Four summers ago, a tree fell on a power line, causing a wildfire that ripped through the Jemez Mountains, charring a record-setting 150,000 acres of forest, burning dozens of homes and destroying the Pueblo of Santa Clara’s watershed.
Today, green has returned to the landscape. But as the trees grow back, they’ll be different species from the piñón and ponderosa we lost. As plant communities change, so do the species of birds and wildlife that rely upon them. And the relationships people have with the forest—to earn a livelihood, recreate or find solace—change, as well.
It’s just one of the easy examples of how a hotter and drier climate and the role humans play in it are altering our environment.
“Scientists can describe the boundaries that we dare not cross,” says Larry Rasmussen, a Lutheran lay theologian who is active at the United Church of Santa Fe and retired in 2004 from Union Theological Seminary in New York City as Reinhold Niebuhr Professor Emeritus of Social Ethics. For years, scientists have been telling world leaders that to avoid cataclysmic and irreversible climate disruption, we must cut greenhouse gas emissions to limit the rise of global temperatures.
We’re seated side-by-side at his kitchen table on Santa Fe’s east side, looking out the picture window that frames a view of the Jemez Mountains. He remembers seeing the initial plume of smoke—“We had no idea what it would become,” Rasmussen says—and watching the forest burn at night.
Scientists can describe intensifying wildfires, droughts, disappearing glaciers, the extinction of species and rising sea levels. They can predict and model. But data points and scientific graphs don’t inspire people to change their behavior.
That, Rasmussen says, takes faith. And love.
“It’s the values that people want to live their lives by,” he says, “or the love they feel for a place or for their family or for their friends that motivates them.”
Rasmussen, who recently authored a book called Earth-Honoring Faith, has been working toward an alliance of spirituality, social justice and ecology since the late 1960s—and he believes action within religious organizations is finally reaching critical mass.
Earlier this year, for example, Pope Francis issued an encyclical letter focused on the Earth, the economy and social justice. Popes have issued these letters regularly since the 18th century, but “On Care for Our Common Home, Laudato Si’” is different.
The encyclical isn’t what most people would expect from the Vatican. In his 120-page letter, the pope cites not only saints and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, but scientists, economists and Indigenous leaders. He also quotes from other religious traditions and leaders, including Ali Al-Khawas, a ninth-century Muslim mystic.
In his letter, Pope Francis issues an international call to action that reminds people that all life is interconnected. He calls upon humans to recognize that everything we do affects all of life, from the smallest microorganism to the largest mammal, from the atmosphere that sustains us to the planet’s most vulnerable men, women and children. It is a call for structural economic changes—especially within nations like the United States that have amassed wealth by engaging in industries that emit huge amounts of greenhouse gases. The pope believes these structural changes will ease demands upon the Earth and protect the planet’s poorest people—who are already experiencing the brunt of the impacts from climate change.
Many will resist the messages within the encyclical, Rasmussen says. Since the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution, economies have thrived on natural resource extraction, the burning of fossil fuels, and an unshakeable belief in continual growth and the importance of individual successes over the common good.
“But the way we did it in the past is no longer viable,” he says. “We can’t keep working to keep the same economy that gave us climate change.”
And even though the international meetings on climate change in Paris wrapped up last week with an agreement that countries will try to hold further warming at bay, it doesn’t include any enforcement mechanisms that would make countries actually cut their emissions of greenhouse gases. That means there’s still a lot of work ahead.
Action must occur on many levels, Rasmussen says. People can undertake individual steps and work toward larger policy changes. Organizations like churches can install solar panels and cisterns the way United Church has, but most importantly, people must change more deeply, internally, by rethinking how we connect with water, landscapes and one another. “And it’s pretty urgent that faith communities are involved,” Rasmussen says. “It’s their home turf.”
By insisting that faith communities are critical to the success of the climate conundrum, Rasmussen is on to something important.
According to a recent Pew Research Center survey, 80 percent of Americans claim affiliation to some religious faith. Like philosophy and great literature, communities of faith traffic in grand narratives about the meaning of life, morality and the place of humans within the universe. And it’s not unheard of for those communities to step up when it comes to US social movements. Think abolitionists prior to the Civil War and the civil rights movement, in which many African American leaders came out of the black church tradition. Today, religious groups are taking a bigger role in the environmental movement.
Creation as a gift
It’s early September and an evening storm brings wind, but no rain. Locally grown food—much of it from Albuquerque’s South Valley—has been set upon the table. About a dozen people pass plates around, introducing themselves to one another while they eat.
