All posts by sndden

To heal the Earth, we must begin by sowing seeds of life

Seedlings (Unsplash/Markus Spiske)
(Unsplash/Markus Spiske)

The latest International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on the science of climate change, the sixth update of its ongoing research, begins by stating that the climate crisis is “unequivocally” caused by fossil fuel burning and forest destruction, among other human activities that have abruptly altered crucial Earth systems.

The IPCC cautions that possible collapse of Earth’s ecological systems, including major Atlantic Ocean currents, ice caps and the Amazon rainforest, “cannot be ruled out.”

Tempting as it may be, we need not resort to apocalyptic cynicism. We can literally sow seeds of life and hope, individually and communally, that renew Mother Earth’s regenerative powers. Sowing seeds, whether in one pot or a larger garden, is a way of practically living degrowth — pursuing an economic system based on policies that promote sustainability, rather than constant growth — and cultivating the radical abundance of God’s creation.

As I write, I stand on the unceded and occupied land of the Mohican people, “land of the waters that never run still,” or as white settlers here in Massachusetts call it, the Housatonic River. I believe we must begin individual change where we are and acknowledge how capitalism and colonization have divided us from Mother Earth and ourselves.

On recent walks along these “waters that never run still,” my partner and I have lamented how people fishing must throw the fish back into the river because the water and fish have been contaminated by the former General Electric plant that dumped PCBs into the water from 1932 through 1977.

Our greatest hope for the life of Mother Earth, however, is in our own individual and collective rootedness in her awesome regenerative life systems.

Vandana Shiva, the renowned physicist, ecological activist, mother and award-winning author, celebrates how “if we are part of the Earth, every being — it doesn’t matter whether they’re human beings or not — but every being, every tree, every animal, every microbe is part of an amazing Earth family. … There are no hierarchies in Earth democracy.”

Shiva summons us to see how we are Earth “interbeings” who are intricately interconnected with all other forms of life, and who need to claim our true common identity and power to live in harmony and reciprocity with Mother Earth.

Our greatest power, individually and communally, Shiva contends in the video “Saving Seeds at Home,” is in saving and sowing diverse seeds in our own homes and gardens. “The nature of seed,” she explains, is “to multiply, to be shared,” yet “all the new laws are designed to prevent us from saving seed to make seed uniform rather than diverse and to remove human intelligence from the reproduction and breeding of seed.”

She invites each of us to become “a scientist in service of life on Earth” to end the ways in which “colonization of this planet and life on it is taking place through seed, through genetic engineering and patenting.”

Discussing how agribusiness has created drought in California and does violence against the Earth and people, Shiva urges us to “get out of the supermarket, get out of the drought, get out of seed-slavery, get out of food slavery” and embrace “soil freedom by knowing your seed, saving it,” even “if it’s one pot on your windowsill, just a terrace in the city” or creating a garden in your yard or community.

In her book Who Really Feeds the World?: The Failures of Agribusiness and the Promise of Agroecology, Shiva notes that 40% of greenhouse gas emissions causing climate change are from fossil-fuel-based industrial agriculture. She adds that agribusiness is waging war on biodiversity — by eviscerating as much as 90% of agricultural biodiversity — and a war on humanity by creating a food system in which 1 billion people are “permanently hungry” and another billion suffer from “food-related diseases” like obesity.

By contrast, Shiva writes, local farming communities produce 70% of the world’s food and “reflect diverse agroclimatic features” that protect biodiversity while developing diverse food cultures at the same time.

The movement Shiva initiated in India, Navdanya, has created more than 150 seed banks and trained more than 1 million farmers in “chemical-free, biodiversity-based organic farming.” This kind of local organic farming has “increased nutrition twofold,” and organic farmers earn 10 times more than commodity growing farmers because they do not waste money on chemicals and commercial machinery, Shiva says.

Indeed, Shiva’s leadership of the Navdanya organization in India since 1987 demonstrates the power of Gandhian nonviolent transformation through cultivation of seed diversity, living soil and food sovereignty.

Rishi Kumar, a farmer who has helped create hundreds of gardens in Los Angeles and serves as executive director of the Sarvodaya Institute, promotes gardening as a way of individual and collective healing, offering tips for starting at home.

The Sarvodaya Institute also cultivates gardening through its mission to end “colonial aggression against communities of color as the underlying cause of damage and destruction to our body” and commits to the “disassembly and decomposition of colonial power structures through all of our work.” Struggles for racial and ecological liberation are one, as I argue in my forthcoming book.

As we take individual initiative to sow living seed and soil, may we recognize Jesus’ invitation to understand how the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds, but when it grows becomes a large bush where the birds of the sky come and dwell in its branches, as Matthew’s Gospel says.

May all birds of the sky, bees, worms and grubs of the soil, and all creatures dwell in our gardens throughout Mother Earth, so all of our human and nonhuman kin may thrive. We are called to sow, share and multiply seeds of hope and healing for ourselves and all life.

Teresian Sisters in Malawi work to stem violence against people with albinism

Sr. Beatrice Mbilima of the Teresian Sisters (second from left) visits Loness Masautso's family in Mtendere, a large village some 60 miles south of the Malawian capital of Lilongwe.
Sr. Beatrice Mbilima of the Teresian Sisters (second from left) visits Loness Masautso’s family in Mtendere, a large village some 60 miles south of the Malawian capital of Lilongwe. The sister with her congregation is working to improve the lives of people with albinism in southern Malawi. (GSR photo/Doreen Ajiambo

MTENDERE, MALAWI — “We are not safe here; people are hunting for our body parts. We keep on hiding when we see strangers coming to our village. It’s time we sought asylum in the U.S.”

These were the words of 35-year-old Loness Masautso, a woman living with albinism in this remote, deeply traditional corner of southern Malawi.

Masautso, whose husband and three children all have albinism, said they survived an attempted attack in December last year by people wanting to kill them for their body parts. She said people unknown to them and armed with knives appeared at her door at 8 p.m. after the family had eaten dinner and one shouted to others, “Money is here! Money is here! Money is here!” People with albinism are often referred to as “money” because their body parts can be sold illegally.

