Imagine that every time you give your children water from the tap, you are poisoning them with lead. Imagine that every time you bathe, you are cleaning yourself in bacteria-laden water.
The people of Flint, Michigan, don't have to imagine. They are living this nightmare, says the Rev. Maurice Horne of Lincoln Park United Methodist Church in Flint.
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." Injustice in Flint is a threat to all.
The United Methodist Church connection and other groups continue to work to rectify the tragedy and provide clean water for the people of Flint. United Methodists are also seeking justice for those affected.
Motivated by Scripture, reason, tradition and experience, United Methodists are no strangers to addressing threats or taking active stances on issues of justice.
A statement in The Book of Resolutions 2012 notes United Methodists "believe God's love for the world is an active and engaged love, a love seeking justice and liberty. We cannot just be observers. So we care enough about people's lives to risk interpreting God's love, to take a stand, to call each of us into a response, no matter how controversial or complex" (p. 27).
The Book of Resolutions is a collection of statements on issues approved by General Conference. The text of any resolution is the official position of the denomination on that subject.
COP21 draws church team
The General Board of Church and Society sent a team to the 2015 United Nations climate change conference in Paris to share diverse perspectives and experiences and engage actively in seeking just solutions. Known as COP21 (the 2lst meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change), the conference gathered world leaders and environmental ministers from over 190 countries to negotiate a new global climate agreement. The conference also served as the backdrop for side events where religious leaders, industry CEOs, indigenous communities and other stakeholders met to share challenges and solutions in building a more just and sustainable future. The conference achieved its goal to reach a legally binding and universal agreement on climate, with the aim of keeping global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius.
The Church and Society team was led by John Hill, assistant general secretary for advocacy and organizing, and the Rev. Liberato Bautista, assistant general secretary for the United Nations Ministry. Others were the Rev. Lisa Garvin, Mississippi Annual Conference and Emory University; Jenn Ferariza Meneses, Philippines Central Conference; Jefferson Knight, Liberia Annual Conference; and Daniel Obergfell, Germany Central Conference.
"Having brought teams of United Methodists to prior climate conferences, I was particularly struck by the access and impact our delegation was able to have during the Paris negotiations," said Hill. "Being able to share directly with lead negotiators, including the U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, our church's principles of justice and stewardship and the experience of United Methodists from climate vulnerable communities was powerful. And to join with faith communities from around the world naming the injustice of climate change and lifting up a hope-filled vision for the future gave witness and emboldened world leaders to take a strong first step in addressing this global challenge."
COP21 underscored a "commitment to faithful stewardship of God's creation," said Garvin. What struck her most was "that it takes everyone to ensure climate justice."
A personal issue
Climate change is deeply personal to Meneses.
"I live in the Philippines and am part of the indigenous Lumad people," she said. "We have a proud culture and resilient communities ... but large-scale mining interests are sowing fear and violence."
Meneses added, "Fossil fuel corporations are driving the climate crisis, leaving us increasingly vulnerable to typhoons."
Climate change, as a part of responsible creation care, affects the totality of human development and the whole of God's earth.
According to the UCLA Institute on the Environment and Sustainability, polluted air and water negatively affect brain, lung and immune system maturation. In addition, air toxins can impair lung function and neurodevelopment, or exacerbate existing conditions, such as asthma.
Taholo Kami, a Tongan Methodist and regional director of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, said the Pacific Islanders are on the frontline of climate change. Tonga is likely to lose some islands in the future, he said, and experiencing the realities of severe weather patterns.
"For small-island economies, a hurricane can affect 40-60 percent of their economy, let alone the suffering of the people," he said. "We pay the price for an industrial age that has fueled the growth of the developed economies. They now must step up to help our people with these new realities," Kami said
Faith into practice
Fe'iloakitau Kaho Tevi, general secretary of the Pacific Conference of Churches, said the search for justice is not only for themselves, but also for the rest of humanity. Pacific Islanders see themselves as the "litmus test for the future generation."
"This is also an inward call to action for ourselves as we have depended for so long on the developed countries to assist our efforts," he said.
Pacific Islanders are developing their own homegrown solutions, because they fear international assistance will not come in time. They are taking a stance on justice and putting their faith into practice.
"Creation is groaning from our mistreatment, and we are suffering as a result of humankind's selfishness towards the earth," said the Rev. Tevita Nawadra Banivanua, president of the Methodist Church in Fuji, a missional partner with The United Methodist Church.
"While we of the Pacific are not the major contributors to climate change, we are paying the price for it," he said. "Yet there are things we can do now. ... As we pray, we need to confess and ask for forgiveness for our lack of care for the environment and also commit to being better stewards and guardians of God's creation."
Obergfell said while "rich countries have caused a big part of the problem, they also have more advanced resources, which means they can be more resilient ... if I take Jesus's word seriously about loving my neighbor as myself, I have to change."
For United Methodists, caring for and healing the earth are integral to what it means to have a biblically-based faith and live true to the United Methodist tradition. Standing together and putting wise words with informed actions can eliminate threats to justice everywhere and fulfill God's mandate to be good stewards of God's creation.
The Rev. Kathy Armistead, Ph.D., is publisher at the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry and a deacon in The United Methodist Church, www.kathyarmistead.com.