'Excuse me, excuse me – you are not listening to me'

I learn so much from my sister Carol. She teaches me about being in the moment and listening. Carol, who was born with Down’s Syndrome, has limited communication skills. If she is in a group and feels left out and “can’t get a word in edgeways” – as my mother used to say – she taps me on the shoulder and says, “Excuse me, excuse me. You are not listening to me.”

In the last few weeks there were a number of times when people and events tapped me on the shoulder insistently with “Excuse me, excuse me. You are not listening to me.”

Nuclear legacy issues

Grants, N.M. (population 9,224), nicknamed the “Uranium Capital of the World,” recently hosted yet another permit-hearing addressing clean-up of the Barrick Gold (Homestake) uranium mill site. The legacy of the nuclear age lives on in New Mexico, which has more than 450 of some 520 abandoned mines and mills in the U.S., according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

The sites are the source of contamination of tens of millions of gallons of groundwater and countless acres of land, the brunt of which is Navajo. Health risks only now being studied seem to link cumulative exposure to lung cancer, asthma, cancer, kidney disease, hypertension, heart disease and auto-immune dysfunction. Catholic understandings on sacrifice take on new meaning for me as I live within a state known as the “U.S. sacrificial zone.”

The recent hearing in Grants addressed renewing a clean-up permit for a superfund site next to the community of Blue Water, where the water is not blue at all but contaminated from an old uranium mill. Continual seepage into the aquifer, which provides water for arid western New Mexico, is a grave concern. Clean-up mandated by the EPA and costing $100 million has not successfully occurred within the last 37 years of remediation.

The scripture story of the woman who kept coming before the judge again and again until he finally got tired of her complaints and granted justice rang throughout the hearing room in Grants, as woman after woman testified for true clean-up. The latest proposed plan suggests using 5,500 gallons of water a minute – almost 8 million gallons per day – to abate groundwater contamination. This amount of water adds up to enough for a community of 60,000 for one year. Citizens believe the contamination will be diluted, not cleaned-up, while compromising precious clean water.

While the issues of the Grants Mineral Belt are many and complex, several things are clear. Extraction and production in New Mexico occurred from the early 1950s until late 1990s, with mining waste going unregulated. Mill tailings regulation only began in 1978. Since the 1960s, the U.S. government has known that health problems could come from the nuclear cycle, and yet thousands of citizens in New Mexico including Navajo, Laguna and Acoma people, live within feet of contamination. “Excuse me, excuse me. You are not listening to me.”

Climate change voice in the congressional wilderness

The national Interfaith Power and Light (IPL) annual conference took place in Washington, D.C., the first week of May, just at the National Climate Assessment unveiled a bleak snapshot on regional specific results of climate change. IPL leaders gathered for educational/inspirational sessions, prayer and visits to the Hill. One speaker was particularly inspiring: Rhode Island Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse graced the event sharing a snapshot of his weekly speeches on the Senate floor calling for climate change action.

Returning from a trip along the Southeast coast, he said he did not talk to one single ordinary business or family person who is not experiencing the effects of climate change. On the day of Hill visits, I happened to stop into the Senate chambers while this Catholic leader committed to care of God’s creation and the children gave his weekly “Time to Wake Up” address. The Senate chambers were devoid of Senators, as they are most weeks since he began the address April 2012. But, as I sat next to rows of school children in the gallery, I heard between his lines of facts an urgent call, “Excuse me, excuse me. You are not listening to me.”

Fires and drought

My prayers continue these weeks as we experience the results of a six-year drought in New Mexico that affects brothers and sisters in California and the entire Southwest region. I hear the pine trees in the Gila Wilderness sway in the breeze and whimper as a wildfire rages. As the roar of leaping flames approaches, deer run and leap, mice and chipmunks scurry and beetles burrow hoping to escape the inferno. I wonder if they in their creaturely way think, “Excuse me, excuse me. Are you listening to me?”

Great climate marchers

An intergenerational group of about 40 walkers just left New Mexico for Colorado on their way to Washington, D.C. The Great March for Climate Action started from Los Angeles March 1 and will end up in November. In the great tradition of pilgrimage, the group walks reflectively and talks strongly about climate change as they traverse the Midwest in the heat of summer. At an Albuquerque rally welcoming walkers, I noted that climate change is not a problem of the environment, but a problem of our souls. The young people especially identified with the reflection that their walk was of a spiritual and contemplative nature. Each step speaks of the need to address climate change. Each step says, “Excuse me, excuse me. Please listen to me.”

A song of blessing and call to action that we sang by Pete Seeger begs an ear for each of us.

When we sing with younger folk, we can never give up hope.
We can never give up hope.
God’s counting on me, God’s counting on you.
Hoping we’ll all pull through. Hoping we’ll all pull through.

[Sr. Joan Brown, OSF, is a Franciscan sister of the Rochester, Minn., community. Her Kansas farm roots, our New Cosmic Story, Franciscanism and multi-cultural experiences in New Mexico inform her work as executive director of New Mexico Interfaith Power and Light. She may be reached at joankansas@swcp.com.]