America’s Climate Refugees and the Church

It has been all over the news. The New York Times, National Geographic, Mother Jones, and even USA Today have published articles about it. Even the United States is susceptible to the threat of population displacement due to climate change.

The whole story centers around an island off the coast of Louisiana: Isle de Jean Charles. I first heard about the island in 2016, from the New York Times’ article, Resettling the First American ‘Climate Refugees’I even mentioned the connection in an article I wrote at the time: With Open Arms: Thoughts on Global Refugees. Now, two years later, I ran into the island again in the CityLab article, How to Save a Town from Rising Waters by photojournalist Michael Isaac Stein.

The article points out the subtle details of the issue, from the 99 remaining members of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw band of Native Americans that remain on the island, to the fact that an incredible 98% of the island has disappeared since 1955. Those 99 remaining inhabitants of the island have now been dubbed “America’s first climate refugees”, which should have a profound effect on the way Americans view climate change. It is now a national issue, as well as an international issue.

Despite the prevalence of this topic in mainstream media over the past few years, there is one point which has hardly been discussed: how does the church respond to climate refugees? There have, of course, been some articles responding to this question. America: The Jesuit Review, and Faith and Forced Migration both have fascinating articles that discuss this question. But I believe that it is important, as an Anabaptist organization focused on climate solutions, to respond to this question from the perspective of the Anabaptist community.

To understand the Anabaptist perspective on such an issue, I think it is important to examine MC USA’s Confession of Faith In a Mennonite Perspective, which lays out what it means to follow the way of Jesus as a peacemaker, from the perspective of an Anabaptist understanding of faith. One section is particularly useful in understanding how the church might respond to such an issue: Article 22. Peace, Justice, and Nonresistance. The section says that “according to the Bible, justice involves healing and restoring relationships. That is a reason for the special concern for the poor and the oppressed evident in the Bible.”

This understanding of a Biblical basis for showing concern for the poor and oppressed is further reinforced by the story of Naomi and Ruth. Realistically, this story gives us the best understanding of how to respond specifically to refugees of environmental disasters, as Naomi and her family have been displaced by a famine throughout the country of Judah (famines are often caused by sudden and extreme changes in weather patterns, although not exclusively, this could very well be the case in this story). Before returning to her home country, it is clear that Naomi and her family are well cared for by Ruth and others. After the famine subsides, Naomi returns and is accompanied by Ruth as a comforter and companion back to her now devastated home.

The connections to climate refugees abound, as not only is Naomi displaced by an environmental disaster, but her desire to return home is validated by Ruth, who joins her on the journey back. In the same way, as the church attempts to care for climate refugees, both in the United States and around the world, we must not also forget their desire to return home. We need to be leaders not only caring for the oppressed but fighting against the oppression of – in this case – climate change, which would force them from their homes.

For the people of the Isle de Jean Charles, and the church in America, it is important to respond as Ruth did – with open arms, and with an understanding of the importance of the places that have been lost. Louisiana’s climate refugees are just the start, as islands and coastlines around the United States are eroding, and becoming victims of sea-level rise. From Tangier Island in Virginia to the coastal erosion of California, the church in America will have to respond to this issue, no matter where they are located. It is for us to decide how we respond, and it is important to make this decision now, while the number remains at 99.

By Daniel Bellerose

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