Bringing clean water and sanitation
to people around the globe
one village at a time
Messages on Water for Speakers and Preachers
Speeches and sermons for those trying to bring the good news of clean water
JULY 2013 Statement
Ecumenical Water Network, World Council of Churches,
God, Lead Us to Abundant Life and Peace
Through Water Justice
This statement reflects the fruits of discussions among participants at the Strategic Consultation of the Ecumenical Water Network held in Berlin, Germany on 10-12 June 2013, which strategized towards “universal access to safe drinking water and sanitation”. These discussions took place as Central Europe experienced floods of unprecedented magnitude, killing many, disrupting the lives of millions, destroying homes and businesses, with damages estimated to be in excess of 15 billion Euros.[i] This reiterates the nexus between water and climate change, which needs to be addressed urgently.
I. Water from the Perspective of Faith
Water has been present on Earth since the beginning of Creation. The first page of the Hebrew Scriptures avows that at the beginning, the Spirit hovered over the waters (Genesis 1, 1), while on the last page of the Christian Scriptures, the river of the water of life flows from the throne of God (Revelation 22, 1). God has provided us with beautiful pristine fresh waters that fall as rain, spring forth from the earth, lay low in the earth as groundwater, and gather together in streams and rivers.
Water is essential for the every life of every creature. Human beings and other creatures mostly consist of water. And so, as Exodus recounts, the very life of the people wandering in the desert, from Egypt to the Promised Land, depended on Moses to find water. (Exodus 17, 1).
Water is central to our spiritual life. Our Christian faith tradition proclaims the saving power of water, recognizing sacred power in the cleansing water of baptism. Baptism is also the visible sign of our belonging to the church, following the example of the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River. (Matthew 3, 13). Again and again our Scriptures describe the precious genuine life found in following Jesus as living waters. People of many other faith traditions also celebrate the life-giving power of water.
Because water is truly the source of life, it requires responsible action from us as human beings: action to preserve and share water for the benefit of all creatures, as the Statement on Water for Life of the 9th Assembly of the World Council of Churches proclaims.[ii]
I. The Realities of Our World Reflect Injustice and Violent Conflicts Around Water
A. Confessing Our Irresponsible Behavior Towards God’s Gift of Water
We are all people of the water, utterly dependent upon this gift of creation to drink, grow our crops, water our livestock, power our mills and homes, enable our enterprises, and provide habitat for fish and other aquatic creatures. But we humans have treated God’s gift of water irresponsibly.
We have altered the climate of the earth and transformed the nature of the rains: areas with two rainy seasons now experience just one, rainy seasons shrink from months to days, or turn from times of blessed rains to times of unrelenting and increasingly ferocious typhoons and hurricanes, drought conditions often persist decade after decade, and hundred year floods appear several times in a single decade. As a result, we suffer: our crops wither, our homes and fields are swept away by floods, landslides, or fierce winds and we die.
We have consumed water too greedily and wasted water. We waste water in cities using clean water to grow thirsty exotic plants, wash sidewalks and cars, and flush toilets. In the midst of water scarcity in rural areas, we waste water by drilling wells for tourist attractions and resort homes that steal water from our rivers, and irrigating crops better grown in areas with plentiful water. We waste water to make products at great cost and with minimal benefit for local communities. For example, in many places, drinking water wells have ceased to function due to declines in the water table. Often these declines are caused by enormous, unsustainable withdrawals of water made by factories or farms owned by transnational corporations to produce products like biofuel or bottled water.
We have failed to share water equitably and wisely. Often only those who live in the most prosperous countries and the richest of those in other countries have clean water to drink. Often only the wealthy and transnational corporations have access to water necessary to irrigate crops and water livestock, while small and subsistence farmers have none. Often we do not leave enough water in streams and rivers to support fish, wildlife, and the ecosystems upon which all God’s creatures rely.
We have contaminated water, transforming it from a life-giving substance to a death-dealing hazard, for both humanity and the rest of God’s creatures. Fertilizers and pesticides employed by commercial agriculture, heavy metals from mining, and extremely toxic, persistent chemicals from industries pollute lakes, rivers, basins and aquifers. This pollution of our precious waters destroys aquatic ecosystems, kills fish and other aquatic creatures, renders fish too dangerous to eat, and leaves water too toxic for drinking, bathing, or other purposes.
