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Reflection: Migration and Climate Change

In conjunction with two important commemorations this week, World Day of Migrants and Refugees and the feast of St. Francis, a friar who is passionate about the values of St. Francis – caring the creation and for the marginalized – writes about the need to embrace the marginalized, especially those most severely affected by climate change.

Earlier this year, I traveled to Yuma, Arizona, to help out at the migrant shelter run by the local Catholic Charities and the Salvation Army. Most of the migrants were from the rural, indigenous areas of Guatemala. “Welcome to the United States,” I said to a man in his 30’s, slightly over 5 feet tall. His hands, gnarly with veins and hard work, immediately reminded me of the hands of uncles and grandfather who, back in Poland worked in the fields wielding in their hands a plow and other agricultural tools.

Jacek with the former co-president of Pax Christi International, Marie Dennis, OFS. (Photo courtesy of Nadim Asfour of CTS)

The Guatemalan man’s name was Emmanuel. As I conversed with him, I asked about how was his work as campesino. He took a deep breath and said to me, “Padrecito, la tierra ya no da”, that is, “our land no longer produces a harvest.” Emmanuel then continued to explain how he lived in the so-called Dry Corridor and that over the last few years they suffered from the extreme and prolonged drought. “Oftentimes, we did not have enough water even for ourselves to drink. The corn and bean harvests have failed, and we had nothing to eat. My son and I traveled north to help our family stay alive.”

In Central America and in many places around the globe, climate-induced extreme and prolonged periods of drought and super-charged storms are forcing millions of people to migrate. Just as in the case of Emmanuel from Guatemala, crop failure, hunger and the resulting specter of starvation, leaving people with no choice but to leave their home. Climate change has already created millions of invisible refugees and is now one of the leading causes of forced migration around the world.

The report Groundswell: Preparing for Internal Climate Migration (2018) by World Bank Group projects that, by 2050, without concrete climate and development action, 143 million people across Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, and South Asia — could be forced to move within their own countries to escape the slow-onset impacts of climate change. In Latin America, “internal climate migrants” could number over 17 million. Given the many tipping points, feedback loops and the political intransigence and obstacles, most notably in countries such as the U.S. and Brazil, the projected number of migrants over the next 30 years may reach as many as 1.5 billion people worldwide.

The International Organization for Migration is one of the organizations that make such high projection in its lists of possible scenarios.

On Sept. 29, we commemorated the 105th World Day of Migrants and Refugees. And on Oct. 4, we celebrate the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi: the one who found Christ in the embrace of the poor, who dared to respond to the divine call to rebuild God’s house falling into ruin, a man described as a troubadour of hope. Given the signs of the times, how do we grow in fidelity to the core values of our Franciscan tradition? I would like to offer a few suggestions:

  1. To truly embrace the migrants and refugees, charity is not enough. We must dare to seek an understanding of some of the social, economic and political forces that fuel the climate and migrant crises. I highly recommend a book I recently read: “Storming the Wall: Climate Change, Migration, and Homeland Security” by Todd Miller. Let us make our local fraternities, parishes, and schools into communities of moral discourse. There is a lot of misinformation or even outright propaganda that obfuscates the truth and muddies people’s conscience on critically important issues such as climate emergency or migration.

The report by World Bank Group that projects that millions of people in the developing world could be forced to move to escape the slow-onset impacts of climate change.

Pope Francis reminds us that as religious, “we must be prophets, not to play at being one.” I often think of the words of the prophet Isaiah 56:10 condemning Israel’s watchmen for being blind, lacking the knowledge and being like mute dogs failing to protect that which has been entrusted to them. A teenage girl Greta Thunberg teaches us how to be prophetic. May we learn from her and redouble our efforts to engage people in our parishes and schools, in the Religious Education classes, Youth Groups. As the world is facing a collapse of the life-support system of our planet, let us help our young people to hear and respond to Christ calling them by name to rebuild God’s house falling into ruin. Our Franciscan tradition challenges us to help young people to engage politically in social movements for systemic change.

  1. St. Francis’ embrace of the marginalized and his mission to rebuild God’s house were expressions of his love for the Church. In our contemporary world, we, too, must not shy away from being a prophetic voice within our institutional Church in the U.S. As Franciscans in the United States, we have a special moral responsibility to help open up the eyes and ears of those who choose to ignore the cry of the migrants and refugees and the clamor of our mother, sister earth.

As I periodically watch EWTN nightly news, I realize that we have much work to do to challenge the coverage of certain media outlets that influence millions of Catholics in our country. While appealing to the sensibilities of many traditional Catholics, these and other media outlets often distort the moral consistency and integrity of the Gospel. Willingly or not, they provide excuses and strengthen the hand of those who oppress the poor, fuel the corruption, scapegoat the immigrants and refugees, and destroy our common home. May we be collaborative, creative and courageous in challenging ourselves and others as  we journey as troubadours of hope along the path of justice and ecological conversion.

 — Jacek, a member of Holy Name Province who lives in Silver Spring, Maryland, is a member of the Order’s JPIC Animation Committee. He currently ministers at Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington. The previous reflection published in HNP Today, written by Brian Jordan, OFM, was about Labor Day and St. Francis Breadline.

Editor’s note: Friars interested in writing a reflection for HNP Today on a timely topic — a holiday, current event, holy day, or other seasonal themes – are invited to contact the HNP Communications Office at communications@hnp.org. Additional reflections by friars can be found in the Spiritual Resources page of HNP.org.

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