By David N. Munene
More than 50 faith leaders representing over 10 faith communities congregated at the eMseni Christian Centre in Gauteng, Johannesburg, South Africa from 5th-7th November to develop policy that would help the Southern African Faith Communities’ Environment Institute (SAFCEI) to “map and plan the leadership role that faith communities must play in seeking an environmentally sustainable future across the Southern African region, the continent and beyond” over the next 10 years. The Policy Conference ran under the theme, “A New Vision for Sacred Life and Living Earth” and had six thematic areas: Planetary Boundaries and Biodiversity, Energy and Climate Justice, Food and Climate Justice, Consumerism and Waste, Land and Water Justice, and Animal Justice. Among the faith leaders, was the Catholic Youth Network for Environmental Sustainability in Africa’s (CYNESA) Country Director for Tanzania, Dessydery Mosses and CYNESA’s Programs Manager, David N. Munene.
The programme involved lamentation and reflective prayer starting with the opening worship on the evening of 5th November 2019. Different leaders drawn from different faith communities were invited to lead in the worship, lighting candles, leading from a scripted pamphlet about the litany of sorrow and the litany of healing, and making their own-composed, freestyle contributions in the forms of short speeches, faith-specific prayers, and songs. They included evangelical, Buddhist, Bahai, Hindu, Anglican, Presbyterian, Xhosa, Muslim, and Catholic leaders. David N. Munene was invited to represent the Catholic faith where he invited the participants to sing along to a thanksgiving song, “Asante Mungu”, which featured Swahili, English, Tonga, Arabic, Shona, Sepedi, Zulu, Afrikaans, and Xhosa lines – all of which translated to, “Thank You God” for such gifts as our beautiful common home, our different faiths, and the visible and invisible creation. Ms. Francesca de Gasparis, the SAFCEI Executive Director, gave the welcome remarks before Rev. Shaun Cozett – a founding member of SAFCEI – gave the opening address. The community of faith leaders then shared a vegan meal in union with the animals that suffer cruelty and death in the meat production chains that end up on our tables as food.
On Day 2, CYNESA Tanzania’s Country Director, Dessydery Mosses, led the participants in praying the Prayer for the Earth by Pope Francis, which is found in his 2015 landmark encyclical letter, Laudato Si’: On the Care for Our Common Home. After the introduction of the day’s programme by Francesca, Bishop Geoff Davies (SAFCEI’s co-founder) called upon the faith leaders present to “redouble their efforts”, as the only way to honor their work through SAFCEI. The faith leaders proceeded to hold breakaway sessions on the six thematic areas and CYNESA participated in the Planetary Boundaries and Biodiversity, Energy and Climate Justice, and Consumerism and Waste. Key outcomes of these were the need to increase access and the affordability of sustainable energy, the need to include human life in definitions of biodiversity, and the fact that wasting food also extends to wastage of land, labour energy, and water.
Prof. Tonyiko Maluleke from the University of Pretoria spoke on the topic, “Navigating our way into the 21st Century – Exploring a new narrative”. He extrapolated on an anecdote of land issues where he traced them to colonialism and the introduction of Christianity. He explained the need to understand the myriad of issues that hinder Christianity from speaking against injustices such as its anthropocentric and segregation-based approach in its introduction. He critiqued the exclusion of the earth in either theologies. “Theologians and politicians have yet to break the code, which links South Africa’s problems to ecological problems… what we have failed to do is to make the connection between these problems and the looming ecological crisis…” and lauded the Latin-American theology for its attempt to speak to the nonhuman.
On day 3 of the conference, the faith leaders prayed together and afterwards reviewed the draft declarations that had been prepared by the various thematic groups following their discussions their previous day. The consensus-driven process allowed the participants to give input on the text before its adoption into the policy document that would be finalized and shared later, as the principal outcome of the Policy Conference.
The closing plenary, which entailed reflections on emerging sacred life and living earth narrative by Bishop Ellinah Wamukoya (the first woman to be elected Anglican Bishop in Africa) and Sr. Usha Jevan. Bishop Wamukoya spoke about the involvement of the Green Anglicans in renewable energy and innovative empowerment of women through the making of Wonder Bags®. Some of the actions by the Anglican Church in the Diocese of Swaziland include the uprooting of invasive species in collaboration with the traditional communities and tree-growing mission by the Anglican Communion of Bishops in Swaziland where they have restored a forest that had been destroyed by fire. Sr. Usha helped the participants to reflect on what had happened in the past days and identified the “human being” as the center of it all. “The Earth can destroy itself, but when it destroys itself, can we humans save ourselves? The integrity of the human spirit is being compromised,” she lamented.