We have made opportunistic attempts to capitalize on water scarcity. When private profit drives decision-making, trans-national corporations and other private actors seek to benefit from water scarcity, whether by privatizing municipal water service provision, by obtaining vast tracks of land simply to secure exclusive rights to water, or by selling bottled water at hundreds of times the real cost. By these practices, we turn water from being a gift of God into a mere commodity sold to the highest bidder. This violates the fundamental nature of water as a common good that ought to remain in public ownership and be controlled by our communities, for the benefit of all within the community, particularly the most vulnerable. Private ownership or management of water is inappropriate where our governments lack the capacity or the will to regulate private actors effectively or to assure that the human right to water and sanitation is realized. When we waste water just to make a profit, exploit water by selling it at excessive prices, or grab land just to acquire water rights, we abuse God’s gift of water.
We in the Church have failed to fulfill fully our responsibility to care for this critical element of God’s creation. We do not consistently treat water respectfully and educate our congregations about proper use of water. We seldom place saving millions of lives through the provision of clean water, sanitation and health education at the center of our mission responses. We fail too often to raise our prophetic voice on behalf of water justice.
A. All Creation Groans from Human Irresponsibility and Ignorance
When we act irresponsibly towards water, all creation groans, for human beings and the rest of God’s creatures endure needless suffering, and many die.
When drinking water becomes scarce, our women, children and elders spend hours, even days, walking and waiting to secure the water necessary to sustain life. They sacrifice precious time and energy that might otherwise be spent on school, farming, and other enterprises to lift their families out of extreme, soul-deadening poverty.
When drinking water becomes contaminated, we suffer from preventable diseases as common and easily treated as diarrhea and as swiftly and frequently deadly as cholera. It is a sad reality of our world that several billion people, mostly poor or people marginalized within their societies, lack access to clean water, adequate sanitation, or the knowledge necessary to protect their health from the ravages of water-borne diseases.
When sanitation is not available, there is nowhere for us to defecate but on the street or in the field. We are stripped of our privacy and dignity. Young women are discouraged from attending school. We are exposed to viruses, bacteria, and intestinal parasites that sap our energy, deprive us of nutrition by stealing the benefit of our food, sicken us, and all too often kill us. And inadequate sanitation pollutes the very water we depend upon for life.
Together, dirty water, inadequate sanitation, and ignorance of basic hygiene combine to cause almost 10% of all the illnesses experienced by human beings and to kill up to 3 million people each year,[iii] most of them children under the age of 5.[iv]
Our irresponsibility towards water has other catastrophic consequences. Failure to share water equitably and wisely creates extreme hardships for the most vulnerable of God’s children and destroys the integrity of God’s creation. When water is scarce and not equitably allocated, conflict then tears our communities apart and creates animosity, even war, between communities, disturbing God’s shalom.
I. A Critical Aspect of Water Justice: Efforts to Realize the Human Right to Water and Sanitation
Realizing the human right of universal access to clean water and adequate sanitation involves construction, operation, and maintenance of expensive infrastructure. We cannot achieve this aspect of water justice without national governments and the international community directing a much greater percentage of development funding toward water and sanitation. Ironically, although the ongoing costs of dirty water and inadequate sanitation are almost ten times as much as the cost of this infrastructure,[v] progress on this front has been halting.
Fortunately, clean water and sanitation are such critical components of human development that the United Nations focused on them in the Millennium Development Goals (MDG), the goals that the UN, other international organization, and its member nations sought to achieve by 2015. Throughout the world, national governments committed at the turn of the 21st century to build the infrastructure necessary to provide safe drinking water and basic sanitation, adopting that as MDG Goal 7. Goal 7 (c) seeks to cut the percentage of people without safe drinking water from 24% in 1990 to 11% by 2015 and the percentage of people without basic sanitation from 51% in 1990 to 25.5% by 2015.[vi] The UN has recently proclaimed that we have met the MDG goal for water,[vii] though it concedes that progress on the sanitation goal is further behind than any other development goal.[viii]
Unfortunately, less progress has been made on meeting Goal 7 (c) or towards eventually achieving universal access to clean water and adequate sanitation than the UN’s statements might suggest. As the UN’s Joint Monitoring Programme (JMP) recognizes, the existing Goal 7 (c) provides an inadequate measure of progress because the critical characteristics of “safe” drinking water are neither defined, nor monitored, in measuring progress toward this goal.[ix] Overall, the goal and the monitoring of progress failed to assure the benefits of increased access, because:
Poor people living in informal settlements and remote rural areas are not necessarily counted in national statistics
Water quality and quantity are not always sufficient for drinking and other personal uses
Infrastructure and service provision have not been delivered in a sustainable manner
Water, sanitation, and hygiene have not been provided concurrently
Poor and marginalized people have been ignored in the provision of services
National, regional and global averages have obscured the lack of progress, and the continued desperate situation, of rural, poor, and marginalized people in many nations, especially lesser developed countries.
