of the struggles to activate religious leaders in Asia and move “environmental” issues away from just being “secular” issues reminded me of the challenges we face. How can we move people who will fast for a cause for a brief period of time, to adopt long-term lifestyle changes such as recycling? Listening to Betty ask her global sisters and brothers to donate soil and sand to the island of Fiji because of the realities of sea level rise strengthened my conviction to continue working on climate justice issues. I even got a chance to journey alongside Yeb Sano, the former U.N. climate negotiator for the Philippines, who has left his role with the U.N. to lead the People’s Pilgrimage – a powerful worldwide spiritual movement that reinforces the need to address the climate crisis principally from a spiritual perspective, because as demonstrated by previous U.N. climate negotiations and political decisions made by various nation-states across the world (especially the most powerful), status quo political rhetoric and decisions are not getting us to where we need to be fast enough.
I was inspired by interfaith efforts to promote public health, such as the Global Interfaith WASH (WAter, Sanitation, Hygiene) Alliance and the leadership in sustainable development happening in Africa and Asia. I was impressed to learn of the leadership of the Archdioceses in Australia and Kenya and their support of young adults in promoting Catholic ecology. The Catholics in Australia are even working on organizing around World Youth Day 2016 which will be held in Poland and include a focus on ecology.
I was not surprised to learn that the Garifuna people in Honduras already have a climate mitigation plan. Many countries in the Global South have shown leadership in addressing climate change issues because these are the countries impacted the most.
Most importantly, the convergence participants were given a bit of encyclical education by a Vatican representative. “Encyclical” means circular letter. It is meant to be passed on, read, and listened to. To a room of emerging multi-faith leaders, the Vatican representative told us to “take it, make it your own, be true to it and pass it on with love, sympathy, compassion.” “Take the time to read it.” “Don’t give up on religious leaders.” “It’s not about ecology, it’s about life.” And if we have other ideas for the leadership that the Church should take? What do seminaries have to teach the Church? Take it to the Vatican: “The Vatican is not a control tower.”
Pope Francis’ encyclical sends a powerful message. It tells us that the Church acknowledges the eco-spirituality of St. Francis of Assisi, the realities of how our careless human lifestyles are disrupting the climate and affecting the most vulnerable, and how a spiritual grounding and integral ecology can help us to reverse much of the damage we’ve done. I am very interested to see how discussion and dialogue about the encyclical (there are already a number of discussion guides out there) can lead us to healing and a deepened appreciation of faith and community.
Before we left the convergence, we were given the task of drafting an eco-theological project to carry out in our home countries. The three stages of the task include an eco-autobiography, exploring spiritual resources, and finding a forum for public expression. I found this task to be a particularly useful exercise in helping me define my own spiritual journey. The first stage of the task helped me unearth the experiences I had while growing up that led to the development of my spiritual convictions, and had me ponder my relationships with land, animals, and other non-human forms of life. It also had me reflect on my personal experiences with environmental justice issues, something I’ve had to intentionally immerse myself in because of the protection that the privilege that my cultural and socioeconomic background afford me.
Regarding the texts which have informed my eco-theology, I thought about the creation mandate found from a spiritual reading of Genesis in the Bible, as well as a few books by Franciscans I’ve learned of through the Franciscan Earth Corps, including “Care for Creation: A Franciscan Spirituality of the Earth” and “Repair My House: Becoming a Kindom Catholic.” These texts have helped inform my understanding of Catholic Franciscan eco-theology, such as the “thisness” of each unique creation of God and the Trinitarian worldview which underpins Christianity. Drawing from these reflections to identify the basis of my own spiritual beliefs about the environment, I found that contemplation and the practice of being present can lead us to experience a feeling of oneness and interconnectedness, and a sense of divine presence in everything and everyone in the world. This translates into the responsibility we share to steward the Earth and treat everyone and everything as our brothers and sisters because of the kinship we share with creation; as well as the need to work for justice and reconciliation, especially when we have privilege, because of the Gospel’s call to prioritize the poor.
The last part of the task, finding a forum for public expression, is still a work in progress for me. Perhaps my reflections here are a form of this public expression, though as I continue to process all that I learned during the convergence and continue to learn at home, I’m sure my ideas will continue to evolve. I welcome thoughts on meaningful methods I could use for public expression, but most importantly, I encourage everyone reading this to create their own version of the eco-theological project. As the convergence participants learned from the Vatican representative, it is up to us to take what we find in the encyclical as well as in our own faith traditions, and use it in our own contexts. As St. Francis said, “I have done what is mine to do; may Christ teach you what is yours to do.”