“We became so afraid and I knew we were going to die,” said a teary Masautso, who lives in a small mud brick house. “My husband hid the children in a separate room, and then we started to shout until neighbors came out of their houses and caught one of the attackers.” They later called the police, who arrested the man, she said.

Such attacks have changed the daily lives of people with albinism in this part of the world as many often live in constant fear for their lives. Children run away from strangers. Adults lock themselves inside their houses and hide under their beds when they see a stranger from afar. Local vigilantes accompany a few students going to school to ensure they are safe. Community members guard the adults with albinism as they work the farms. Their villages are also protected by vigilantes to ensure those with the genetic condition are not attacked, abducted or even killed.

Catholic women religious in Malawi visit them every morning and evening and mobilize members of the surrounding communities to protect them from attackers. In addition, they work to open up access to livelihoods and dermatological, vision and other health care services.

Masautso’s family is among thousands of families with albinism in the southern African nation who describe their homeland as a “hell” and are seeking asylum in the U.S. and Europe because of the persecution. Albinism includes a group of inherited disorders where there is little or no production of the pigment melanin, according to the Mayo Clinic. Melanin gives skin, hair and eyes their color and plays a role in the development of optic nerves. Reduced quantities or absence of melanin leads to vision problems for people with albinism.

People with albinism in Malawi continue to be targeted for their body parts, which, due to their whiteness, are believed to bring good luck and wealth. The attacks include killings, tampering with graves, attempted abductions and physical violence. The assaults and killings are said to be fueled by poverty and superstition, which lead those afflicted to live in fear of harm and denial of human rights such as education, health care, employment and family life.

The landlocked country has more than 134,000 people with albinism, representing 0.8% of the total population, according to the 2018 Malawi Population and Housing Census. Since 2015, more than 160 people with albinism have been killed in the country, and thousands of others have faced various human rights violations, according to media reports. Similar cases of violations are also being reported in neighboring Tanzania, Mozambique and Zambia.

Religious leaders, local officials and elders told Global Sisters Report that witch doctors promote that body parts of an albino have magical powers to bring luck, including making someone rich or powerful, and that having sex with people with albinism cures diseases like HIV/AIDS, infertility and cancer. They said an entire human body of an albino can fetch up to $75,000, while an arm or a leg could bring about $2,000.

The illegal business is fueled by poverty, they said, adding that the majority of Malawians are poor and are looking for ways to come out of poverty. In April 2021, the small agrarian country was ranked the fifth poorest in the world, based on International Monetary Fund data.

“These people are being killed like animals because of lust for money,” said Loyd Kuyenda, a village administrator overseeing Mtendere, a large village some 60 miles south of the Malawian capital of Lilongwe. “People with albinism have been forced to hide in their houses to avoid being murdered or kidnapped.”

The widespread killing of people with albinism for their body parts and amputations of their limbs has prompted religious leaders, including nuns, to launch a campaign to educate the communities to abandon cultural beliefs and stop targeting albino people.

Teresian Sr. Beatrice Mbilima who leads the campaign, said people with albinism often face isolation and stigma for their entire lives and are denied their basic rights, such as the right to go to school, have access to health care services, get jobs and have a family.

“We are preaching the word of God to the people so that it changes their minds and [leads them to] abandon their belief in witchcraft,” said Mbilima, noting that the susceptibility to witchcraft is widespread in rural Malawi. “As a church, we have the responsibility to provide religious teachings to people so that they can believe in God and not in witchcraft.”

Mbilima and her congregation have been conducting awareness campaigns in southern Malawi by organizing public meetings and distributing flyers to educate the communities about the rights of people with albinism and dispel the myths surrounding their conditions.

“We teach people not to segregate [people with albinism]; rather they should see them as normal human beings as they are,” she said, adding that her congregation carries out awareness campaigns at least every three months to ensure everyone gets the message. Mbilima said government restrictions and lockdowns due to the COVID-19 pandemic have slowed community sensitization to reduce myths and misconceptions around people with albinism.

Sisters also run a health clinic in southern Malawi where they provide dermatology services and distribute sunglasses, cream, clothing, hats, shade and sunscreen to people with albinism. They have engaged the youth in various communities to guard houses of people with albinism to protect them from attacks.

“We are committed to protecting these people and ensuring they are safe,” said Mbilima, whose congregation also provides hygiene kits and food items like grains, vegetable oil, maize flour, pulses and rice. “We have a plan to build them houses if we get the resources and sponsor their children to get education.”

To end albino persecution in the country, some of the people living with albinism want the government to intervene and help religious leaders stop the ongoing atrocities against them. Musa Wiladi, 38, said the nuns and other religious leaders have tried to help them where they can, but the government needs to protect them, investigate and prosecute offenders, give people with albinism jobs and financial support.

“I grew up a very disturbed man. I was treated as if I was not a human being. People called me a ghost because they believed I had supernatural powers. Others told me that my mother was impregnated by a white man,” said Wiladi, who is now married with three children without albinism. “I was forced to drop out of school because of my security. The government should take some measures to ensure the rights of people living with albinism are protected.”

Still, some analysts say it is not easy to end these killings and abductions. One of the witch doctors from Tabora, a rural town in northwestern Tanzania, told Global Sisters Report that it’s not easy to stop something that makes people rich and brings people out of poverty.

The witch doctor, who didn’t want his name mentioned because of his safety, said people often receive albino limbs and organs from neighboring countries, including Malawi, which are used to bring good luck, wealth and political success. People who have risked undertaking this kind of business have been able to build better houses, buy good cars and invest in urban businesses, he said.

“It’s true that those body parts of people with albinism can make someone rich, bring fortunes, and make one gain political power,” he said. “If it weren’t true, then people could have stopped all these killings. But they can’t stop it because they know there are benefits.”

Mbilima dismissed the witch doctor’s belief, saying she has never seen anyone becoming rich because of trading organs of people with albinism.

“This belief that somebody else’s body organs could give you wealth is really unfortunate and absurd,” she said, adding that the belief gives them reasons to continue creating awareness so that people can change their attitudes. “Whenever I hear such stories, honestly, I always feel very bad because all of us are made in the image and likeness of God, and no one has the right to deprive another of life.”