The human right to water and sanitation is now recognized and embedded in international law through treaties and through the 2010 actions of the UN General Assembly and the UN Human Rights Council.[x] The internationally recognized human right to water and sanitation “entitles everyone to sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible and affordable water for personal and domestic uses.”[xi] And virtually every nation in the world is legally required to respect, protect, and take concrete actions to progressively realize that right.
As the deadline to meet Goal 7 (c) approaches in 2015 and we are collectively setting a new international goal for water and sanitation, we must seek to achieve universal access to safe drinking water and adequate sanitation as rapidly as possible, defining the new goal in a way that better captures our intent and is more consistent with the human right to water and sanitation, and the obligations of governments to fulfill that right.
The post-2015 development goals must place an extremely high priority on providing water, sanitation and hygiene to the poor and other marginalized groups. Ironically, the poor have not benefitted much from the progress on the MDGs, even though development efforts are supposed to be aimed at alleviating poverty. The report of UN Special Rapporteur of human right to safe drinking water and sanitation, Catarina de Albuquerque, provides strong evidence that the poor and other marginalized groups have been discriminated against with respect to water and sanitation. Reports of the Joint Monitoring Programme, summarized in the 2012 update, underscore that rural communities, those in the lower quintiles of wealth, and those in the least developed countries continue to have substantially less access to water and sanitation.
The post 2015 goals must articulate a necessary preference for poor and other marginalized peoples. The goals for rural residents, the poor and other marginalized people must reflect affordability, sustainability, and supply drinking water of sufficient quantity and adequate quality, as measured by specific indicators, to meet the human right to water and sanitation of these systematically disadvantaged groups. Specific recommendations on the post-2015 development agenda by the EWN on behalf of the Church are included below.
I. The Role of the Church in Creating a New Reality of Water Justice
A. The work of the Ecumenical Water Network
Both historically and today, the Church has built or funded a great number of community based water and sanitation projects in developing countries. But advocacy efforts on water justice have lagged behind. This situation changed with the founding of the Ecumenical Water Network (EWN).
Based on theological reflection on how we should in faith respond to the crises caused by water injustice, churches and other faith based organizations have come together to effectively respond to water issues through the EWN. Since the 9th Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Porto Alegre, when churches were called to join the network, a significant number of churches, regional ecumenical organizations and other ecumenical partners have joined efforts to protect water and advocate for the human right to water and sanitation. Inspired by the struggle of communities all over the world, by reflecting and strategizing together in consultations in Africa, Asia and Latin America, the EWN has become a concrete instrument of water justice. Hosted by the World Council of Churches, EWN has provided a space to share stories on the involvement of churches in water issues, to develop educational and worship resources on water and sanitation, and to catalyze the advocacy work of the churches on human right to water and sanitation.
The EWN, its participants, and its partners and allies in civil society played a significant role in securing the appointment of the Independent Expert (now Special Rapporteur) on the human right to water and sanitation. Her work, together with the advocacy efforts of the EWN, participants, partners, and allies, was crucial in securing the recognition of the human right to water and sanitation by the United Nations General Assembly and UN Human Rights Council in 2010. Much has been accomplished, but much remains to be done. Our efforts to seek recognition of the human right to water and sanitation must now be followed by efforts to assure that “right” is fully implemented and appropriately monitored by national governments, and progress to realize that right for the poor and other marginalized groups is made swiftly, so our vision of clean water and adequate sanitation for all becomes a new reality.
