After Hurricane Sandy, I trekked with a Mennonite Disaster Service assessment team out to the peninsula of the Rockaway neighborhoods of New York City. This thin peninsula juts south from Long Island into the Atlantic in the borough of Queens. It’s a beautiful spot for a beach vacation, but a precariously situated stretch of city neighborhoods packed with people.
There are a lot of political issues that I don’t speak to directly. I try to avoid issues with easy-to-figure-out delineations between left and right in the political conversations that boil over into the life of the church. But driving on the thin peninsula with feet of sand blown in from the beach, cars tossed indiscriminately by rising water and trees stripped by wind, I had a distinct moment of realization: “So this is what global climate change looks like.”
I’m ready to believe and name that the relationship between humans and the planet is provoking — or at least providing the perfect storm of situations to cultivate — significant changes that will continue to have serious repercussions for all communities.
As usual in the human community, the most vulnerable are often the people that Jesus suggested we should be the most concerned about — the poor, the elderly, people with disabilities. In Staten Island where the most deaths occurred in the United States from Hurricane Sandy, most who died were from those vulnerable populations.
I do all sorts of things that both contribute to climate change and attempt to take the pressure off. I live in a walkable neighborhood. I recycle religiously and have a garden with my neighbors. I purchase wind-generated energy. But I drive a pick-up truck about 25,000 miles a year, take frequent airplane flights and have innumerable spare laptops and cellphones lying around in the house that will contribute to mounds of toxic electronic waste someday. “Living simply so that others may simply live” is complicated.
As a kid growing up around Johnstown, Pa., I learned rebuilding without rethinking our relationship with the terrain leads to further and repeated destruction.
Our little neighborhood was ripped apart by a tragic flash flood in 1977. It never really recovered. Some houses were never rebuilt. Other reconstructed homes were elevated to avoid first-floor inundations with water if a similar 100-year storm would occur again.
In Johnstown, those storms seem to come every 40 to 50 years. Along the Northeast coast, we’ve had two 100-year storms in the last two years. Journalists and neighbors in the path of the storm’s destruction have remarked that those communities will never be the same after the storm.
Seeing storm-ravaged communities provoked a graphic realization that our actions — our behaviors as humans in an interconnected system — are not divorced from the winds, rain and waves. Instead, we are a part of the creation God has made and called good. God has charged men and women to tend this gift of planetary existence and to live well within it.
Paul writes that all of creation is waiting in anxious expectation for the sons and daughters of God to be revealed. Part of that revealing is reconnecting the human relationship with all of creation, in all of its beauty and raging. It’s connecting our care of the planet with our love of the Creator and our neighbors. Both our action and inaction are intertwined with our relationship to the Divine.