Catholic officials and human rights campaigners, who are also carrying out awareness campaigns on behalf of people with albinism, said the government needs to take necessary measures to prevent attacks, including murders, and discrimination against people with albinism.

Malawi’s government has been slow to prosecute suspects accused of attacking and murdering people with albinism because police lack forensic skills, resources and legal training, activists and religious leaders contend. The majority of cases that have gone to court have failed because of flawed investigations and a lack of evidence, they said, concluding that security has not improved, leaving thousands of people with albinism vulnerable to all kinds of attacks.

“There are many cases that we are trying to push for their conclusion and ensure there is stiffer punishment that needs to be given to those violating the rights of others,” Boniface Chibwana, the national coordinator of Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace of the Malawi bishops’ conference, told Global Sisters Report in an interview in August. “The prolonging of some of these cases is making the perpetrators walk free, and they continue to commit the same crimes.”

Chibwana said amputations and murders of people with albinism for their body parts were still happening across the country. Two weeks ago, for instance, the body of a person with albinism was found in a decomposing state in Blantyre, the second largest city in southern Malawi. The hands and legs had been cut off.

“If stiffer punishments could be given to those found culpable, then there won’t be these killings and abductions,” he said, noting that his organization has intensified its campaign focused on empowering local people with financial support, awareness and legal training on the rights of people with albinism.

Meanwhile, Masautso and her family still live in fear of persecution and violence, despite the efforts being undertaken by religious leaders and human right activists to protect them.

“I need to quickly move out of this place with my family,” she said. “We are not safe, and death can knock on our door anytime.”

Mission work in Thailand continues, despite COVID-19

A village in the parish of Fang, in the Chiang Mai Diocese in Thailand, where the Presentation Sisters' mission community operates. The parish includes 21 villages, and the sisters work with all of them through their mission center. (Frances Hayes)
A village in the parish of Fang, in the Chiang Mai Diocese in Thailand, where the Presentation Sisters’ mission community operates. The parish includes 21 villages, and the sisters work with all of them through their mission center. (Courtesy of Frances Hayes)

Inspired by the command of Jesus, “Go out to the whole world” (Mark 16:15) and a similar exhortation of our foundress, Nano Nagle, some Presentation Sisters are missioned in the northern part of Thailand, bordering Myanmar and Laos. Our community in Thailand — made up of Indian, Pakistani and Filipina Sisters — is part of our Philippines unit.

So on behalf of the Thai mission community in the parish of Fang, in the Chiang Mai Diocese, Sister Jancy greets you all in the Thai language: “Sawadee kha!”

Our parish includes 21 villages, and we work with all of them through our mission center; we conduct regular visits and awareness programs in six villages. We are connected to about 630 families and 450 children.

Since the beginning of the 20th century, tribal people have been slowly migrating from Myanmar into northern Thailand, and remain concentrated mainly in the border areas between Myanmar and Thailand. The Thai government recognizes six tribal groups. We, the Presentation Sisters, are working with three of the groups: the Lahu, Akha and Thai Yai (the Shan migrant workers).

From 1999 to 2019, we worked in collaboration with the PIME (Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions) Italian Missionary priests and brothers, and now we work with the Priests of the Sacred Heart of Jesus of the Betharram community. Our ministries include visitation, health care, religious instruction, programs on drug prevention and human trafficking, and enabling the people to gain Thai citizenship and access their rights. Of course, we work with other religious congregations, network with diocesan commissions, and cooperate with Buddhist neighbors for celebrations and interfaith dialogue.

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals 3, 4, 5 and 13 are our focus, to empower the people to bring about the changes we hope for in the health, education and gender equality of these people. We depend on the Thai government programs for assistance offered to those with disabilities. In a survey conducted throughout the parish villages we located 18 young people eligible for government aid. We also obtained access to a program making powdered milk available to babies whose mothers are unable to nurse them.

Information on the government program for the identification, prevention and eradication of COVID-19 has been available throughout the parish. We follow the protocols and rules which were announced by the Thai government and the church, conducted awareness programs, and distributed masks and sanitizing lotion for the people.

In collaboration with the Good Shepherd Sisters, 30 young people participated in workshops designed to inform the participants — and then their village communities — about the problems associated with human trafficking. This also entailed a visit to “red-light areas” of Bangkok and the rehabilitation center operated by the sisters at Pattaya. This new sense of awareness of the issues has created a greater strength of unity and determination to prevent the young people from being lured to the “big cities.” The participants have also taken on a more active leadership role within their village community.

We especially focus on the rights and opportunities for women and children, and equitable education for the children, providing board/lodging and transport for children so they can attend the mainstream school, and encouraging them to go on to vocational training or university studies.

Since all schooling is done in the Thai language, it is essential that the hill tribe children learn this very early, although it may be their second or third language. The sisters provide Thai and English lessons for the children at the Epiphany Catholic Centre run by the Betharram priests, as well as providing extension activities in sports, music and recreation. Keeping their own ethnic customs alive is done through community sharing of skills in dancing, handwork, singing and cultural celebrations. The children are encouraged to dress in their ethnic clothes for the Sunday liturgy and keep alive the customs and traditions of their people.

Life for the sisters is certainly very full and in one sense, the restrictions due to the COVID-19 lockdowns have granted a slight reprieve from their busyness; this has given them extra time to do researching and planning for the future development of the people they serve.

Two of the sisters in the local community went on home visits during the pandemic and were unable to return at that time because of lockdowns. I, Sister Jancy Selvaraj, was one of the two sisters left. I developed and offered a PowerPoint presentation on the Thai missions, via a Zoom meeting for the justice contacts and other interested sisters of the International Presentation Association.

I, Frances, am another Presentation Sister eagerly awaiting her return to Thailand! As a member of the West Australian Congregation, I ministered for five years in Thailand and am now waiting for the easing of travel restriction to be able to return. Then I will work as a missionary with Palms Australia, (an organization that facilitates Australian volunteer work) mentoring Thai teachers in their English lessons for the Thai and Karen students at the Thai/Myanmar northwest border.

We continue to rediscover the dynamism of Nano Nagle’s charism, unfolding for tribal migrants in northern Thailand so that they will have a future full of hope.

