Reflection: Berta, Jacinda and Us April 22, 2018
While the Canadian media’s attention has been split between covering the tragedy of the Humboldt Broncos and the political maneuvering over Kinder Morgan’s TransMountain pipeline expansion, people are only just starting to notice that the province’s Crown Prosecution service quietly gave the Mount Polley Mine a pass on prosecution, claiming there was not enough evidence to go forward with a case filed by Bev Sellars, former chief of the Xat’sull (Soda Creek) First Nation. (hat-sull)
On August 4, 2014, 26 billion litres of waste water containing dangerous chemicals poured into local waterways when the dam at the Mount Polley Mine broke in the middle of the night. “The tailings pond collapse caused a spill that lasted over 12 hours. The massive deposit of mine waste that entered Quesnel Lake, a source of drinking water for residents of Likely, B.C., contained mercury, arsenic, selenium, copper and other heavy metals and remains settled on the lake’s floor to this day. Quesnel Lake is one of the deepest fjord lakes in the world and is home to a quarter of the province’s sockeye salmon population. The long-term effects of the spill and its contamination of fish habitat is still uncertain. “ While the federal government could still file charges under the fisheries acts, no-one is holding their breath. (Carol Linnet, ww.desmog.ca, Feb 3, 2018)
“For as long as I can remember, the waters of B.C.’s Quesnel Lake played an important role in my community,” said Jacinda Mack, coordinator of First Nations Women Advocating Responsible Mining. “We fished for trout and swam in its depths, camped along its shores and picked berries and medicines in the surrounding Cariboo Mountains. The entire time, we were sharing our Xat’sull language and culture with our children.” Jacinda’s community has been devastated by the mine waste spill and the ongoing contamination of the water through mine activities. Despite calls from affected communities, church groups, and environmental organizations, there has been no accountability or justice for the people, for the animals, for all life living near Quesnel Lake.
Seven thousand kilometres away, Indigenous Lenca communities in Honduras are fighting to stop a mega-dam from being built on the sacred Gualcarque River. Berta Caceres was their leader when on March 2, 2016, she was shot and killed in her home for her outspoken voice of dissent. Berta worked tirelessly to protect a river and a way of life at risk. The Gualcarque River provides Berta’s community with food and drinking water, and Berta’s murder sent a clear message to anyone standing up to protect the earth that they were in danger.
The lone witness to her murder said, “Our dream is to build a different world, to generate life amid so much violence and death, but they do not even allow us to do that.” Surely Berta, and her community, were walking in the most fearsome valleys in the days and months before her murder. As an outspoken and committed woman leader, she had been defamed, criticized, and threatened, yet her struggle for the earth and the sacred water continued; evil surrounded her, yet she walked proudly in the footsteps of her ancestors, listening and answering the call of Creator to protect life.
Today, April 22 is Earth Day. It’s a day to remember and care for the earth. It’s also a day for action and justice. There’s a common chorus in Latin American hymns, “God is not in heaven. God is in our brothers and sisters.” We know this from 1 John 3:16–18: “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”
Berta laid down her life for her kin; her death is remembered as the day her seed was sown to be reborn in a million others who would live by her example. She wasn’t only fighting for the river sacred to her people, but for all rivers and lakes. “Wake up humanity!” she said as she received the Goldman Environmental Prize the year before she was killed. “There is no time left.”
This year’s theme for KAIROS’ Earth Day is learning from First Nations to protect our watersheds. We have seen that in the debates over Kinder Morgan, not all First Nations voices speak together, and it’s important to honour that diversity. For some, the pipeline will bring much needed jobs and economic development. For others, the risk to the land and especially to the waters that flow over the lands and the ocean that surrounds us is just too great. Some have said this will be B.C. First Nations “Standing Rock” – the time to insist that governments honour their commitment to First Nations not to make any decisions regarding their territories without their full input and consent. This right has been upheld by the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People’s, and it has been endorsed by our own United Church of Canada as part of our commitment to living with respect in creation and in right relations with Canada’s indigenous peoples.
