Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Coming Together for the Common Good

Stories about division and conflict among religious groups are hardly news because they are all too common. So examples of diverse religious groups joining efforts are all the more important because of their rarity. The call to reduce greenhouse gas production 80% by 2050 should be old news by now, but the current support for that effort from religious groups in Massachusetts is noteworthy because of the remarkable diversity of the groups involved. From Unitarian Universalists to Quakers, from mainline Protestants to the Armenian church and beyond Christianity to Jews and Muslims, religious organizations within the state have found common ground and formed the Massachusetts Interfaith Climate Action Network , calling upon believers to take up the cause of caring for the planet with a religious zeal.

As long as one accepts the mounting scientific evidence, a strong argument for changing our behavior in relation to the environment can be built simply from consideration of self-interest, or at least the interests of our children and our children's children. Religions might add beliefs about a deity's involvement in creating the universe or an on-going concern for more than the human species on the planet, but the truly uniting element is a concern for the common good. While religion is not required to have a concern for others, those of us who are religious need to hear that message of inclusion at least as loudly as the doctrines that can lead us to exclusivity. The inclusiveness of the call from the Massachusetts Interfaith Climate Action Network is seen not just in the way that these diverse groups are coming together but also in the particular emphasis of their call.

The group's efforts include the expected elements of support for cleaner energy sources and conservation. Interestingly, they are also calling attention to an environmental issue too often neglect; the fact that poor people suffer disproportionately. Perhaps it is the addition of the religious imagination that brought this into focus. Regardless of the source, we need to heed the call to prioritize care for the poor and investment in low-income communities. In particular, we should invest in training and support for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, and those coming out of the prison system, to obtain jobs in the growing green sector. It is also critical to distribute funding and resources that increase community energy self-reliance, particularly investing in community organizations in low-income communities. This sort of vision takes into account the fact that the burden of change so necessary for the future needs to be distributed not equally, but fairly. Those best able to afford the costs should bear them. This vision also finds hope that in the process of addressing a problem in one area we might also find solutions in another.

These types of efforts ought to find broad support if even just for the positive impact they have in providing hope. We should be buoyed by hope when we do the work of creating a better tomorrow. Likewise, we should rejoice in endeavors that bring us together across boundaries. In this way we create the kind of community that can build a better world well into the future.

Monday, April 07, 2008

A Lesson in Caring

Central Massachusetts is a long way from Zambia, but somewhere soon in Zambia 380 care kits will arrive that were assembled at Tantasqua Regional High School this week. These kits will assist people providing care for people living with AIDS. The profound nature of of providing something as basic as anti-fungal cream was made evident to students on Friday when they heard the testimony of Princess Zulu. When she was 17, both of her parents died from AIDS. Her mother died while she was on a five-hour journey to find anti-fungal cream in hopes of alleviating a portion of her suffering and possibly extend her life. Princess Zulu, herself living with HIV, told this and other tales with a nobility that belied her suffering. Her presence held the students' attention and clearly earned their respect.

The creation of these care kits was the culmination of a year-long project begun when the summer reading list included a book about a young African woman's experience with AIDS. For young adults unlikely to be touched personally by the AIDS pandemic, this had to have been an eye-opening read. Thankfully, it also touched and opened hearts. Students led an effort that raised nearly $10,000 to help people that none of them are likely ever to meet. To the credit of the school district, they are teaching the next generation of leaders the importance of becoming world citizens. They are learning the answer to the question “who is my neighbor?” is anyone anywhere who suffers and for whom you can make a difference. Isolation, insulation and impotence in the face of massive global problems are easily created with simple and indifferent silence. We do our youth a disservice when we fail to expose them to the truth that one billion people on this planet struggle to exist on one dollar a day or less. They are better able to create a brighter future when they have hope that they can change the fact that 6000 people die every day from AIDS or that the preventable, treatable disease of malaria remains the leading cause of death for African children under the age of five. We can take comfort in the fact that these young people are looking at these problems and imagining solutions.

The students also got a quick civics lesson when a college student asked them to join in advocacy to support the reauthorization of the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). If we all learned our civics lessons correctly, we should know that emails, letters and phone calls to our legislators help to make our democracy work. We can join with these future leaders today by supporting them in the effort to support this worthwhile legislation. $30 billion over five years is a small gift from us that could mean the gift of life to thousands. Caring for others is a lesson we can never learn too well.