Father Frank Quintana of the Blessed Oscar Romero Catholic Community is convening a four-week study group of the pope’s encyclical. The papal letters are typically written to bishops and the faithful, says Quintana, but Pope Francis wrote this for everyone, and it shows in the attendees—like non-Catholics and a lapsed-Catholic journalist who has serious concerns about churches bursting into flames if she passes too near.
“God gave us creation as a gift, and instead, we have acted as if we are lord over creation,” Quintana says. “That has had a disproportionate effect on the poor. In essence, we have robbed the poor. And he is calling on us to take care of each other and creation.”
It’s a message that resonates with Javier Benavidez, executive director of Southwest Organizing Project, a nonprofit that focuses on social and environmental justice issues.
“New Mexico is like a microcosm for the world,” he says. “There is a lot of poverty, but it is resource-rich. We provide cheap labor for industry, then suffer the pollution.”
Benavidez points to just a few events: the recent toxic spill of mining waste into the Animas River, which flows into New Mexico’s San Juan River, the 1979 release of more than 94 million gallons of toxic wastewater and 1,000 tons of radioactive tailings into the Rio Puerco, and the nuclear detonations at the Trinity site in the 1940s.
And while some people may shrug off the poverty, the pollution and the economic dynamics by saying it’s just the way things have always been done in New Mexico, Benavidez doesn’t buy that. “There are interests that come here and now are actively pushing coal or thwarting clean energy,” he says.
The pope’s message also resonates with the leaders of Juntos, a program of the CVNM Education Fund, sister organization to the nonprofit Conservation Voters New Mexico.
At the end of September, Juntos celebrated the pope’s visit to the United States by hosting viewings of his address to the joint session of Congress in a long narrow office above a pizza joint in Albuquerque. Spanish and English whispers fill the room as Pope Francis begins to speak, citing four important Americans: Abraham Lincoln, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Catholic Worker Movement founder Dorothy Day and the Trappist monk Thomas Merton.
An older woman sits, rapt, while the young woman who accompanies her pulls out a phone, asks who that fourth American was and starts typing, “Who is Thomas…”
After the address ends, Patricia Gallegos, lead organizer for Juntos, comes to the front of the room. No longer a practicing Catholic herself, Gallegos tells the group it’s nice to listen to the pope’s words—to hear what he is saying about extractive industries and the economy and how it affects poor people, people of color and the Earth itself. But it’s crucial to transcend words and take action, she says.
At the viewings and the weekly study group sessions, people seem to feel a mix of excitement and inclusion—and hope. The pope’s message of social justice appeals to the young people. Older environmental activists are drawn to the discussions of sustainability and ecological awareness. And people of faith are listening to the messenger.
Quintana points out that the message within the encyclical is serious. But it isn’t one of despair.
“Because it’s easy to feel crestfallen, he calls us to hope and joy,” says Quintana. After all, as Pope Francis writes midway through the letter, “Injustice is not invincible.”
Love as a “call for ecological action”
The pope’s encyclical letter doesn’t shed new light on the changes taking place across the planet, but it is framed in a new way, says Joan Brown, executive director of New Mexico Interfaith Power and Light, a 15-year-old nonprofit that advocates for energy conservation, efficiency and renewable energy.
“He’s looking deeply at a whole new way for human beings to live, and at the structural issues intertwined with ecological issues,” Brown says. “It’s very poetic and written very beautifully, as he is looking at the good of the community and the joyfulness and hope amid the difficulty.”
Brown grew up on a family farm in Kansas, at the edge of the bluestem prairie. Her Catholic faith has always guided her, and today, the 61-year-old Franciscan nun is a common sight at public hearings and protests.
“My spirituality is one that is rooted in love of creation, of humanity, of justice,” she says, looking out at the small garden at the back of her home in Albuquerque. “What keeps me going is prayer, meditation, working for justice and hands-on caring for the Earth.”
To her, Pope Francis defines the entire encyclical in the first paragraph, when he refers to the “Canticle of the Creatures,” a song from the early 13th century, writing:
In the words of this beautiful canticle, Saint Francis of Assisi reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us. ‘Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs.’
“‘Sustains and governs us’!” Brown says, leaning forward in her armchair. She has a way of being warm, calm and excited all at once. “We usually don’t think of the Earth as governing us. It kind of startles me every time I read it.”
When Santa Fe’s patron saint wrote his canticle—or chant—to which Pope Francis refers, his health was failing, and regional conflicts were simmering. Symbolically, Brown says, it was a time that is similar to this moment in history. It feels now like a dark time, she says. A time of crisis.
“Yet out of that, there is great wonder and beauty and healing that can come if we have grateful hearts,” she says.
