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20 July 2020

Indigenous Peoples facing Pandemic and Promise

The urgent challenge to protect our common home includes a concern to bring the whole human family together to seek a sustainable and integral development; for we know that things can change (Pope Francis, Laudato Si’, Encyclical on Care for our Common Home, no. 13). And change they have!

Pope Francis expressed the above challenge in his historic encyclical letter, Laudato Si’, in which he articulates his vision for a global conversion and transformation of human participation in the life-community of our planet, our Mother Earth. At that time, he did not envision the presence and the effect of a life-threatening microscopic virus: COVID-19. Yet, we are now making a concerted global effort to mitigate the effects and protect against this deadly virus. Medical researchers around the world are engaging more cooperatively. Some governments, including Canada’s, are engaging more directly and in multiple ways with the people whom they govern. Interspersed with such dreaded words as tested positive and the total death-count, are flattening the curve, self-distancing and the message that there will be a new normal. Appropriately, we all wonder what this new normal will be.

The urgency of the challenge Pope Francis named has not lessened; rather, it has increased. We are confronted with the truth so clearly expressed by liberation theologians, Pope Francis, and some of his predecessors that the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor are one and the same. This is clear in Pope Francis’ words: “The human environment and the natural environment deteriorate together; we cannot adequately combat environmental degradation unless we attend to we attend to causes related to human and social degradation” (Laudato Si’, no. 48).

In the post-synodal apostolic exhortation Querida Amazonia, he writes: “For though it is true that the Amazon is facing an ecological disaster, it also has to be made clear that a ‘true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor” (Querida Amazonia, no. 8). This is the Gospel call to justice today.

Unheard cries of the poor

One of the societal failures that we now see more clearly is the vulnerability and the economic and social neglect of the elderly, of the poor and of Indigenous peoples. We haven’t really heard the cry of these poor. The earth has long cried for clean water and unpolluted skies; for reprieve from our onslaught. Respite is happening in some little ways now, but not enough to prevent radical climate change. We have yet to see how the social justice dimensions will change. Certainly, there is greater awareness of vulnerable peoples but the necessary transformation still needs to happen. We cannot go back to ‘business as usual’. Nor would Pope Francis want us to do so!

For the past 20-plus years, Indigenous peoples globally have been publicly challenging the nations of the world to recognize that the earth and humans are interdependent and intimately connected. Though deeply impacted and disadvantaged by the processes of colonization, Indigenous Peoples have insisted that we humans have a great responsibility to care for the earth of which we are an interdependent part, and to acknowledge by our actions that we are grateful for the ways in which Our Mother Earth as cared for us. The reciprocal relationship of Indigenous peoples with the earth is expressed in the introductory Joint Statement on Implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. In addition, numerous articles of the document highlight the relationship between land, Indigenous culture and justice1.

In Laudato Si’ (no. 146) and the final document of the Amazonian synod (no. 9), synod participants and Pope Francis speak of the need to dialogue with Indigenous peoples and to understand and learn from their approach to good living.

Their approach most certainly involves a vision that does not relentlessly deplete the earth or violate its integrity or that of other forms earth life, as does our current globalized neocolonial consumerist and extractive lifestyle. Rather, it sees the earth as sacred gift from its Creator.

Indigenous vision and calls to conversion

Indigenous leaders in Canada know well the vulnerability of their people who live with inadequate and over-crowded housing, lack of potable water, major health issues, limited or no access to medical services and resources, challenges of transportation, unemployment, and limited, unrealistically-priced food supplies. As in previous epidemic instances, the elderly and those with compromised health are at the greatest risk. The leaders are taking responsibility for protecting their people in this crisis. They’ve cancelled all communal gatherings, limited access to their communities and sought funds for medical needs specifically related to COVID-19. As of April 25, 2020 there were 88 cases of COVID-19 and one death identified in Indigenous communities on Reserves in Canada2. Indigenous people, living off-reserve would be included in the provincial counts, and thus not specifically identified.

Indigenous organizations and leaders in Amazonia took early measures to educate and protect their people about the pandemic. We know that Indigenous peoples in colonized countries around the globe know the devastation caused by epidemics in the past. In this current pandemic historical memory, the virus, the struggle to decolonize, and the reality of global warming and a climate crisis all come together. They are the challenge facing us. Where and what is the promise we face?

I find this promise in the vision of Laudato Si’ which I see as an expression of Pope Francis’ ability to “Think globally”. I see the Synod on the Amazon as an expression of “Act locally”, since he focuses on one specific vital biome. His subsequent apostolic exhortation Querida Amazonia highlights the need for relationships of love with the land and its peoples. It is a clear call to conversion reminding us that the power of faith and love are what will transform us.

All three of these documents call us to conversion. “Conversion (…) is the common thread running through the final document of the Pan-Amazon Synod. Conversion is expressed with different accents: integral, pastoral, cultural, ecological, and synodal” (Vatican News). Another key message, expressed in Querida Amazonia (no. 6) is that of incarnation, specifically focused on the way in which the Church is being called to live and act in very concrete, localized and integral ways.

Could this reveal the ‘new normal’ to which we are called? Are we called in our daily living to be a Church and a people converted to God’s way of seeing and relating to Creation and all life in this shared home?

In Laudato Si’ (no. 10), Pope Francis speaks of St. Francis, his inspiration for integral ecology. He says: “He was particularly concerned for God’s creation and for the poor and outcast. (…) He was a mystic and a pilgrim who lived in simplicity and in wonderful harmony with God and with others, with nature, and with himself. He shows us just how inseparable the bond is between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society and interior peace.”

For me, this describes ‘integral ecology’ and reminds me that we need both prayer and action in order to live in this way. For many of us, our ability to engage in this call appears limited. However it is not, if we recognize in it a call to deepen our prayer life and if we realize the power of witness and prayer. In his April 30th homily, Pope Francis spoke of the power of “witness and prayer.” Our lives witness to both our faith and our chosen way of living and being in this world. Pope Francis reminded us that it is God who draws us and empowers us for conversion. If we live in simplicity, faith, trust and harmony as Francis and other saints have done, we can incarnate in our lives the kind of love for creation and for others, and the conversion to which we are called. Can we choose to truly live simply and in respect for and communion with all creation? This is the challenge and the promise that faces not only Indigenous peoples but all of us.

1 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples General Assembly Resolution # 61/295 (Annex), UN GAOR, 61st Sess., Supp. No. 49, Vol. III, UN Doc. A/61/49 (2008) 15.

2 CBC News: The National, April 25, 2020.

Sr. Priscilla Solomon, CSJ

This text is taken from the Summer 2020 issue of the ad vitam webzine “Laudato Si’: Caring for Creation and future generations”.