Climate change: Vulnerable nations call for ’emergency pact’

A woman stands in the doorway of her flooded home in Savanne Desole on the outskirts of the city of Gonaives, Haiti
Getty Images

The countries most vulnerable to climate change are calling for an “emergency pact” to tackle rising temperatures.

The group wants all countries to agree radical steps to avoid “climate catastrophe” at the upcoming COP26 meeting in Glasgow.

Green campaigners are urging a postponement of the gathering, citing problems with vaccines for delegates.

The Climate Vulnerable Forum (CVF) says the event is critical and cannot wait.

Representing some 1.2 billion people, the CVF consists of countries in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, Latin America and the Pacific.

The group has been key in pushing the rest of the world to accept the idea of keeping the rise in global temperatures to under 1.5C this century.

This was incorporated into the Paris agreement in 2015.

Recent research from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change suggests that the threshold will be passed in little over a decade at current rates of carbon emissions.

In less than two months, global leaders will gather in Glasgow for COP26, the most critical meeting on climate change since Paris.

Ahead of the Glasgow meeting, the CVF has issued a manifesto for what the conference must deliver to keep the planet safe and protect the most vulnerable.

Environmental groups have suggested postponing the meeting, on the grounds that vaccine distribution is inequitable and that delegates from poorer countries face huge bills for quarantine hotels when they arrive in the UK.

However, the CVF member states insist the meeting must go ahead in person, and are calling for support and “facilitated access” to ensure inclusive participation.

The UK government has responded to these calls by agreeing to pay the quarantine hotel expenses of any delegate, observer or media from a developing country.

The vulnerable group says that progress on climate change has stalled and COP26 should move forward with what it terms a “climate emergency pact”.

This would see every country put forward a new climate plan every year between now and 2025.

At present, signatories of the Paris agreement are only obliged to put forward new plans every five years.

The vulnerable nations say that richer countries must fulfil their obligations to deliver $100bn in climate finance per year over the 2020-24 period.

The CVF nations want this money to be split 50-50 between cutting carbon and helping countries adapt to the threat posed by rising temperatures.

The countries also want the UK to “take full responsibility” for this aspect of the negotiations, saying it is vital to restore confidence in the Paris pact.

Among the other areas that the most vulnerable nations want to see progress on is the question of debt-for-climate swaps.

Many of the world’s poorest countries have large debt burdens, and these have been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic which has stretched finances even further.

In a debt-for-climate swap, a country can reduce what it owes to international creditors by directing the debt service payments to fund renewable energy or greater protection for nature.

One such restructuring was recently announced by Belize where the debt money will now go to support marine conservation projects instead.

“Vulnerable countries have unique needs – and public-private collaboration will be key to addressing them,” said Nigel Topping, who’s the UK’s high-level climate action champion for COP26.

“Whether it is in debt for nature swaps such as the recent Belize announcement or in increasing public sector capability to structure investment projects to attract private finance, the aim is to accelerate progress in this area so that 2022 becomes the year of climate action solidarity.”

COVID-19 disruption causing many deaths from TB, AIDS in poorest countries, fund says

Deon Yanga waits to be tested for tuberculosis at a mobile clinic in Gugulethu township near Cape Town, South Africa, March 26, 2021. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings

GENEVA, – Hundreds of thousands of people will die of tuberculosis left untreated because of disruption to healthcare systems in poor countries caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, a global aid fund said.

In a few of the world’s poorest countries, excess deaths from AIDS and tuberculosis (TB) could even exceed those from the coronavirus itself, said the head of the Geneva-based aid body, known as the Global Fund.

The Fund’s annual report for 2020, released on Wednesday, showed that the number of people treated for drug-resistant tuberculosis in countries where it operates fell by 19%. A decline of 11% was reported in HIV prevention programmes and services.

“Essentially, about a million people less were treated for TB in 2020 than in 2019 and I’m afraid that will inevitably mean that hundreds of thousands of people will die,” Executive Director Peter Sands told Reuters.

While precise death tolls are as yet unknown, Sands said that for some poor countries, such as parts of the Sahel region in Africa, excess deaths from the setback in the fight against diseases such as TB or AIDS might prove higher than from COVID-19 itself.

The Geneva-based Global Fund is an alliance of governments, civil society and private sector partners investing more than $4 billion per year to fight tuberculosis, malaria and AIDS. The United States is its top donor.

Sands said services were affected by COVID-19 lockdowns while clinics, staff and diagnostics normally used for TB were instead deployed for COVID-19 in countries such as India and across Africa. He added that he expected further disruptions this year due to the Delta variant.

He said the decline in treatment for other diseases “underscores the need to look at the total impact of COVID-19 and measure success in combating it not just by the reduction in deaths due to COVID-19 itself but to the knock on impact”.

Malaria proved to be an exception to the trend in 2020, and prevention activities remained stable or increased compared to 2019, the Global Fund said.

Faith groups band together to help Haitians camped at US-Mexico border

Haitian immigrants make their way along a rope suspended above the Rio Grande on their way to the United States Sept. 22. (Nuri Vallbona)
Haitian immigrants make their way along a rope suspended above the Rio Grande on their way to the United States Sept. 22. (Nuri Vallbona)

Ciudad Acuña, Mexico — Clusters of Haitians stood on the riverbank, removing tennis shoes, putting belongings in garbage bags and hoisting children on their shoulders. The waters of the Rio Grande had risen, and the current was gaining momentum. As they plotted their path, they found an unlikely ally that could potentially lead to a better life in the United States: a yellow rope.

The migrants clung to the nylon cord as they forged the river’s chest-deep waters between Ciudad Acuña, Mexico, and Del Rio, Texas, on Sept. 22. Ignoring a row of law enforcement vehicles and a Humvee lined up along the U.S. shore, the procession of immigrants continued toward the international bridge where an estimated 15,000 had once camped, overwhelming immigration officials in the tiny town of Del Rio.

“There was food and shade on the Mexican side, but their dream was to be free in the U.S., so it was like, ‘Oh, my goodness, this is terrible that we have this whole blockade up,’ ” said Sr. Ursula Herrera, a Benedictine Sister of Boerne, Texas. “People are just seeking a better life for themselves, for their children, and here, they are so close and yet so far.”

