As I pen this reflection, my neighbours are the people of Kiribati, where I am visiting my Good Samaritan Sisters who live and minister on Tarawa and Abaoroko, writes Congregational Leader Sister Catherine McCahill.
As preparation, I re-read Laudate Deum, the latest apostolic exhortation from Pope Francis. His words are stark, sharp, and challenging: “… with the passage of time, I have realised that our responses have not been adequate, while the world in which we live is collapsing and may be nearing the breaking point (LD #2).” I am stung by Francis’ disappointment and anguish.
My conversation this morning with a local woman, Anna Nuariki, however, is even starker and more challenging. She describes her involvement in climate action for more than 10 years. She recounts living in a home where the high tides intrude into the living space. She fears for the lives of her young sons. Now she is afraid for her people.
The Pacific nation of Kiribati is a collection of coral atolls. Tarawa, the island home of the majority of the population, is flat. Three meters above sea level is the highest spot. Already, homes and livelihoods are being impacted by rising sea levels.
I know all these facts and many more. My Kiribati Sisters already know this; it is their reality. Their families and friends are being impacted. Today, I sit with Anna in her place and my knowing is changed yet again and I am challenged to action.
Anna tells me of attending a training course with The Climate Reality Project with Al Gore (former Vice President of the US and climate activist) in Brisbane, Australia. She speaks of her anger when she realised that the focus of the activists was the people and communities of the Northern Hemisphere. What about the people of the Pacific, she cried out.
How readily we succumb to the allurement of seeing a problem from our own perspective. We are concerned that we must address the issue of climate change, but we worry about the cost of energy and loss of jobs. We want to protect our industries. We want to protect our lifestyles.
I know that to be neighbour is to put myself in the place of the other person. But I am not, and never will be, in that place. I can return home. My country has high ground and the resources to counter the worst of the climate change.
This is not to say that Australians are not impacted. We have the recent experience of the worst bushfires and floods since Europeans colonised this land. People died. Thousands of families lost their homes and more than one billion animals were killed. Again, I am not one of those who were personally affected, and I do not mean to trivialise their reality, but the reality for a family living on a coral atoll in the central Pacific is immeasurably starker.
For some time, I have heard the cry of the people of the Torres Strait, the island communities of North Queensland. Tishiko King is a proud Kulkalaig woman from Masig in Zenadth Kes (Torres Strait Islands). Tishiko is a marine scientist, prominent climate justice activist, and co-author of the latest report from the Climate Council of Australia, Code Blue: our oceans in crisis. In it she writes:
When I returned to Masig, my older brother Yessie Mosby showed me areas of seagrass that had been decimated by ocean warming. These seagrass beds were home to dugongs – our totem. At the same time, as the seas rise, it is eroding away our land. The impact on our communities is deeply confronting. We are seeing our burial grounds inundated, and grave sites washed away and desecrated. It is really hard and incredibly sad.
As a North Queenslander, this is close to home for me. The Torres Strait Islander people have been my neighbours since I was child.
So, what is my response to this urgent call? In the words of Francis, “we must move beyond the mentality of appearing to be concerned but not having the courage needed to produce substantial changes” (LD #56).
Clearly, we cannot act alone. The issue could be overwhelming, and we would fall into lethargy. Partner, we must. The agencies are many. Each of us will choose where we can participate and take action as appropriate.
For Good Samaritans, our participation in the Laudato Si’ Action Platform has provided a springboard to develop an Action Plan, monitor it, and strengthen our individual and corporate response. At our recent Chapter Gathering we recommitted to ecological conversion which impels.
Ensuring that our words lead to action is a challenge. Firstly, I must admit my own need of conversion. So easily, I am lured by the consumer culture the entices me to confuse desire with need. Too often, I opt for mediocrity or fatigue in this space. For that, I am sorry.
As a religious congregation situated in the Pacific, encouraged by our Sisters on Pacific Islands and others working with disadvantaged communities in the Philippines and Australia, and influenced by the anti-nuclear stance of our Japanese Sisters, we must act.
Together with our partners in ministry, we must commit to decreasing our carbon footprint whether in our lifestyle, our buildings, or stewardship of our resources.
Morning by morning, we rise to sing God’s praises. We believe that we are indeed, in the words of Abraham Heschel, “cantors of the universe.” Conversion happens slowly and imperceptibly. We begin to understand and appreciate the fact that we humans are not the centre of the universe. A new knowing impels a new depth of commitment to our common home.
If “the universe unfolds in God, who fills it completely … there is a mystical meaning to be found in a leaf, in a mountain trail, in a dewdrop, in a poor person’s face.” The world sings of an infinite Love: how can we fail to care for it? (LD #65)
From that place, I hope and believe we can become better neighbours to our earth and its people, especially the most vulnerable.