A. God Calls the Church to Intensify its Efforts to Realize Water Justice
Water is so critical to life that we can hardly call ourselves followers of Christ without focusing our most strenuous mission and witness efforts towards achieving water justice. Indeed, Jesus taught that only those who gave food to the hungry and drink to the thirsty could be considered his followers. (Matthew 25, 34). So we must undertake our role as the body of Christ, as God’s hands and feet in the world, with unprecedented zeal. Achieving water justice must be among the highest priorities on the agenda of every national church, congregation, and Christian organization. We in the Church are called by God to use our unique voice to help create the kingdom of God here on earth and, without water justice, the kingdom remains incredibly distant in the face of needless suffering and death for so many of God’s children and the destruction of the integrity of God’s creation.
A. Critical Roles of the Church in Achieving Water Justice
The Church has certain critical roles and responsibilities in achieving water justice:
1. The Church engages and educates our congregations and communities on the spiritual and ethical values of water as well as our Christian responsibilities to treat water respectfully and to seek water justice.
2. The Church seeks to be responsible in our use of water in our places of worship and in our daily lives, and by setting such an example, we place a light on the lampstand for all to see. (Mark 4, 21).
3. The Church funds and carries out projects to provide clean water, sanitation, and hygiene education, including actions to prevent water pollution. Although national governments bear the responsibility for fulfilling the human right to water and sanitation, we know that government actions take time and fall short. So, as an expression of Christian love, we take direct action to improve access to clean water and adequate sanitation.
4. The Church raises a prophetic voice of faith in support of water justice.
• We seek to assure that our resources and those of governments are devoted first towards providing water and sanitation to the most vulnerable populations, the poor and others stigmatized and marginalized by our societies, from the Romas and Dalits to the physically challenged. (Isaiah 1, 17; Amos 5, 24)[xii]
• We seek to assure decisions made on water and sanitation protect all of God’s creation.
• As we pursue water justice, we seek to encourage engagement by, and highlight the powerful witness of, those especially affected by unjust and irresponsible behavior towards water, including women and young people.
1. As we work, the Church remembers that water justice is a concern not only for Christians.
Knowing that many hands make light work, we participate in and treasure truly collaborative partnerships with our allies in civil society and other faith traditions, with a firm and enduring hope that, together, we can change the world and achieve water justice through our collective efforts.
A. A Call to Public and Private Actors to Recognize the Church’s Vital Interest in Water and Sanitation
Because of the historical role of the Church in water and sanitation, and because of the critical roles that the Church plays in achieving water justice, all who deal with water issues should recognize that the Church is a significant stakeholder in these matters. We hope that all actors in the water arena will recognize that it is crucial to include the Church in stakeholder discussions at every level.
I. Specific Recommendations
• The Church at all levels (international, national, and local) must immediately seek to reorient the post-2015 development agenda:
1. The international community and national governments must make firm commitments to provide universal access to water, sanitation, and hygiene facilities as part of the post-2015 development agenda.
2. Those commitments should include early goals for access by rural residents, the poor and other marginalized groups to address their unacceptably low level of access to water and sanitation.
The international community and national governments should commit to provide universal access by the poor and other marginalized groups to adequate safe, drinking water supply, hand-washing and sanitation facilities at home by 2030. These goals are necessary to address the asymmetries and inequalities that plague provision of water and sanitation, with some groups being inadvertently or deliberately excluded from access to water and sanitation. The goals for rural residents, the poor and other marginalized groups must reflect affordability, sustainability, and supply drinking water of sufficient quantity and adequate quality, as measured by specific indicators, to meet the human right to water and sanitation of these systematically advantaged groups.
1. Those commitments should include the features necessary to secure the benefits of water, sanitation, and hygiene facilities. These features include:
a. Access for all residents, including refugees and other excluded communities.
b. Access to affordable, relatively continuous, and sustainable services, as measured by specific indicators.
c. Access to safe drinking water in sufficient quantity and quality to meet drinking and
other personal needs to be safe (initially as measured by the JMP proposed definitions for “intermediate” access).
d. Access to drinking water at home with a collection time of 30 minutes or less per person.
e. Access to hand-washing and menstrual hygiene facilities as well as hygiene education.
f. Access to water, sanitation, and hygiene services concurrently to the greatest extent feasible to realize the maximum benefits of those services.
