We are called to assist the Earth to heal her wounds and in the process heal our own—indeed, to embrace the whole creation in all its diversity, beauty and wonder.
Wangari Maathai

Just over a week ago, over Thursday, Friday and Saturday, I attended an excellent online Climate Pastoral Care Conference, which was hosted by Common Grace, Uniting and Five Leaf Eco-Awards. There were almost 200 participants from across Australia in attendance. How wonderful is this new technology that provides us with the tools to participate in conferences, which we may not have otherwise attended based on the need to travel and find accommodation.

During this same week Richard Rohr, in his Daily Meditations, was writing about Being Peaceful Change. And on Thursday 30 July, in his meditations, he included words from Professor Wangari Maathai (1940 – 2011), Holistic Peace, which speak more powerfully than any words that I could write on this topic, even after attending the climate conference. Richard writes:

Peaceful change starts within us and grows incrementally from where we are. Our social and physical location will influence the problems we see and the solutions we can imagine. We must “think globally and act locally”

Maathai devoted herself to environmental and democratic reform in her native Kenya.

As a young academic biologist at the University of Nairobi in the 1970s Maathai grew concerned about the environmental devastation created in Nairobi by widespread deforestation. She recognized that a massive replanting program could both save the land and provide a source of income for Nairobi’s poor. So in 1977 she founded a small local organization that paid Nairobi women to plant trees. The organization soon grew into a nationwide and then pan-African one known as the Greenbelt Movement. Since its inception, the movement has planted upwards of forty million trees in Africa and provided sources of income for nearly one million women.

The genius of Maathai’s vision was its holistic awareness of the linkage between environmental sustainability and economic opportunity.

In her Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, Wangari Maathai said,

[The Green Belt Movement] participants discover that they must be part of the solutions. They realize their hidden potential and are empowered to overcome inertia and take action. They come to recognize that they are the primary custodians and beneficiaries of the environment that sustains them.

Entire communities also come to understand that while it is necessary to hold their governments accountable, it is equally important that in their own relationships with each other, they exemplify the leadership values they wish to see in their own leaders, namely justice, integrity and trust.

Although initially the Green Belt Movement’s tree planting activities did not address issues of democracy and peace, it soon became clear that responsible governance of the environment was impossible without democratic space. Therefore, the tree became a symbol for the democratic struggle in Kenya. Citizens were mobilized to challenge widespread abuses of power, corruption and environmental mismanagement.

Through the Green Belt Movement, thousands of ordinary citizens were mobilized and empowered to take action and effect change. They learned to overcome fear and a sense of helplessness and moved to defend democratic rights.

In time, the tree also became a symbol for peace and conflict resolution.

It is 30 years since we started this work. Activities that devastate the environment and societies continue unabated. Today we are faced with a challenge that calls for a shift in our thinking, so that humanity stops threatening its life-support system. We are called to assist the Earth to heal her wounds and in the process heal our own—indeed, to embrace the whole creation in all its diversity, beauty and wonder. This will happen if we see the need to revive our sense of belonging to a larger family of life, with which we have shared our evolutionary process.

In the course of history, there comes a time when humanity is called to shift to a new level of consciousness, to reach a higher moral ground. A time when we have to shed our fear and give hope to each other.

That time is now.

Clearly, we need to act within our own sphere of influence. There are many young people who share a grave concern for the present climate emergency, and indeed the speakers in the first part of the climate conference spoke of pastorally caring for those who are feeling the grief and anxiety of living with the threat of environmental degradation. What emerged from this conference was the need to take action, particularly by faith leaders, towards an ecological conversion as a way of dealing with climate anxiety.

I have written previously about our church’s involvement with the Hunter Community Alliance (HCA). Apart from church groups, there are several community groups who are engaged with the HCA, with several of these groups coming from the climate justice space. The aim of the HCA is for groups to listen to each other, to form relationships and to join in community organising on issues that deeply concern the wider community. It is about coming together to re-imagine how we wish to be as a civil society. Like those who attended the conference, there are people who genuinely care about what is happening in our society, and many of these people are young. They wish to make a difference, by acting for justice which leads to healing. It appears that global movements of social responsibility are springing up, and yet we continue to ask the same question about where the young people are in our church.

They don’t experience our church responding to the societal and environmental disruption they are feeling. So, if they are feeling, as Peter was in the boat in our Sunday readings (Matthew 14:22 – 33) anxious, fearful, bewildered and despairing, how are we providing them with the gaze and the hope of Jesus? We know we have the Way, and yet we are unable to be the faith leaders they need. Greta Thunberg is quoted as saying:

The one thing we need more than hope is action. Once we start to act, hope is everywhere. So instead of looking for hope, look for action. Then, and only then, hope will come.

I invite you to reflect upon what action you and our local communities are taking which might give our young people, and indeed any people, the hope which we long for. Now, when I go to Mass at the Cathedral on a Sunday evening, we are lucky to have twenty people present. During the disruption of COVID – 19 how are we reimagining and re-creating a ‘world made new’?


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Teresa Brierley Image
Teresa Brierley

Teresa Brierley is Director Pastoral Ministries of the Catholic Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle.