Faith Leaders at the final Regional Interfaith Dialogue for 2022 described environmental advocacy as “God’s own initiative” because we are created in God’s image and tasked by God with looking after His Creation.
We asked faith leaders at the sixth Regional Interfaith Dialogue for 2022: What does your faith say about environmental advocacy? The topic was linked to three United Nations special days in December: International Soil Day on the 5th, International Human Rights Day on 10th and International Mountain Day on 11 December.
As if emphasising the urgency, unseasonal storms had ripped through the Western Cape and many parts of South Africa just the day before the Regional Interfaith Dialogue. The downpour caused severe flooding through the Breede Valley, and reminded us of the incredible scenes of devastation in KZN earlier in the year. As we discussed these unusual weather patterns, we agreed that we would see more of them and that their effects are likely to be increasingly severe. We asked each other – what should our response be, as faith leaders?
Ela Gandhi of Phoenix Settlement in KZN commented that people who lost their homes during the KZN flood devastation earlier this year had been housed in the local community hall for about three months before they were able to move into new homes and start to rebuild their lives. She told us that women and children were kept in the hall, and men were kept separately. This helped to calm some of the conflicts that arose during the traumatic time of loss and tragedy. Faith communities were critical to the process of restoration and rebuilding after the devastation.
Apostle Simphiwe Somhaya of the Light of Hope Evangelical Church in Khayelitsha, is currently in the Eastern Cape where he will be spending the holiday season tending his farm. He told us of a University course he recently undertook through Fort Hare University, which had unpacked climate change and its causes and effects. The Apostle spoke about the issue of waste, and asked people to be mindful in their actions, because the things we put into the earth are poisoning her. He cited the example of engine oil, which would soak into the earth and contaminate the soil. He urged the faith leaders to love the soil
Soraya Salie founded the Bonteheuwel Walking Ladies 15 years ago after going through a health crisis that she did not expect to survive. However, reading through the Quran she was led to certain verses which encouraged her and gave her hope. By the time Soraya met SAFCEI and became a FLEAT member, she had already established Peace Gardens using sunflower seeds gifted by her Korean partners. She was further inspired by SAFCEI to learn more about looking after the soil. Soraya spoke about how much she had learned since joining the SAFCEI family, and shared a memory of her first eco-footprint exercise with Zainab when she wanted to get the highest points and then discovered how bad that was for the earth.
Gabriel then stepped in with a few minutes’ notice to share some of his insights gained by attending the 27th United Nations Climate Change Conference (UNCCC) Conference of the Parties (COP27) in the Egyptian resort town of Sharm-El-Shaikh.
Gabriel told us of the focus on loss and damage during the recent COP27. He ended his presentation by reminding the faith leaders of their responsibility as leaders in their community, to assisting their communities. Referring back to the videos we had shown of the previous days’ flood chaos in the Western Cape, he spoke about the importance of warning communities to choose higher ground for their homes. This is one of the ways in which Faith Leaders are called to serve their communities and help build community resilience.
The break out room discussions were vibrant and productive. We asked the group to discuss firstly their favourite texts calling them to advocacy action, and secondly what motivates them personally to be advocate for environmental justice.
Group 1 said environmental advocacy is God’s own initiative, as the environment is our responsibility as designated by God Himself, and since we are created “in the image of God”, as we are taught in the book of Genesis. We must be true to our role. We take care of the Earth so that the Earth can take care of us. The group also felt that education was key. Faith leaders should educate their communities on the risks of burning coal, for instance, and we should contribute to “energy literacy” by telling people how extractive industries and nuclear energy harm the earth. We should care for nature as we care for ourselves, because we literally get our energy from nature.
Group 2 noted that they were mostly Christian apart from one Muslim. They came but with Bible verses that call them to advocacy for nature: Genesis 2:15, Isiaiah 4:16, Psalms 24:1 and Jeremiah 2:7. They also promised to aid their communities to understand the connection between earth care and wellbeing.
Group 3 told us that a clean environment is a peaceful environment. Soraya told us of the Quranic verse that means so much to her, where Allah asks “And so which of My favours will you deny?” A representative of the Western Cape Environmental office, Jody, spoke about the diversity of the group and said that we are God in Action, and God is Love. He also mentioned the importance of the youth voice as environmental activities can help to mitigate the crisis of youth unemployment and gangsterism by creating projects for instance to clean waste and clear alien vegetation. He said the youth don’t know about the environment, and action beyond tree planting is called for. He called on SAFCEI to link with government policy makers, and to explore these connections as the Western Cape does have a climate change response strategy and we need to work together.
Finally, Group 4 emphasised that faith leaders have a responsibility to teach people to care for the earth. Our motivation should be simply that God expects us to do what he has asked of us – to care for the earth, which is common to all our scriptures. They quoted the Golden Rule – to do unto others as you would have done unto you, This means we should treat all people as God, and see God in everything. Annie Banda told us that her Bahaí religion seeks to create balance and harmony between Science and Religion. Happy Mbewa told us that Quran teaches that God has put everything in order. He keeps advocating for environmental justice because he understands that the task of humanity is to sustain that order.
By Rev. Berry Behr
Watch the Regional Interfaith Dialogue below.