2. The commitments of national governments and the international community with respect to water should include strong goals regarding eliminating groundwater mining, improving water efficiency by all sectors, recycling water, balancing water supply and demand, safe management and disposal of excreta, treating wastewater so that surface waters are safe for humans, fish, and other aquatic creatures and can be rendered drinkable with minimal treatment.
• The Church at all levels must continue to develop its understanding of water justice. One critical aspect of developing our understanding is sharing stories – as EWN has and will continue to do through consultations and workshops, including those at the 10th Assembly of the World Council of Churches. Another aspect is developing a deeper understanding of the spiritual and ethical values underlying and defining water justice.
• The Church at all levels must discern and express its own voice to serve as a catalyst for creating an inspiring and shared vision of water justice in the social domain. We should seek to raise awareness of water justice issues throughout society.
• The Church at all levels must raise our prophetic voice to encourage actions consistent with water justice, including strong and persistent advocacy for full realization of the human right to water and other aspects of water justice. We should lift up the voices of those especially affected by water injustice, including women, youth, the poor, and other marginalized groups. We should also seek to assure that all Creation is cared for in actions related to water.
• The Church at all levels must increase its support for and funding of community based water and sanitation projects, to ensure that communities secure clean water and adequate sanitation as rapidly and reliably as possible.
• As the Church seeks water justice, we should create collaborative partnerships with our allies in civil society and other faith traditions. We do so in the confident hope that, together, with God’s help, we can indeed change the reality of our world from injustice to justice, and bring the Kingdom of God closer to earth.
[i] Financial Times, Central Europeans prepare for the next flood of the century (14 June 2013). http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/6b190cc4-d4d3-11e2-b4d7-00144feab7de.html#axzz2WFsnf8PZ
[ii] World Council of Churches, 9th Assembly, Porto Alegre, Brazil, 14-23 February, 2006, Statement on Water for Life (23 February 2006). http://www.oikoumene.org/en/resources/documents/wcc-commissions/international-affairs/human-rights-and-impunity/statement-on-water-for-life
[iii] The World Health Organization estimated that safe drinking water and adequate sanitation could save 1.8 million deaths from diarrhea and almost 900,000 deaths from malnutrition each year. They would also prevent other seriously damaging illnesses, such as intestinal parasites, lymphatic filariasis, trachoma, and schistosomiasis, which affect 2.3 billion people each year. World Health Organization, How Does Safe Water Affect Global Health? (25 June 2008). http://www.who.int/features/qa/70/en/index.html. (15 June 2013); World Health Organization, Safer water, better health : costs, benefits and sustainability of interventions to protect and promote health (2008). http://whqlibdoc.who.int/publications/2008/9789241596435_eng.pdf. (15 June 2013). (2008).
[iv]90% of deaths caused by diarrheal diseases are children under 5 years old, mostly in developing countries. UN Water, Tackling a global crisis: International Year of Sanitation (2008)..
[v] World Health Organization, Safer water, better health : costs, benefits and sustainability of interventions to protect and promote health (2008). http://whqlibdoc.who.int/publications/2008/9789241596435_eng.pdf. (15 June 2013). (2008). Another estimate is that lack of clean water and adequate sanitation cost US $ 260 billion each year, while the total cost of meeting Goal 7 will require a total of US$145 billion and achieving universal access will require an additional US$565 billion, for a total of just over US$700 billion. Comparing the benefit of providing clean water and adequate sanitation of more than US $7 trillion (assuming a facility life of 30 years) to the total cost of roughly US $700 billion, the benefit cost ratio approaches 10. The exact benefit-cost ratio depends upon a series of assumptions about the time value of money, the value of life, facility life, and other factors. The benefit-cost ratios of various aspect of water and sanitation provision calculated by WHO range from 50:1 to less than 1. World Health Organization, Global costs and benefits of drinking-water supply and sanitation interventions to reach the MDG target and universal coverage (2012). http://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/10665/75140/1/WHO_HSE_WSH_12.01_eng.pdf, (15 June 2013).
[vi] United Nations, Millennium Development Goals Report 2012 (2012). http://www.un.org/millenniumgoals/pdf/MDG%20Report%202012.pdf#page=53 (15 June 2013).
[vii] “The MDG drinking water target, which calls for halving the proportion of the population without sustainable access to safe drinking water between 1990 and 2015, was met in 2010, five years ahead of schedule.“ World Health Organization and UNICEF, Joint Monitoring Programme, Progress on Drinking Water and Sanitation: 2012 Update (2012). http://www.wssinfo.org/fileadmin/user_upload/resources/JMP-report-2012-en.pdf (15 June 2013).
