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The role of faith-based organisations in adaptation to climate change

Faith based organisations have the ability to shape public behaivour PIC: MORERI SEJAKGOMO
"I used to think the top environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and climate change. I thought that with 30 years of good science we could address those problems. But I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy… and to deal with those we need a spiritual and sculptural transformation and we scientists don’t know how to do that." - Gus Speth, former advisor to Bill Clinton


Everywhere you go in Africa, from the smallest village to the biggest city, there are churches and other faith groups. With Africa being one of the continents to be hardest hit by accelerating climate change, can the social and spiritual power emanating from churches, mosques, synagogues and other faiths on the continent be harnessed to combat climate change?

It’s a fact that faith-based organisations generally have a high standing in the communities in which they operate, and are  often in close contact with local cultures and leadership.

This often gives them greater credibility than state or foreign organisations. Churches and mosques have also been able to work effectively in communities because they have infrastructure such as meeting places, kitchens and toilets, a potential pool of willing volunteers, and an ethic that calls for transformational action.

Programmes, therefore, can be developed at the local level and according to local culture, norms and values. All of this avoids the set up costs that an external organisation would have to spend.

At the same time, many religions promote a culture of respect towards life in all its forms - which is radically undermined by environmental degradation. With their large weekly ‘captive audience’ and their ability to inspire levels of trust and confidence unmatched by government or secular organisations, it becomes obvious that faith-based organisations could be at the forefront of facilitating the behavior change that will be required to adapt effectively to the world’s rapidly changing climate.

Faith communities  can have a positive role in facilitating behaviour change. They have a large constituency and often a ‘captive audience’ on a weekly basis. This leads to opportunities for information and teaching. The Scriptures of all major religions have key texts on being stewards of the Earth and the moral dangers of greed and abuse of the poor and the earth.

However there are many challenges to getting faith-based organisations involved in adaptation programmes. Churches and religious leaders are very busy with church matters, there is limited time and staff to run projects.  Some question whether the environment should be added to the social justice agenda of the church. There seem to be so many  “far more urgent” issues such as poverty, unemployment, education, housing, AIDS and crime?


Other challenges are theological; -

Many Christians feel that the church should primarily be concerned with the message of individual salvation and evangelism. Our relationship with God is more important than “secular issues” such as the environment. Others believe that the Earth has been given to us by God to use as we desire. A favourite verse is Genesis 1:26, “And God blessed them, and God said unto them, be fruitful and multiply and replenish the earth and subdue it and have dominion over it.”

Some Christians believe that material possessions are a sign of God’s blessing. God wants us to prosper at all costs, even at the cost of the environment. There is a big movement in churches called the Prosperity Gospel that equates prosperity with material consumption.  And finally some Christians are worried about environmentalism being “New Age”. They are afraid of a shift towards pantheism (the belief that nature is divine) or paganism.

So let us turn to examine a case study of one Church which is having an environmental impact.

The Anglican Church of Southern Africa comprises six countries: South Africa, Swaziland, Angola, Mozambique  Lesotho and Namibia. An environmental desk was established in 2013, and called the Green Anglicans movement. ( Starting with an environmental spirituality, this has led to practical projects.

What have they done to develop an environmental spirituality – a caring for the whole of Creation?

The Anglican Church globally has identified environmental ministry as a core part of its mission. As far back as 1984, the Anglican Church globally identified the Fifth mark of mission “To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and to sustain and renew the life of the earth.” This has given

a strong emphasis globally for the Anglican Church to look at its theology and practice.

The Bible is in fact full of messages about caring for the environment. Some key scriptures that are important include the Creation story in Genesis, and the calling of Adam and Eve to be stewards or keepers of Creation. A key theme throughout the Old Testament is the  story of the people of Israel and their relationship with the land. Key writings tell of the call of the prophets who condemned the abuse of the land and inequality. Jesus’ relationship with nature is seen  as a source of spiritual strength. And the letters (known as epistles) call  for Christians to work to renew the earth. Thus environmental education can be included in many ways into preaching from the Bible.

The Orthodox Church initiated a Season of the year known as the Season of Creation (month of September) and many denominations have followed.

Thus, during a four-month period churches are encouraged to preach on themes such as land, water, food security, climate change etc. The Season of Creation has been accepted as part of the liturgical year in the Anglican Church of Southern Africa and we are now celebrating it for the sixth year. Not all churches take part but the number is growing

The role of children and young people is of critical importance. The Anglican Church has  produced materials for Sunday School on the theme of Creation, called Ryan the Rhinoceros. These include the same themes of caring for the land, saving water, saving electricity, not littering etc.

Water is an important theme in many Christian churches because of baptism. The Anglican Church has held two conferences on Water Justice in Cape Town as a response to the drought. Churches were encouraged to rediscover the sacredness of water as well as installing water saving and harvesting devices as well as to consider the long term challenge of water injustice.

Lent has traditionally been a time when Christians fast and give up on certain luxuries such as chocolates or alcohol. For the last four years the Anglican Church has encouraged fasting to reduce our impact on the earth – “A Carbon fast for Lent” each week there is a theme: water, land, food etc and a daily action to reduce our impact on the earth.

And so as we connect with our spiritual values of a simpler lifestyle of recognising God’s call to care for Creation, this spirituality is leadings to practical actions.

Churches have been encouraging tree planting as part of our spiritual growth – which ensures that the trees will be looked after. For instance trees are planted at baptism, confirmation, marriages, funerals, visits by the bishop etc.

Many of the Mothers Union organisations run soup kitchens for the hungry or orphans projects. They are being trained to grow vegetables using organic farming methodologies. The Churches are also being used as sites for model food gardening.

As a result of the droughts in different parts of Southern Africa churches are taking seriously the need to use and model water harvesting methods, such as jojo tanks or retrofitting of toilets.

The church can model methods that individuals can use in their homes.  There has been a big push to reduce littering, with clean up campaigns and recycling taking place at many churches. We have promoted the rocket stove (stick stove) as well as the wonder bag to reduce the use of wood burning.

These are small steps but show that the potential for Faith Based Organisations to make a difference in adaptation to climate change is huge.

In the words of Pope Francis, it is time for churches to “Hear the cry of the Earth and the cry of the Poor”.

*REV. DR RACHEL MASH* This article is part of a series the Adaptation at Scale in Semi-Arid Regions (ASSAR) project – University of Cape Town has produced for publication through Mmegi

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