I’m writing this midway between Sundays, and between hurricanes for the mainland United States. Hurricane Irma has already done incredible damage in the Caribbean, and today we will see it continue its path to more islands while we watch to see which way it turns. Floridians are preparing for possible landfall of this huge hurricane. We pray for everyone in its path and everyone on the islands already hit, while prayers and aid continue for communities on the Texas and Louisiana coasts.
Along with hearing early reports of the catastrophic damage left by Irma on its first hits in the Caribbean,we have for weeks now found ourselves in the midst of an extraordinary confluence of events this late summer of 2017. Fires burn in the western United States, people with DACA status (and their families, friends, schools, and employers) face uncertainty that was not there before, and the hate on display at the August 12 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville remains largely unaddressed. And there’s so much more, but while all of this is interconnected, this post is meant to address two things: how these hurricanes and fires are changing the way many people in our communities and our pews think about climate change, and some thoughts about how the church at its best might respond to that.
What we see going on here in the U.S. is what we knew we would be seeing at some point this century. The devastation caused by storms made more severe by warmer seas and a warmer atmosphere and by fires made worse by above average temperatures and lack of rain is similar to what people in some other parts of the world have already experienced. Now, though, we are seeing it on a big scale in our own country. What we have known as an abstract probability is now visible, and the size of the disasters and the sort of effect they can have on our lives is suddenly very real. For people who weren’t sure whether climate change would really make things that much different from what they were in the past, that skepticism seems like a naive hope that has been extinguished.
However, along with being better able to grasp how climate change can affect us, we also know that scientists tell us it will get even worse unless we act with urgency to make very significant changes in the ways we produce and use energy. We have a taste of what to expect, but even while we are trying to comprehend what is happening now, we are also getting a clearer picture of our future if we continue on our current trajectory. That picture is very distressing.
What will we do in our churches on Sunday? Our usual responses to disasters are to offer prayers for the victims (if we remember to insert them into the Prayers of the People) and perhaps to have an announcement of some sort about where to send money for disaster aid. (If we think about it early enough in advance, we might include the bulletin inserts from Episcopal Relief and Development.) Both prayer and traditional disaster aid are very much needed now, and including these usual responses is a good place to begin with our response to what is happening. Bidding prayers for everyone involved and encouraging donations to reputable aid agencies is the minimum for this Sunday.
But we in the Church need something more this time, something that differs as much from our normal practice as the succession of Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma (and possibly a third storm, Hurricane Jose) and their scale differs from the historical norms for hurricane season in North America. Here are some things the Church can do this Sunday and beyond to help people who are trying to come to grips with the reality of the changes in our world.
Clergy and lay leaders need to know what is happening outside of the church walls. We need to find out what is going on in the places that have already been hit by these hurricanes and what is going on elsewhere in the world — e.g. the fires in the west, the flooding in southern Asia — so that we can find compassion for the people, places, and nonhuman living things suffering from the effects of climate change. Short term, that means keeping up with the news. Long term, it means study about climate change and about the theological underpinnings for response to widespread destruction. The prophetic books of the Bible and commentaries on the prophets is a place to start for the latter. There is more information about climate change available in the mainstream media than there was in the fairly recent past. (This increase in coverage is timely as much of the information on government websites has been removed.) In addition, some specialty websites like the climate section of Think Progress and the Climate Central site provide current information. The New York Times this week offers an interactive tool to help readers understand the concept of a carbon budget and the limits that the laws of nature place on our policy decisions about carbon pollution.
Prayers in our public worship for disaster victims and their families and the people who are helping them recover can be coupled with prayers for our planet and our nation, as these disasters are part of a bigger picture. Several prayers in The Book of Common Prayer would be appropriate — e.g. Prayer 18 For our Country (p. 820), Prayer 41 For the Conservation of Natural Resources (p. 827), and Prayer 44 For the Future of the Human Race.
The Church is already behind in preparing to meet (and beginning to meet) the spiritual needs of people who are starting to grasp the reality and scope of climate change. Other organizations can advocate for sound climate policy or send aid to victims, but the Church is the institution best suited to addressing the spiritual angst of people beginning to sense the scope of the destruction we have unleashed on our planet. A great start to this work in places that haven’t begun is simply to ask the hard existential questions that arise around climate change and sit prayerfully with them. If the Church’s spiritual leaders have at least reflected on the big questions we are starting to ask, we will be in a better place to speak with others about those questions.
Finally — and perhaps most importantly if we are to address the needs of people coming to church this Sunday after hearing news of Irma’s destruction only a week after hearing news about Harvey — we can preach it. Imagine walking into a church after listening to hurricane updates on your car radio and hearing a sermon that doesn’t acknowledge that there is anything out of the ordinary going on in our nation! (This is easy to imagine, as it is an all too common experience.) Name the reality; acknowledge the disasters and acknowledge that we are experiencing the effects of extreme weather resulting from anthropogenic global warming (climate change). And offer real hope, good news. We must be real both about the situation we are in and about what hope looks like in this situation. (Perhaps our hope is that we will be faithful disciples, treating others with love and kindness in chaotic situations. Perhaps our hope is that good people might persuade our leaders to act in significant ways so that we can mitigate the worst effects of climate change, or perhaps our hope is simply in the promises of Jesus that in the midst of destruction, we will find abundant and everlasting life.) Sharing real hope — hope that acknowledges the reality of our situation — keeps us going and in no way diminishes the severity of the situation; hope is what allows us to be honest about the problem at hand.
My plea to the church is this: don’t let us down this time. If we want to avoid dealing with hard things, if we can’t bring ourselves to talk about the true scope of physical and spiritual suffering for fear of offending people in the pews, then we should simply admit that we cannot find the compassion to give priority to the victims of these disasters now or in the future. The disasters will continue, and at some point the Church will either be seen in our communities as a place where we can bring our deepest hopes and fears — and perhaps even the place where we can best bring our deepest hopes and fears — or as a place that doesn’t care and that doesn’t matter much in a changing world.