[viii] United Nations, Millennium Development Goals Report 2012 (2012). http://www.un.org/millenniumgoals/pdf/MDG%20Report%202012.pdf#page=53 (15 June 2013).
[ix] World Health Organization and UNICEF, Joint Monitoring Programme, Progress on Sanitation and Drinking-Water: 2013 Update (2013). http://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/10665/81245/1/9789241505390_eng.pdf. 768 million people lack access to an improved source of water and 2.5 million people lack access to an improved sanitation. World Health Organization, Data on MGD 7: Water and Sanitation. http://www.who.int/gho/mdg/environmental_sustainability/en/index.html. (15 June 2013). Far more people lack access to clean water and sanitation because “improved” does not necessarily imply access to clean water or adequate sanitation. For example, residential and community taps that deliver non-potable and potentially deadly water nonetheless qualify as “improved.” The Special Rapporteur on the right to water and sanitation stated in her 2011 annual report that a recent study found that 57% of protected wells and 11% of utility water taps have bacteria contamination. UN General Assembly, Statement by the Special Rapporteur on the right to access to safe drinking water and sanitation at the 66th Session of the General Assembly (24 October 2011). (http://www.ohchr.org/en/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=11542&LangID=E. (15 June 2013). As the World Health Organization and UNICEF recognize “For monitoring purposes, the use of improved drinking water sources has been equated to access to safe drinking water, but not all improved sources in actual fact provide drinking water that is safe.” World Health Organization and UNICEF, Joint Monitoring Programme, Progress on Sanitation and Drinking- Water: 2010 Update (2010). http://whqlibdoc.who.int/publications/2010/9789241563956_eng_full_text.pdf. (15 June 2013). WHO recently expended upon the limitations of its figures, noting: “Since it is not yet possible to measure water quality globally, dimensions of safety, reliability and sustainability are not reflected in the proxy indicator used to track progress towards the MDG target. As a result, it is likely that the number of people using improved water sources is an overestimate of the actual number of people using safe water supplies. Continued efforts are required to promote global monitoring of drinking water safety, reliability and sustainability and to move beyond the MDG water target to universal coverage.” United Nations, Millennium Development Goals Report 2012 (2012). http://www.un.org/millenniumgoals/pdf/MDG%20Report%202012.pdf#page=53 (15 June 2013). The Report of the High Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda noted that 2 billion people do not have continuous access to safe drinking water: “Around two billion people lack access to continuous, safe water. Improving access – as well as quality – is becoming more urgent as the world faces increasing water scarcity.” United Nations High Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda Report, A New Global Partnership: Eradicate Poverty and Transform Economies Through Sustainable Development (2013). http://www.post2015hlp.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/UN-Report.pdf. (15 June 2013).
[x] United Nations General Assembly, Resolution 64/292. The human right to water and sanitation (28 July 2010) http://www.un.org/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=A/RES/64/292; United Nations Human Rights Council, Human rights and access to safe drinking water and sanitation (24 September 2010).
[xi] United Nations Economic and Social Council , SUBSTANTIVE ISSUES ARISING IN THE IMPLEMENTATION OF THE INTERNATIONAL COVENANT ON ECONOMIC, SOCIAL AND CULTURAL RIGHTS, The right to water (arts. 11 and 12 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights)General Comment No. 15 (20 January 2003).
[xii] Report of the Special Rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation, Catarina de Albuquerque, Stigma and the realization of the human rights to water and sanitation (2 July 2012) http://daccess-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/G12/148/98/PDF/G1214898.pdf?OpenElement.
Caring for Creation: A Lesson from Haiti
Susan Lea Smith
Sermon delivered at Bethel UCC, Beaverton, OR
Time in Haiti will forever be divided in two: BE and AE, before the earthquake and after the earthquake.
Three years ago, before the earthquake, my congregation, 1st Congregational UCC Salem, began raising money for clean water projects on the mountainous Central Plateau of Haiti through our Drink Water for Life Lenten campaign. Before we focused on Haiti, we had helped build wells in Kenya and water distribution systems in Honduras. But, after studying the situation, we decided that our efforts should be directed toward the poorest of the poor and, in the Western hemisphere, that means the rural poor of the Central Plateau of Haiti.