There are 300 watersheds on Vancouver Island alone – and several in the Westshore. As I walk Megan, especially in the early mornings or just before bed, I can hear the sound of rushing water everywhere: the creek running through Mill Hill Park, the water running in the ditches, the small waterfall crossed by the Galloping Goose, and the various small trickles and streams feeding into Thetis Lake. Many of us take the time to walk by the ocean at Royal Bay or Esquimalt Lagoon. These places have special meaning to many of us – perhaps even most of us. I commented the other day how much we love to sing about water, sailing, being out in a boat, even in a storm, when it comes to our hymns. Human beings, even prairie folk, seem to have a strong affinity for water. Even babies! I love watching them splash and play at the beach or the pool.
There is something in us that recognizes the sacredness, the specialness, of water. Science tells us how important it is, but I think our bodies and our hearts knew long before our heads did. Hear these words from the Psalmist:
Psalms 104: 25-30
“There is the sea, vast and spacious, teeming with creatures beyond number—living things both large and small. There the ships go to and fro, and the leviathan, which you formed to frolic there. These all look to you to give them their food at the proper time. When you give it to them, they gather it up; when you open your hand, they are satisfied with good things. When you hide your face, they are terrified; when you take away their breath, they die and return to the dust. When you send your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the earth.” (NIV)
Contrast that image with this month’s cover story in the United Church Observer magazine that highlights the problems with plastics filling our oceans and waterways. I try to imagine a world where most fish have been choked out by microfibers and plastic waste, the song of the frogs in the marshes at night has died, there is no fresh water left to drink without expensive filtration, and untreated sludge makes swimming, boating or fishing dangerous or impossible. I try to imagine a country where law-abiding protestors are killed with impunity and armed conflict erupts on our own lands over the few water resources left. We are not so terribly far away from this scenario; some of it is already happening.
But God has a different dream for the world. The stories of Eden remind us of the beauty of the natural world before humans chose to disobey God. They also remind us that we are given the charge of watching over creation and caring for it. The story of the Great Flood ends with God promising ALL of creation that it will never happen again. All living creatures are part of that promise, not just God. In the visions of John of Patmos, God’s new creation is imagined as a city rather than a garden, but it’s a city with a river of living water – clean, vibrant, life-giving water – running through its centre. It’s a city with trees that bear sacred fruit. It’s a city where no-one is hurt, no-one mourns, no-one burns from hunger and thirst. This is a vision of a renewed world – a new heaven AND a new earth.
We know God’s deep love for the world. We know that Jesus came to redeem not just us, but the whole world. (John 3:16) We know how the fate of the world may well rest on what human beings choose to do – and that our fate is irrevocably tied to the fate of the planet on which we live – its lands, its waters, its creatures.
This Earth Day is a day to remember that we have only one planet and we, as guardians of the earth, must protect it. As we struggle to respond to the call to be people of faith, caretakers of the earth and each other, let our discomfort challenge us to use our voice for the voiceless, the trees, the waters and the mountains, like Berta and Jacinda. This Earth Day, as we walk on new grass and the abundance of life and promise blooms all around us, let us work together to protect our common home. Let us defend the Earth and work to heal it, honouring the sacrifices that so many have made for us and doing our part to live the vision of Jesus for a world of peace with justice.
Today I want to ask you to make one commitment – just one – to protect this holy and sacred Earth. It could be a commitment to pick up garbage on your daily walks. It could be a commitment to learn more about issues surrounding mining, water protection, hydro projects, pipelines and First Nations activism. You might commit to finding ways to “green” your house, your workplace, or this church. You might commit to using less water, or not buying bottled water. You might commit to reducing your use of plastics. You might ask your MP, MLA or the leader of the party you vote for where they stand on environmental issues. The possibilities are as many as the people seated in the pews today. If every member of every United Church congregation in Canada made and kept one new commitment to safeguard our planet and its water resources, that would be a great step in the right direction. I’m going to give you a minute to think about that. Write it down on your bulletin or a scrap of paper and take it home. Put it where you’ll see it every day. Let’s take a moment now…
May God give us courage and persistence as we care for the Creation of which we are a part. Blessed be the Earth, blessed be the Earth-maker, Blessed be all that lives on and in the Earth. Amen.