To be honest, I didn’t spend a lot of time on Sunday with the “discipline” from Hebrews, or the “gnashing of teeth” in the Gospel of Luke. Instead I stayed with an inviting message from Isaiah: all nations and languages are included in the expansive invitation of God. Or as Fr. Greg Boyle, S.J., reminds us, we believe in a God whose circle of compassion is so big, no one is outside of it.
God’s message here is being sent even to “distant coastlands.” How thoughtful and thorough the outreach! When these scriptures were written by authors with limited knowledge of the full scale of the planet, “distant coastlands” may have implied “as far as you can imagine!”
Now we can see today’s literal “distant coastlands,” some of which are disappearing before our very eyes due to climate change. We can see people leaving, “brothers and sisters from all the nations,” including many of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable. These are climate refugees: people who must leave their homes and communities because of the effects of climate change. Though the scope of their suffering has become clearer, climate refugees largely lack any formal recognition or protection under international law. By 2050, according to the World Bank, there will be 143 million climate refugees from sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Latin America.
Here in the U.S., some of our own “distant coastlands” are already suffering. Communities like Isle de Jean Orleans, Louisiana and Newtok, Alaska, for example, were home to Indigenous people who have become our nation’s first climate refugees.
Even as Congress passed unprecedented funding for climate action this month, other headlines brought the sobering truth that rising seas are not so distant. Polar ice caps are melting much faster than previously predicted. A superstorm will devastate parts of the California coastline this century. Miami is the most vulnerable coastal city worldwide.
When we consider the “distant coastlands” of our conscience, which people and places are outside our circle of compassion and concern?
As sea levels continue to rise, how do we rise up in solidarity with climate refugees, on our own shorelines and beyond?
Michael Downs serves as director of justice and kinship at Bishop O’Dowd High School in Oakland. He is also a member of the California Catholic Conference’s Environmental Stewardship Committee and the Vatican’s Laudato Si’ Action Platform Working Group.