Before the earthquake, when I talked to other Americans about Haiti, they didn't know anything about it. Indeed, one day when I was at the store, I asked four people standing in line where Haiti was. Two admitted they didn't have a clue. Two others, one a bit hesitantly and one with great confidence, told me that it was in Africa! But everyone knew they didn?t want to go to Haiti.
Now, after the earthquake, the most devastating natural disaster of the last 50 years, most Americans know Haiti is on an island in the Caribbean and the people speak an odd language called Haitian Creole. And they may even know that Haitians are descendants of African slaves who successfully rebelled against France, fought Napoleon and freed themselves long before the American civil war. After the press coverage of the last six weeks, almost every American also knows that most people in Haiti are unspeakably poor.
What they probably don't know is that nearly 1 in 8 Haitian children die before they reach 14 from diseases caused by dirty water and poor sanitation. And they undoubtedly don?t realize that every year, year in and year out, more than 60,000 and perhaps as many as 100,000 children in Haiti die from dirty water, probably more than died in the January earthquake.
Those of us who struggle to understand the causes of this unnatural disaster encounter an age-old story of truly Biblical proportions. The desperate poverty, violence and death that haunts the Haitian people has its roots the same sort of social, economic, and political injustice that confronted the people of Israel at the time of Jesus.
The Haitian people suffer from the self-absorption, greed, corruption and violence of the rich and powerful -- the Haitian elite and the political leaders who serve only the interests of the elite and their own interests. The Haitian people also suffer from cold-hearted manipulation by the world?s superpower, an empire that exercises an absolute veto over Haiti's political leadership and virtually dictates Haiti?s economic policies. An empire supporting the Haitian elite and operating through leaders that the empire chooses to maintain -- friendly vassal kings who will do its bidding. I don't need to tell you the name of that superpower?.The situation does have a familiar Biblical ring, doesn't it.
But, there is something more that destroys human lives in Haiti, something that was not nearly as obvious 2000 years ago when Jesus walked the earth. Haiti's land has been devastated. Haiti's forests have been wholly decimated, causing floods and droughts, eroding soils, truly washing Haiti's agricultural productivity literally down the river. Rivers, estuaries, and coastal oceans have been rendered almost useless for drinking, fishing, and swimming by people and other creatures. Low lying coastal wetlands have been destroyed, dramatically increasing the vulnerability of people living along the coast to hurricanes, much in the same way that wetlands destruction has increased the vulnerability of New Orleans and other Gulf Coast cities to hurricanes. We have almost forgotten the suffering of the Haitian people a couple of years ago, when they were hit by four hurricanes, FOUR SEVERE hurricanes, in a single hurricane season. The sort of increasingly severe hurricanes that, according to climate scientists, are caused by global warming.
God?s great gift to Haiti of a rich tropical landscape and aquatic ecosystem has been ABSOLUTELY SQUANDERED by the rapacious greed of the rich and the desperate fight of the poor to survive.
Despite the daily tribulations of the Haitian people (or perhaps because of them), Haitians are a deeply religious people. Indeed, you've probably encountered few Christians as deeply religious as they are. They paint everything in sight, trucks, tap-taps, with words praising God, Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Many pray every time they eat or drink -- at great length. No sweet short "God is great, God is good, let's us thank him for our food, amen" but seemingly endless, sweet prayers of true gratitude for their daily bread (and for their daily far sweeter coffee, which to my taste is dreadful).
There are two sorts of Christians in Haiti (and perhaps elsewhere):
One group believes in a religion of self concern, in a pious evangelical and fundamentalist Christianity, dominated by concern for personal salvation and life after death, and accompanied by deeply embedded passivity, apathy and acceptance of whatever horrors happen in this life. The other group believes in a theology of liberation. They feel called to participate in God's plan to bring the kingdom of God to earth, God's plan to reverse the social order:
replacing injustice with justice,
replacing fear of scarcity with trust in God?s ability to provide plenty,
replacing gross disparity in wealth with compassionate sharing,
replacing the violence of ruthless dictators (and Haiti has had more than its share of ruthless dictators) with caring communities that affirm the dignity of all human beings.