Recent images of immigrants crammed under the international bridge, and officers on horseback trying to grab and corral them drew outrage across the political spectrum. The threat of deportation left many migrants in limbo, too afraid to take their chances with the asylum process but stuck in Mexico without work permits or a means to support themselves.

As the number of Haitian arrivals at the border swelled, Catholic sisters, religious organizations, nonprofits and churches banded together with a common goal: provide basic services and restore human dignity.

“If God has allowed these different religions, then we need to support each other. Therefore, it doesn’t matter what your religious beliefs are. We are all God’s children. We were all created equal, so we need to treat each other with respect,” Herrera said.

On the Mexican shore, other Haitians, aid workers and journalists stood watch over those who ventured into the Rio Grande. When one man swam downstream to rescue a bag that floated off with the current, the crowd gasped. His struggle to return to the rope was fruitless. As he emerged from the bushes further down, sighs of relief arose.

“I always think, knowing the sacrifices they’re going through, they still want something better for their children, and they’re willing to sacrifice their own lives just to get their children over here where they feel they can have a better life,” Herrera said from her home in Eagle Pass, Texas.

The sister joined a team of volunteers from Casa Hogar Getsemaní, a Baptist orphanage in Morelos, Mexico, on Sept. 22 to pass out lemonade and more than 130 plates of hot dogs, rice, beans, tortillas and pork stew to the migrants milling around an immigration camp in Ciudad Acuña.

The call from the orphanage’s director, Paulina Bivens, came amid a tragic week for Herrera, who lost her friend and fellow Benedictine sister Germaine Sutton after a stroke days before.

“I just feel that if God is calling me to do something, he’s going to provide me with the means and the time,” Herrera said.

Throughout September, Matt Mayberry, a pastor at the Southern Baptist City Church Del Rio, said he was inundated with calls from churches across the country offering to support his congregation’s efforts to feed those camped under the bridge. He estimated volunteers handed out more than 16,000 sandwiches and numerous snacks to immigrants and border officials until the federal government stepped in to provide food Sept. 15.

Members from one Baptist church drove four and a half hours to deliver their sandwiches, Mayberry said.

“Our understanding of Scripture is that we were made in God’s image — all humans,” he said. “And so, regardless of our ethnicity or nationality, every human is worthy of human dignity and value. Our church and all the churches who have joined us believe the same thing.”

Herrera and Bivens’ volunteers were among dozens of aid workers feeding several hundred Haitians who were able to spread out under trees across large fields of open space in Ciudad Acuña, a contrast to the thousands who had sheltered across the river under the Del Rio bridge.

All who were interviewed said they had traveled from either Brazil or Chile, where many Haitian expats tried to make a life amid political turmoil at home. The trek to the U.S.-Mexico border took between one to three months by bus and on foot. But soon after arriving, the migrants faced a new threat: deportation.

Around 4,000 Haitians have been deported from the United States in the last two weeks, Alejandro Mayorkas, secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, told CNN on Sept. 26. His department estimated that 30,000 had been processed in Del Rio since Sept. 9 and that 8,000 returned voluntarily to Mexico. Currently, no migrants are camped under the international bridge.

After hearing expulsions were possible, some migrants had second thoughts about taking the final step across the river.

“I’m afraid to go back to Haiti,” Fredelin Jean said, leaning against the wall of a small structure that provided shade to a few of his friends. About 10 cellphones sat charging a few feet away. “Right now, Haiti is going through a difficult situation: the earthquake … political problems. I was in danger every day.”

In Haiti, Jean was an elementary school teacher who taught English, Creole and French. He later moved to Brazil for three years, but the lack of work permits kept him from finding a similar job. Tired of the stress, he and his friends headed to the United States, spending around $6,000 each to travel by bus and on foot just to reach the U.S.-Mexico border.

“There were thieves. There were women that had been whipped by thieves because they didn’t have money,” he said, adding that women had also been raped. “A lot of my friends saw a lot of dead people.”

Jean said he wanted to have legal status and hoped he might be able to do that in Mexico. Others had the same idea: Nearby, nearly two dozen lined up to speak to a worker from the Comisión Nacional de los Derechos Humanos, the National Commission for Human Rights, hoping she could help them secure Mexican work permits.

When about 400 Haitians arrived on foot at San Fernando, Tamaulipas, Mexico, on Sept. 17, Fr. Francisco Gallardo, a Catholic priest and director of the Casa del Migrante shelter in Matamoros, Mexico, drove almost two hours south to meet them. There, he and Juan Sierra, a lay assistant, joined ministers from other faiths to guide the caravan as it came to a fork in the road, hoping to avoid a repeat of the August 2010 mass killing of 72 immigrants in the town.

As the group neared Reynosa, Mexico, the next day, Gallardo alerted the news media and met them at the town’s immigration checkpoint to facilitate the group’s passage into the border town, Sierra said.

“The whole process was reported live [in the media], so then, the authorities felt forbidden to confront the Haitians,” Sierra said. “We convinced the entire caravan not to be aggressive — to pass with joy, yes, but with respect. “

Sr. Norma Pimentel, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, regularly visits thousands of Haitians sleeping in the plaza in Reynosa. The Missionaries of Jesus sister praised the way pastors from local evangelical churches and the Catholic Church were working together to find housing for the town’s newest residents because they were more vulnerable to crime.

At a Sept. 23 public hearing for the Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee of the Texas House of Representatives, Pimentel called for the state and federal governments to support the community’s efforts to make sure immigrants were treated with dignity and respect.

“Families are coming here because they are afraid for their lives, especially of their children,” she said. “They’re looking not for a better life, but just life. They want to be safe.”

Church in Canada pledges funds for healing, reconciliation after residential schools

The former Kamloops Indian Residential School/ Bruce Raynor/Shutterstock

The Canadian bishops are aiming to raise $30 million (USD 23.8m) over the next five years to support the Indigenous peoples of the country, including survivors of residential schools. 

