Listening to Louisiana at the GreenFaith Convergence

Last week, I had the opportunity to join 60 faith leaders in New Orleans for the Greenfaith annual Climate Convergence.

My elevator speech in the days since has been something along these lines: “It was an interfaith gathering of emerging leaders who are passionate about environmental sustainability/climate change/creation care, coming together to network, brainstorm, and learn; all interpreted through the lenses of our respective faith traditions, but united by a shared love of our common home.”

But anyone who knows me (and has given me more than 2 minutes to gush about this convergence) has gotten an earful. Besides being one of the most intentionally constructed and well-planned conferences I’ve ever attended (thumbs up, Stacey Kennealy and company), the content and the engagement with the richly diverse people and culture of Louisiana made it a holistic experience; a far cry from conferences that take place entirely in hotels, islands wholly separated from their surrounding communities.

Speaking of islands, one of the reasons that New Orleans (and, more broadly Southern Louisiana) was chosen for this convergence is Isle de Jean Charles, the United States’ “ground zero for climate change.” This island has sustained its inhabitants - coming from a tapestry of ancestry, made up in large part of the indigenous Biloxi-Chitamacha-Choctaw tribe - for over 100 years. The land once (and still does, in some areas) produced sugar cane and fed grazing goats, while the water teemed with shrimp, blue crab and too many fish for me to remember. But like too many global stories of fertile, utopian land, this story of Isle de Jean Charles is rapidly drawing to a close, as rising sea levels and largely unchecked coastal erosion have stolen the island, taking the form of nightmarish rapids of mud and saltwater during the stormy season and insidious erosion during moments of calm. Since 1955, 90% of the landmass has disappeared.

I heard stories, read articles, watched videos about the island. I learned about evacuation efforts, resettlements of these folks to other parts of the country. The midwest boy in me - landlocked all of my life - pictured the vastness of the Gulf swallowing Isle de Jean Charles, and I breathed a sigh of relief knowing that these efforts were underway. But when we visited the island, when we spoke to the people living there and heard stories of their lineage and their livelihood, so deeply woven into the fabric of this land, to the place, my naivete was thrown into sharp relief and my “knowledge” of coastal Louisiana became a tiny, singular and uninformed perspective in the story of a people. It was impressed upon me that we can’t address the specific issues troubling the folks of Louisiana from a distance; any approach we take as a country, as individuals, as people of faith, has to be informed by the carefully listened-to stories from those affected by climate change. To be sure, action must be taken, policy must be written, injustice must be corrected and reparations made; but the first step, for grassroots activists and high-powered policymakers alike, is listening to the land and to the people that live on it.

The convergence established the notion of people and place at the beginning, in an exercise that set the tone for the whole week (at least for me). When we introduced ourselves on the first day of the conference, we each came forward with a small vial of water. “My name is Austin, and I bring water from the Altgeld-Sawyer community garden in Chicago, IL.” I poured it into a glass basin. One by one, my fellow leaders announced themselves and presented us with the water that came from sources close to their homes and their hearts.

“I bring water from the Hudson River, which has been almost irreversibly polluted.”

“I bring water from Los Angeles, which still languishes in drought.”

“I bring water from Flint, Michigan.”

“I bring water from Orlando.”

It is both a cliche and an understatement to say that our world is troubled. When I left the people of Louisiana - a woman who built a shrimp fishing company from the ground up, owners of a restaurant deep in the bayou who laughed and danced to traditional music with us, a priest who watches his backyard diminish with each passing year, a Katrina survivor who lost two family members to the storm and used that tragedy as a springboard to community action, a Vietnam War veteran on a park bench in the French Quarter who reminded me that “life is life and murder is murder, no matter which side you’re on” - I left with the same thing I’ll leave you with:

The problems we face as a planet cannot and should not be divorced from the people who experience them. As people of faith, we have a mandate to treat others in the way that we want to be treated, and integral to that mandate is listening to their stories. Stories highlight and reinforce our common humanity and equip us to do the most amount of good in whatever work we find ourselves in.

Great progress was made at this convergence as leaders from all over the Americas connected around common goals, shared resources, planned action together, and showed the world that faith is hollow when it neglects the planet that sustains it. I wish you could have been there, y’all, and I wish that I could share every detail of every second with you because each one was loaded with value. But I can’t, so I have tried to give you a snapshot of what I learned in beautiful Louisiana. In a phrase: Go forth and listen!

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