[Episcopal Church Office of Public Affairs] The on-demand video is now available for the groundbreaking forum initiated by the Episcopal Church, The Intersection of Poverty and the Environment, at www.episcopalchurch.org/intersection
During the two-hour presentation originating from the Cathedral of St. Mark’s in Salt Lake City, Utah, experts from religious, political and community-organizing areas examined the impact of “Can Sustainability Initiatives Lift Those in Poverty?” and “Reducing Environmental Health Consequences for those in Poverty.”
Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori presented a call to action in her keynote address. She started with the question, “What does it mean to be poor?”
The event was moderated by Kim Lawton of PBS’s Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly.
Panelists were: Bonnie Anderson, president of the Episcopal Church House of Deputies, and author of Spirituality and the Earth; Exploring Connections; Cecilia Calvo, environmental justice program coordinator, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops; Majora Carter, CEO, Majora Carter Group; and Forrest Cuch, CEO, Ute Tribal Enterprises, LLC.; Jaslyn Dobrahner, coordinator, Children’s Environmental Health & Environmental Justice Project, EPA; Dr. George Handley, Professor of Humanities at Brigham Young University and contributor to LDS Perspectives on Environmental Stewardship; Dr. Gerry Hardison, chief medical officer, Maseno Mission Hospital, Kenya, and Episcopal Church missionary; and the Rev. Michael Livingston, director, Poverty Initiative, National Council of Churches
Initiating the conversations will be two timely and compelling videos: “Kivalina,” from the Episcopal Church’s Wayfarer Series, which delves into the challenges brought by environmental issues facing a 1000 year old Arctic Circle village; “Environmental Health and Justice for Those in Poverty,” a video produced by the Diocese of Utah that highlights efforts underway to bring faith-based organizations, the community, and the government together in Salt Lake City to address environmental issues affecting the health of those in poverty.
The text of the presiding bishop’s address follows.
The Intersection of Poverty and the Environment
Call to Action
The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori
Presiding Bishop and Primate
The Episcopal Church
What does it mean to be poor? The words poor and poverty mean ‘little,’ or ‘not much,’ and the root that lies behind them has to do with getting. Not having or getting much – poverty is a lack or absence of the basic needs in life. It means a poor diet, poor health, poor education, poor transportation, and poor options. In the Abrahamic religious traditions, poverty confronts the divine dream of plenty – of a heavenly banquet in a land of peace with justice. Poverty also confronts this nation’s dream of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Poverty is not only the lack of adequate food, housing, employment, or education. Its even more grinding reality is the lack of dignity it presents. The poor lose the ability to choose most things that people here take for granted – feeding your children, having a roof over your head and water for bathing, the kind of work you will consider. It means being under the control of others or at the mercy of the elements. It is a significant part of the prison pipeline. It means taking a job that is dirty, dangerous, or illegal because you don’t see any other option. It means coming to be considered primarily as “labor” or “commodity” in the eyes of others. It is the root of slavery and trafficking.
Poverty is the precursor to epidemic human disasters: black lung disease in coal miners; the recent cholera in Haiti; lead poisoning in residential neighborhoods built on brownfields; cancer in downwinders; diabetes in the ghetto and on the reservation. Poverty is increasingly implicated in human disasters related to waste disposal, pollution, and climate change. The poor are doubly disadvantaged – they have less access to basic needs like food and health care, and they are far more likely to be unwitting recipients of toxins and the vicissitudes of natural events. The death and damage of tornadoes and earthquakes falls more exquisitely on those who live in cheaper housing. The poor in New Orleans and on reservations have no escape from flooding.
If poverty means having little choice, we might also think of the world around us as poor. The environment, the garden in which we live, this planet earth our island home, is poor in options. It responds to the inputs it receives with little choice. The bounty it is capable of producing shrinks or expands depending on those inputs. Wasteful human usage and wanton injections of waste in the form of garbage, effluents, and greenhouse gases are laying waste to the benefits and increasing the hazard to all parts of the ecosystem. Rising temperatures and levels of pollution are reducing our ability to grow food, to find adequate fresh water, to withstand storms, and to keep our cities from flooding. The richer parts of the globe, and this nation, have more time and more options in responding to these challenges. The poorer among us do not.
All the world’s great religious traditions charge us to care for the poor. Every step in human moral evolution has challenged us to succor those who have no options. The God of Abraham is the one who hears the cries of the poor, and sends help to wanderers in the wilderness. In a nation that proclaims its vision of liberty as a community that welcomes, “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” (1), we cannot hold up our heads if we ignore these kinds of injustice. There can and will be no peace for any if we do not hear and act.
The life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness proclaimed in our Declaration of Independence do not imply a selfish pursuit of life’s goods. These three are esteemed inalienable human rights, and part of the basic dignity of all human lives. They are meant to be equally available to all. The phrase about pursuit of happiness comes from an English bishop, Richard Cumberland, who reminded his readers in 1672 that “anyone who commits anything against the common good… consequently destroys some part of his own happiness.” (2) We cannot ignore the plight of our neighbors, for ultimately our own lives and liberty and happiness depend on the well-being of all.
Poverty can be cured – but not with money. Depending on the degree of illness, it will take a healthy dose of compassion, adopting the practices of spiritual wisdom, or a radical heart transplant. Poverty is a disease of the wider community, mostly communicated by those with the option to ignore it – for a while. Treatment begins with accompaniment and solidarity, community organizing, discovering and affirming the gifts already present in poor communities – gifts like the creativity it takes to survive in poverty. Antibodies to poverty begin to form when members of the community discover that their common humanity and dignity depend on one another.
We have gathered today to look at a couple of particular ways in which our wider partnership can lead to greater health for all, because when some are without options, we are all poorer. When a neighbor goes hungry, the neighborhood sleeps poorly – if not tonight, then tomorrow. When our planet is losing options, we are all going to suffer, eventually.
The challenge is to exercise the options we do have – beginning with choosing to notice and do something about the poverty in our midst. Build partnerships that will change the disease of willful ignorance in some parts of our communities. Stand in solidarity with the poorest to challenge economic, political, and social structures that remove options. Act compassionately to address hungers in body, mind, soul, and spirit. We will only find true freedom in standing with the poor – that is the only option that matters, ultimately and eternally.
1 Emma Lazarus, “The New Colossus,” on the Statue of Liberty.
2 Richard Cumberland, “That Reason, duly considering all the necessary Causes of Human Happiness, can never pronounce, That any Thing can be committed against the Common Good by any one, without lessening those Causes, and, consequently, destroying some part of his own Happiness.” A Treatise of the Laws of Nature, Ch 5, par xxxv.