It is early morning in arid Albuquerque. Before the heat descends and “more important work” beckons, I pick amazingly succulent red sour cherries. With water from our acequia (200-year-old community irrigation system along Rio Grande in New Mexico) the native cherries grow and offer their fruit in June.
Picking cherries in the desert can be dangerous. The longer I enter into this contemplative activity moving in synch with the crowing roosters with buzzing bees and hummingbirds competing for sweet nectars – my whole body prays in gratitude and longing. My mind drifts to the past week.
The scripture “Suffer the little children to come to me” comes to mind, along with the thought of Elena, a 7-year-old who just made the young people and adult mentor retreat here. During the Wild GRACE (Growing Relationships Awareness and Compassion with Earth) Retreat, Elena and the other children expressed concern for humans taking too much of Earth’s water, natural habitat and resources. She was concerned for the wolves. All of the 7- to 13-year-olds in the retreat are concerned about climate change.
One mother shared her anxiety for her bright fourth grader who knows too much and gets depressed about what he learns in science class about the state of the planet. He needs to get engaged in hopeful action. We need to do something to change the course we are on, she said.
I continue to pick cherries; sour though they are, they make excellent pies, the favorite of my Uncle Paul and my mother Sarah, both now probably eating tons of cherry pie in heaven. But, my small friend Elena and I are not in heaven now. We are on Earth. How do we transform the sour cherries of climate change challenges into pies to feed us and the creatures into the future?
Elena is the same age as some of the 60,000-plus children immigrant refugees who have fled from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala this year. While the immediate causes stem from political instability, gang violence related to past U.S. military policies and current drug cartels, the underlying issue of poverty exacerbated by environmental degradation and increased climatic weather events rarely breaches a headline.
Adding salt to their wounds, some poor rural families mortgage their land for their children’s safe journey to the U.S. only to lose their property and their children to coyotes linked to narco-cartels (U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Mission to Central America: The Flight of Unaccompanied Children, November 2013).
It is increasingly vital to make the links between climate change, immigration, human trafficking, violence and political unrest. In the groundbreaking climate change documentary series “Years of Living Dangerously,” the underlying cause of the tragic war in Syria is linked to years of unprecedented drought affecting the rural population with no response from the government of Syria.
I wonder what the long-term effect of inadequate U.S. climate change policy might be upon Elena, our own country and the rest of the world. One glimmer of hope is the recent proposed EPA standards for carbon reductions from coal-fired power plants. While it is encouraging that the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops came out publicly in support of the proposal, I have yet to hear of any individual bishops ready to lend support. Approaching my own local bishop, I was given the message that the issue was too controversial and could adversely affect poor people by creating higher utility rates.
Was not Jesus about addressing controversial issues – systemic issues of poverty and injustice? Is caring for God’s creation and the human family really controversial? And if some believe it is – is this not the moral and soul issue of our time that Jesus invites us into?
Our utility rates continue to rise without strong regulations on carbon. Poverty increases in our country, in part due to economic factors related to increased weather events and drought. Violence and political wars grow as the links to environmental degradation and cumulative effects of human carbon emissions become increasingly evident.
The echo of Elena’s voice rings in my ears. When will the adults have the courage to listen to the children in our midst and those streaming into our borders?
It’s time to make sour cherries into sweet pie. This is extending the corporal works of mercy to feed the hungry through systemic change.
[Sr. Joan Brown, OSF, is the executive director of New Mexico Interfaith Power and Light. She lives and works in Albuquerque, N.M. She is a member of the Rochester, Minnesota Franciscan Community.]