The first group belongs to churches led by orthodox Catholic and Protestant pastors. The second group is led by mostly by priests of ?tiz eglesiz? (the little church). The little church. the unorthodox, liberation priests - won the hearts of the people of Haiti long ago. They swept one of them, Father Aristide who is affectionately known as ?Titi,? to power in both 1990 and 2000. Although Aristide is exiled in South Africa, he remains nearly as popular today as he was a decade ago.
You may have guessed that I?m personally more drawn to the little church: it?s far closer to my flavor of progressive Christianity. But, given the situation of the vast majority of the Haitian people, I deeply sympathize with both groups of believers. I believe the religion of self-concern does not closely model the life of Jesus of Nazareth and to be wildly less effective in improving the lot of the Haitian people on earth. But I know that both are -- in reality -- survival strategies in the face of trials and tribulations that we people of empire and privilege can only imagine. They are survival strategies to face what Haitians call ?moun lotbot moun,? the mountains beyond mountains. When you climb a mountain and reach the summit and think life will be easy, all downhill from here, you catch sight of the mountains beyond mountains yet to climb. It?s a feeling that our ancestors, the pioneers on the Oregon trail, must have felt. So, if Haitians need a little bit of heaven in the afterlife to keep climbing the mountains beyond mountains, I understand. But I confess it is far more difficult for me to understand or to tolerate the religion of self-concern among the people of empire and privilege.
Consider for a moment how these two groups deal with the earth, with God?s good creation. Haitians (and others) following the religion of self-concern assume that the whole purpose of the universe is to allow them to ascend into a spiritual heaven. And while they are on earth, they have been granted the right to exploit the land and all creatures on earth. That?s what they take from Genesis. Obviously, they care little for God?s creation. However, in truth, the little church does not do much better in caring for creation. The little church focuses on human concerns, on social justice, because, like Jesus of Nazareth, it must confront the devastating impacts of the rich and powerful on the daily lives of the Haitian people. Jesus simplified all the commandments and all the law into two commandments: Love God and love thy neighbor. Since Jesus? love commandments failed to include explicitly ?Love creation,? the little church tends to neglect it.
In Haiti as elsewhere in the world, there are other believers like you and I,
· who experience awe at the grandeur of God?s creation
· who draw sustenance from the writings of St. Francis, Emerson, and Thoreau
· who read Genesis to call humanity to tend the garden of creation,
· who regard love of creation to be part of loving God, and thus part of the highest duty of every Christian.
Unfortunately, we have been unable to communicate to Christians in the developing world, including Haiti, the message of Caring for Creation. We fail to connect, in concrete terms, our care for creation with our care for humanity. Our failure makes us irrelevant to the poor and leads those who battle on behalf of the poor to label us ?elite? environmentalists.
But the lesson of Haiti, at least a lesson of Haiti, is that we must care for creation both in service to God and for the sake of humanity. The people of Haiti cannot prosper until they restore her land. Humanity cannot prosper unless we take care of the earth. Exploitation of the environment is a form of exploitation of humanity. And while those who embrace the religion of self-concern may have little interest in either humanity or creation, we who have been called, called to be followers of Jesus of Nazareth, are clearly called to care for both humanity and creation.
Our project in the small mountainous community of Zabriko makes our care for both creation and humanity in Haiti literally concrete. The concrete of caps that protect springs from contamination by animals, the concrete of reservoirs that store pure spring water, the concrete of community water taps from which clean drinking water flows. And the concrete of latrines that protect the people and rivers from bacteria and parasites, and provide nourishing compost rebuild the soils that have eroded away and washed down the river. From that rich soil, the people of Zabriko will grow and sell vegetables, and they will earn money for irrigation systems to double the productivity of the land and for schools to educate the 50% of children now excluded from even elementary education by their poverty. And, from the seeds of our ever-growing partnership with the people of Zabriko springs their eagerness to protect the water and land by reforesting the watershed and re-contouring the land.
So, by a modest, little sacrifice, by drinking our clean, plentiful tap water during Lent, we are starting to change the lives of the rural poor of Haiti in wonderful, profound, and enduring ways. And we are building a future for our children, a future that is not marred by the deep scars of extreme poverty, a future where God?s gift of a life sustaining land and climate is once again cherished and preserved. Join with us, join us, in this simple commitment to make our care for humanity and our care for creation concrete. Amen.