“The Bishops of Canada, as a tangible expression of their commitment to walk with the Indigenous Peoples of this land along the pathway of hope, are making a nation-wide collective financial commitment to support healing and reconciliation initiatives for residential school survivors, their families, and their communities,” the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops announced in a Sept. 27 statement.

The bishops will launch fundraising initiatives throughout the country, to be “achieved at the local level, with parishes across Canada being encouraged to participate and amplify the effort.” 

The announcement comes days after the Canadian bishops concluded their plenary assembly. At the conclusion of the assembly Sept. 24, the bishops issued an apology for the Church’s role in the country’s residential school system. 

Bishop Raymond Poisson of Saint-Jerome and Mont-Laurier, who was recently elected president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, said that there was a “universal consensus” among his brother bishops that “Catholic entities needed to do more in a tangible way to address the suffering experienced in Canada’s residential schools.” 

“Comprised of local diocesan initiatives, this effort will help support programs and initiatives dedicated to improving the lives of residential school survivors and their communities, ensuring resources needed to assist in the path of healing,” said Bishop Poisson. 

Per the CCCB’s statement, the projects will be funded on a local level, with input from area First Nations, Métis, and Inuit peoples. The individual initiatives will be developed and announced by November 2021. 

Bishop Poisson said that he hopes that the initiatives result in a “significant difference” in confronting the “historical and ongoing trauma” wrought by the residential school system. 

Bishop William McGrattan of Calgary, vice president of the CCCB, emphasized the importance of working with the Indigenous population on deciding how and when to move forward with these efforts.

“The Bishops of Canada have been guided by the principle that we should not speak about Indigenous People without speaking with them,” said Bishop McGrattan.

“To that end, the ongoing conversations with local leadership will be instrumental in discerning the programs that are most deserving of support. There is no single step that can eliminate the pain felt by residential school survivors, but by listening, seeking relationships, and working collaboratively where we are able, we hope to learn how to walk together in a new path of hope.”

The residential school system was set up by the Canadian government, beginning in the 1870s, as a means of forcibly assimilating Indigenous children and stripping them of familial and cultural ties. Catholics and members of ecclesial communities ran the schools, although the Catholic Church or Catholics oversaw more than two-thirds of the schools. 

The last remaining federally-run residential school closed in 1996.

Pope Francis joins world faith leaders in urgent climate appeal ahead of COP26

Flanked by leaders of major world religions Oct. 4 at the Vatican, Pope Francis signs a joint appeal to government leaders to curb global warming and heal the planet. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
Flanked by leaders of major world religions Oct. 4 at the Vatican, Pope Francis signs a joint appeal to government leaders to curb global warming and heal the planet. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

In response to the “grave threat” of climate change, heads of the world’s major religions united at the Vatican to issue an unprecedented joint appeal to government leaders at next month’s United Nations climate summit, calling for “urgent, radical and responsible action” to drastically curb greenhouse gas emissions and for the world’s wealthiest countries to lead in healing the planet.

The nearly 40 religious figures, among them Pope Francis, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and Islamic, Jewish, Buddhist and Hindu leaders, also pledged to increase awareness of the climate crisis and actions to address it within their own congregations.

“We are currently at a moment of opportunity and truth. We pray that our human family may unite to save our common home before it is too late,” the declaration read. “Future generations will never forgive us if we squander this precious opportunity.”

“We have inherited a garden: we must not leave a desert to our children,” the faith leaders wrote.

The joint statement, issued Oct. 4, the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of ecology, outlined the expectations of the world’s major religions — representing about half the global population — for the COP26 U.N. climate conference, set for Nov. 1-12 in Glasgow, Scotland.

“We plead with the international community, gathered at COP26, to take speedy, responsible and shared action to safeguard, restore and heal our wounded humanity and the home entrusted to our stewardship,” the faith declaration said.

“We appeal to everyone on this planet to join us on this common journey, knowing well that what we can achieve depends not only on opportunities and resources, but also on hope, courage, solidarity and good will.”

A portion of the statement was read at a “Faith and Science Toward COP26” ceremony at the Vatican, where faith leaders, all wearing masks, signed the document. Francis, who signed last, handed the appeal over to Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio and Alok Sharma of Britain, president of COP26. Officials from embassies to the Holy See from both nations, which are co-hosting the climate conference, worked with the Vatican to organize the statement.

Sharma described the appeal as “a powerful call to action for the world.” He called for an alliance of faith leaders, scientists and youth to “turn the tide” on climate change.

“Doing so requires us all to play our part, every country in every part of society mounting a global effort led by those most human qualities, reason and morality, the head and the heart,” he said.

Each religious leader present spoke briefly about the need to protect the environment. Those unable to attend because of the coronavirus pandemic sent video messages. At the conclusion, each poured soil into a potted olive tree to be planted in the Vatican gardens. They met again in the afternoon to discuss how faith and science can work together to raise awareness and cooperate further.

In prepared remarks for the event, Francis said that the world’s religious and spiritual traditions and science both stress the interconnectedness of our world. Recognizing the interrelations among species, he said, reveals not only the harmful effects of human activity on ecosystems, but also possible solutions.

“COP26 in Glasgow represents an urgent summons to provide effective responses to the unprecedented ecological crisis and the crisis of values that we are presently experiencing, and in this way to offer concrete hope to future generations. We want to accompany it with our commitment and our spiritual closeness,” the pope said.

COP26 will be the first U.N. climate conference in two years. An abbreviated, virtual meeting was held in December 2021 because of the coronavirus pandemic. This year’s event is viewed as the most consequential climate summit since the 2015 COP21, which produced the landmark Paris Agreement in which the world’s nations committed for the first time to cut emissions in an effort to limit global warming to 1.5 C above pre-industrial levels.

The faith leaders, who conferred throughout the year in multiple meetings with leading scientists, including Hoesung Lee, chair of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, said that “time is running out” and that this decade may be the last chance left “to restore the planet.” 

Average temperatures already have risen by more than 1 C and are on track to reach 2.7 C by the end of the century, based on countries’ current greenhouse gas emission reduction commitments, according to a recent IPCC report

“The degradation of our common home due to climate change is a symptom of deeper social ills,” Joachim von Braun, president of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences told the gathering. “For this reason, it is essential that in addressing these challenges, science and faith combine forces.”