Brown notes that the US Conference of Bishops, which sets the tenor for Catholic churches across the nation, has chosen to stick to its own agenda—issues like reproduction, pornography and opposing gay marriage—rather than follow the pope’s lead on climate. But more and more often, local clergy and congregations are talking about climate change, she says, and many are taking on energy-efficiency projects, installing solar systems or working on congregationwide conservation programs.
“It’s a mixed bag: Some are seeing it as an opportunity to live out our faith more, and others are not embracing it,” she says. “But we need to connect the dots on these issues, and I think we need to use climate change as an organizing principle.”
The immigration and refugee crises, she says, will only intensify as people living in arid lands can no longer survive or as the seas rise, inundating islands and coastlines. That sort of destabilization can lead to increasing violence, human trafficking, food insecurity and growing poverty.
“With our brothers and sisters suffering across the planet, religious people—who already often work with food aid, education—need to make the links,” she says, adding that making those connections is especially important here in New Mexico. “In this state, it’s always the political or economic interest that trumps the deeper values we have, values for the common good.”
That can apply to everything from opposition to the US Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed rules to reduce greenhouse emissions from industry to the state’s lack of water planning.
For decades, New Mexico has been a sacrificial zone, she says, ticking off just some of the problems: more than a thousand uranium mines that have never been cleaned up, land and water pollution across the state, coal-fired power plants and the methane hotspot in the Four Corners, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant and widespread oil and gas drilling in southeastern and northwestern New Mexico.
“We’re so used to looking at things piecemeal that we don’t look at the whole,” which is what the pope is asking us to do, she says. “We need to start addressing this from the heart. We have the facts. Now, we need to think of love as a call for ecological action.”
Looking toward the future of the state’s economy is a part of that, she says. “I continue to feel so badly: We are always last, or close to last, in the nation on poverty, all these things,” she says.
When elected officials and others say that the energy or mining industries need special support—or regulatory shortcuts—because they provide crucial funding for the state’s budget, Brown doubts the wisdom of that.
Brown adds, “I keep thinking, We’ve been doing this for decades—and we’re still last.”
This spring, Interfaith Power and Light sent a letter to 80 of New Mexico’s elected leaders who have identified themselves as Catholic. Signed by more than 100 of the state’s faith leaders from churches, synagogues and meeting houses, the letter invited them to heed the pope’s call to action on climate change.
“No one responded,” Brown says, adding, “I’m sure that they are busy.”
Meanwhile, solidarity is growing among New Mexicans, she says. People of faith and people who care about the Earth (or who are in both camps) are coming together, especially as non-Catholics embrace Pope Francis’ message on climate change and social justice.
“It’s an exciting time to be alive,” she says. “There’s a lot of grace in it.”
Coming together as brothers and sisters
On a chilly night at the end of November, dozens of people stand at the corner of Sixth Street and Gold Avenue in downtown Albuquerque. A few young children delight at holding flickering, battery-powered tea candles, while adults illuminate the pamphlets that have been handed out with their cellphones.
People have gathered to pray for the United Nations climate change meeting that was about to begin in Paris. After a few words and songs—and a look around to see if anyone else is on the way—they walk in solidarity with climate refugees and immigrants to Immaculate Conception Catholic Church a few blocks away.
Inside the church, more than 100 people shuffle into the front pews. There are older men sitting alone, mothers cupping the heads of their daughters as they whisper to one another, families with teenagers, couples and small packs of friends. Candles are lit. Some heads are bowed.
Temple Bnai Israel’s Rabbi Arthur Flicker issues the call to prayer by blowing the shofar, or ram’s horn. First, a Buddhist prayer is offered. Then, Ruby Kochhar sings a haunting Sikh chant and Rev. Sylvia Miller leads a sacred dance. Necip Orhan, with the Dialogue Institute of the Southwest, recites a Muslim prayer. Later, he explains that he likes what the pope is saying and has written about climate change.
“Today,” Orhan says, “all Christians and Muslims are sisters and brothers. The encyclical, it is exactly what we want to say, what we want to do.”
Toward the end of the interfaith service, Father Warren Broussard, pastor of Immaculate Conception, blesses Brown, who will leave in the morning for Paris and the United Nations climate talks. He asks everyone to raise a hand as he recites the blessing. As he intones the words, some people tire and lower their arms; others hold their lit candles in one hand, keeping the other raised toward Brown. All eyes are upon her. And at the end, she presses her fingers beneath her glasses, wiping away the tears.
When musicians return to the front of the church, the two men lead a closing song: “This is my song, O God of all the nations/a song of peace for lands afar and mine.”
Many don’t know it but follow along with the words printed upon the paper.
And even those unsure of the tune raise their voices together in song.