Climate change solutions must include changes in consumption, technological breakthroughs and policies that recognize that human and ecosystem health are inextricably connected, the scientist said.

The religious leaders urged governments to “achieve net zero carbon emissions as soon as possible.” Wealthier nations, which are the major emitters, must lead that effort, they said, as well as follow through on long-promised financing— $100 billion annually through the Green Climate Fund — to help less-industrialized nations curb emissions and adapt to climate change.

They also urged developed nations to commit to “loss and damage” payments to less-industrialized countries for climate-related destruction that has already occurred.

They advocated a new economic model that prioritizes human dignity, inclusivity, ecologically friendly practices over exploitation and excess, and “one based not on endless growth and proliferating desires, but on supporting life.”

The statement also called for special attention to the rights of Indigenous peoples, an end to biodiversity loss, responsible financing by banks and investors, and a just transition to a clean energy economy, with particular attention to employment for people working in the fossil fuel industry.

Calling climate change a moral issue, they stressed the importance of education and the “crucial” role of religious traditions in bringing about an “ecological conversion” among all people.

The faith leaders also pledged to more active political participation on environmental issues, and to take actions within their own communities to reduce emissions, pursue sustainability in their buildings and properties, encourage simpler lifestyles, seek out ethically produced goods and services, and apply environmentally and socially responsible standards to investments, including shifting from fossil fuels to renewable energy.

An interfaith program called “Faith Plans for People and the Planet,” aimed at leveraging religious groups’ assets and investments, was also launched Oct. 4.

To involve Catholics, the Vatican is creating the Laudato Si’ Action Platform, a seven-year roadmap to sustainability for all types of Catholic institutions, from families and dioceses to hospitals and schools. 

Religious leaders and institutions have increasingly turned attention to climate change in recent years.

Climate negotiators have said Francis’ encyclical “Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home,” along with statements from  other faith leaders and the world’s bishops, had a positive influence on COP21 in 2015. The hope is that this new interreligious appeal will yield similar results in Glasgow.

More and more, the Vatican has emphasized the importance of a united religious voice on climate change. In November, the Vatican’s council on interreligious dialogue hosted a multi-day interfaith event to mark the five-year anniversary of Laudato Si’. And in September, Francis joined Bartholomew and Archbishop Justin Welby of Canterbury in a first-ever joint message on environmental sustainability by the three Christian leaders.

Plans for the Oct. 4 faith appeal began in January. Since then, faith leaders have met eight times with scientists, including Lee of the IPCC and the heads of the Pontifical Academies of Sciences and Social Sciences.

Before the event, von Braun told EarthBeat he was “pleasantly surprised” with the faith leaders’ openness to scientific advice and is optimistic the statement will deliver “a powerful message” to political leaders at COP26.

“This summit comes at a point in time when the world knows more, is concerned more and wants to see more action. And the people are moving together. That’s why this new alliance between science and faith will matter at the COP,” he said.

UK food banks ‘prepare for the worst’ as COVID-19 aid comes to an end

emima Hindmarch, a staff member at The Bow Foodbank charity, holds bags of food to be handed out to low-income families in London, Britain, on September 22, 2021. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Sonia Elks

LONDON,- Charity food banks in Britain are “preparing for the worst” as the government starts winding up emergency aid measures put in place to cushion the coronavirus pandemic’s impact on millions of workers and low-income households.

An extra weekly payment of 20 pounds ($27) to support the country’s poorest families will be cut next month, and more than a million workers face an uncertain future as Britain becomes the first big economy to halt its COVID-19 jobs support scheme.

Food banks, which hand out staple goods from dried pasta to baby food, are especially concerned about the loss of the top-up to the Universal Credit (UC) benefit, which is claimed by almost 6 million people, according to official statistics.

“You’re going to have parents who are going without food so their kids can eat,” said Garry Lemon, policy and research director at the Trussell Trust, which supports more than 1,200 food bank centres across Britain.

“I’ve been speaking to lots of food banks in recent weeks and they are absolutely preparing for the worst … They are doing everything they can to ensure they have got enough food to be able to cope with the increase in need.”

The British move comes as other countries start wrapping up state aid programmes announced last year as COVID-19 battered the global economy.

In the United States, pandemic unemployment benefits that supported millions of jobless, gig workers and business owners came to an end in early September, a month after a moratorium on residential evictions expired.

Australia and Canada have also announced plans to end income subsidies in the near future.

A British government spokesperson said the income benefit increase was always intended to be temporary and had been effective in softening the pandemic’s impact on family finances, adding that the focus now was on helping people back to work.


But anti-poverty groups said the loss of the benefit bonus would deal a heavy blow to low-income Britons.

It also comes as rising gas prices usher in higher domestic energy bills, with the average household expected to pay 139 pounds more each year.

“The last time I used it (a food bank) the kids hadn’t had dinner for six days,” said Emma, who has three young children and asked to be identified only by her first name.

Emma said the family was behind on paying bills due to financial stresses from the pandemic and the benefits cut would hit them hard.

“Once you’re in that financial downward spiral, it’s so hard to get back out of it because you’re constantly running behind,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.

“The one bill you can amend from week to week is your food bill,” said Emma, who is sharing her experiences with the Covid Realities research project that tracks the impact of the pandemic on low-income parents and carers.

Emma said she went to a food bank every few months – aiming to minimise visits so as not to deprive anyone in an even worse position.

“It’s going to be more regular (now) – it makes me so upset because it’s something that we never thought we’d have to do. We’re not a well-off family but we’ve never been this bad before. I can’t see a way out of it,” she said.


Nationwide, more than 800,000 people will be pushed into poverty by the benefit cut, according to British think-tank the Legatum Institute.

A fifth of the benefit’s claimants said they would “very likely” need to skip meals once the uplift is withdrawn, found a survey of more than 2,000 people carried out for the Trussell Trust.

A similar number said they would struggle to afford to heat their homes.

“Independent food banks are bracing themselves for a surge in demand as well as the challenges of food supply shortages and a reduction in donations,” said Sabine Goodwin, the coordinator of the Independent Food Aid Network.

At Moray Food Plus, a food bank in Scotland, Mairi McCallum said they were already running “at almost full capacity”.

“We’re concerned about the negative impact the UC cut will have and the strain this will put on our organisation,” McCallum said. “There’s only so much more we are able to do.”

At one East London food bank, where a stream of visitors arrived to pick up bags of store cupboard essentials, organisers have already had to limit the total lifetime number of visits to 12 per household.

“We’re always getting new clients,” said Jemima Hindmarch, a spokesperson for The Bow Foodbank, adding that they “constantly” worry about having enough supplies.

The impact of the benefit cut and rising heating costs over the winter months is likely to be “catastrophic” for people already struggling to cope, she said.

“It’s pushing people just a little bit lower below that poverty line.”

Vending machines bring safe, cheap water to Nairobi slums

An employe of community organisation Shining Hope for Communities (SHOFCO) activates a water selling machine at a in the Kibera slum in Nairobi, Kenya, March 18, 2020. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

NAIROBI, – In the 30 years that Josephine Muthoni has lived in Nairobi’s Mukuru slum, she has never had a steady supply of clean water.

The only way to get water was from vendors dotted around the slum, who charge exorbitant prices for the often polluted water they buy from government water points or steal straight from the municipal pipes, the 62-year-old mother of nine explained.

Muthoni said filling a 20-litre (5-gallon) jerry can cost as much as 50 Kenyan shillings ($0.45) – a potentially crippling amount in a city where the majority of slum dwellers earn less than $1.90 a day, according to the World Bank.

“We would sometimes walk five kilometres to get water. I thought that was how life should be until I worked for a family and saw water flowing full time from their taps,” the retired housekeeper told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The more than 600,000 residents living in one of Nairobi’s largest slums have struggled with water access for years, a problem exacerbated by frequent bouts of city-wide water rationing, which has been ongoing since 2017.

But soon, Mukuru residents will be able to fill a jerry can with clean water for as little as 50 Kenyan cents, using token-operated vending machines that the city government is installing in an effort to ease the slum’s water stress.

With the new system, residents will receive plastic tokens – similar to key fobs – that they can charge using the M-Pesa mobile money platform.

They then insert the tokens into a machine at one of the 10 water stations being set up around Mukuru and select how much water they want dispensed.

Kagiri Gicheha, an engineer at the Nairobi City Water and Sewerage Company (NCWSC), which is helping develop the system, said the project is in the final stages, only awaiting the installation of the vending machines.

The dispensers, each costing 200,000 shillings, mean Mukuru residents will no longer be at the mercy of the slum’s informal, exploitative water market, Gicheha said.

“This is a way of controlling the cartels that have long been stealing water in the slums because this is an automated system that is very easy to manage,” he said.

Until the system is operational, residents can fetch clean water for free from boreholes that have been dug for the project, each of which will feed up to four water dispensers.

Since starting the project in April 2020, the city government has drilled nearly 200 boreholes across five Nairobi slums and hopes to expand to more areas depending on funding and demand, Gicheha said.


Officials decided to launch the system in Mukuru after seeing the success of a similar programme run by the local nonprofit Shining Hope for Communities (SHOFCO) in Kibera, Nairobi’s largest slum.

Currently, there are 23 machines dispensing water to Kibera residents, who pay two shillings to fill a jerry can, said Johnstone Mutua, a programme officer at the grassroots group.

“The project is very efficient. Most residents now know how to use the system and we installed solar-powered lights for security at night,” said Mutua.

“This means someone can get water anytime they want.”

Maureen Adhiambo, a 28-year-old mother of three in Kibera, says the vending machines cost half of what she used to pay water vendors and finally offer her a reliable source of water.

“(Before), the queues were too long and water would come only once a week,” she said.

“Now, I can buy five 20-litre jerry cans of water per day … and there’s no queue.”

Mutua said the first attempt at setting up a water vending system was in Mathare slum in 2015.

But the machines were being fed from large tankers, not boreholes, he said, which meant during drought there was no water to fill them with – so now the machines in Mathare stand empty.


Fuelled by explosive population growth, demand for water in Kenya’s capital has shot up over the past decade, but broken municipal water pipes and frequent drought leave the city chronically thirsty.

While residents need more than 810,000 cubic meters daily, the city’s dilapidated water infrastructure can only supply 526,000 cubic metres, according to figures from the NCWSC.

Across Kenya, the water crisis hits hardest in slums, where nearly half the urban population lives, according to the World Bank, and where homes are not connected to the water grid.

Before the vending machine project came to Mukuru, Gideon Musyoka, an elder of one of the villages inside the slum, said the taps at the government water points rarely flowed and when they did the water was often tainted by raw sewage.

For women, the search for water was time-consuming, expensive and dangerous, exposing them to sexual assault or rape. “Women were almost getting used to being raped, even in broad daylight, as they went to water points to fetch water,” said Muthoni, the Mukuru resident.


Jamlick Mutie, an independent water and sanitation expert working in Nairobi’s slums, applauds the water dispensers as a safe, affordable and efficient solution.

Mutie noted that at the subsidized cost of 25 shillings per cubic metre, Mukuru residents will be able to buy water for less than half what other Nairobi residents pay to get it piped into their homes.

Efforts to get clean water to the slums are especially urgent during the coronavirus pandemic, with health experts pointing to handwashing as one of the best ways to curb the spread of COVID-19, he said.

“For the slum residents, it would be a disaster without water,” he said.

The price of the water is enough to cover the costs of maintenance and electricity to run the machines, making the project sustainable, he added.

The biggest challenge, Mutie warned, is protecting the machines from the cartels who see the project as a threat to their business.

Mutua at SHOFCO said Kibera residents are tackling that problem by having volunteers guard the water stations.

To discourage tampering with the vending machine pipes, the charity built an aerial water network, suspending the pipes overhead rather than burying them underground, and is encouraging the government to do the same in Mukuru, he said.

As the people in Mukuru wait for their water vending machines to arrive, Musyoka, the village elder, said having abundant, clean water is something many of them never could have imagined.

“Seeing so much water in Mukuru slums is what we call magic. Now, we can say that people are clean and healthy,” he said. ($1 = 109.7500 Kenyan shillings)