Untying the Knots

by Emilie Bouvier

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© Michele Jokinen

“I… I had no idea what the Doctrine of Discovery was. It’s unbelievable, really, it meant that land could be taken if there were no baptized Christians there.” I was jolted out of a moment of distractedly gazing at the stained glass windows during announcements. It was a Sunday morning in early September, and I was visiting a deep suburban congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) that I didn’t know well, but had worked with to coordinate an eco-stewardship project.

There he was, on a blue carpeted footstool at the pulpit microphone, leaning in with a pause: an entirely typical member of the congregation—certainly not the “peace-with-justice-committee” type—unable to hold back the passion welling up about an issue that was entirely new to him. In jolting sentences, clearly still processing, he shared what he was learning with the congregation in what would otherwise be a rather dry report about the Churchwide Assembly. The crack in his voice mid-phrase betrayed the vulnerability he felt at uncovering anguish in a history he claimed as his own. He was expecting just to show up as a delegate for a large-scale church meeting. Little did he know a resolution passed there on Repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery would cause a radical shift. Our social statements as church bodies matter. They can be transformational in unnoticed corners where we wouldn’t even anticipate.

I felt much hope listening to this lay member’s reflections, because I saw colonial history as being deeply related to our environmental crisis.

Having spent time at Standing Rock last fall, I was very aware of how pipeline routes in the Midwest exemplify the ways environmental degradation harms those who are already poor and marginalized, the undying chorus to Pope Francis’s plea for greater care for this earth. Oppression of people and exploitation of the land are integrally related, parallel parts of the structural sin we carry in our world today.

As people and institutions of faith, we have often been on the wrong side of history. As a religion that came from the margins, we’ve historically been awfully comfortable in siding with Empire for the sake of safety and economic benefit. It takes slow and careful work to untie these knots, to seek reconciliation with our sisters, brothers, and the land; and ultimately to mend ourselves and our faith. I believe that social statements on the part of faith leaders and church bodies are critical in recognizing these histories—in naming these knots—and empowering people of the church to get to work unbinding their hold on us.

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© Emilie Bouvier

I have found Laudato Si’ to be one of the most profound examples of a social statement doing just that: addressing the harm and empowering action. Its reverberations have been far-reaching. When I first spent time with the document, I was moved by such a deep and faithful challenge to business as usual of overconsumption and extraction. I found grounding in Pope Francis’s abiding gratitude that stands counter to commodification and in his unabashed stand with the marginalized whose resources others are decimating. Even more, the authoritative weight of Pope Francis’s words has strengthened faith communities and church leaders well beyond the Catholic Church and invigorated me.

As an environmental justice organizer for a Lutheran bishop (ELCA), I can’t even tell you the number of times after the encyclical’s release in 2015 that I found congregation members or pastors in Lutheran churches excitedly asking me “Have you read the pope’s encyclical yet?” Countless more times I, or Bishop Ann Svennungsen, started a statement to elected officials or community leaders with, “Given Laudato Si’, we’re clearly at a kairos in the religious community’s response to the environment….” The encyclical has marked a turning point for how people of faith, across traditions, have engaged environmental justice in the public sphere. We have stood up to match the tenor the pope set: that we are here, and we have work to do.

What has that work looked like? It has looked like the following:

  • confirmation groups cleaning out and stenciling neighborhood storm drains, in efforts to keep trash out of our rivers and streams
  • members from seven congregations showing up in a packed room downtown to get commitments from mayoral candidates on clean energy and equity
  • running energy audits and incorporating green principles in renovations
  • following in the footsteps of indigenous leader Sharon Day on a “Nibi Walk” (water walk), with each step as a prayer for the healing of the water
  • adult forums and creative worship services that invite congregations to learn, pray, and sing their way into environmental practices
  • writing letters to members of an energy utility board of a rural electric cooperative, advocating to expand clean energy options for members
  • a meet-up at a local watershed district, learning the basics of water stewardship and heartily belting of “Shall We Gather at the River” through rain gardens to the bank of the Mississippi to read scripture and bless the water

This is resounding: the methods are many, but the essential feature is that we find opportunity in our own communities and contexts, always in relationship with our neighbors. It has profoundly impacted how we think about being “church together” in the synod of Lutheran congregations I serve. It falls in line with the sort of “EcoReformation” for which many are calling, as the Lutheran Church celebrates the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.

It’s at this 500-year moment that we also are seeing a coming together of Lutheran and Catholic judicatories. Last fall, I witnessed Bishop Ann Svennungsen, Archbishop Bernard Hebda, and Bishop Patricia Lull plan a joint worship service in recognition of this milestone anniversary. What’s striking to me is the way that we’re able to come together on social issues, even amid theological differences, to work the common good. In the current political realities, it fills me with hope to see people of faith work ecumenically on issues bound to the heart of our faith—care for the disenfranchised, the immigrant, and the earth. We have an opportunity at hand to imagine a different future together—a world that honors this earth from which “our very bodies are made up… [whose air] we breathe… [and from whose waters we] receive life and refreshment” (Laudato Si’, 2).

Refugees and Migrants – Are they part of Our Common Good?

By Msgr. Robert J. Vitillo, M.S.W., A.C.S.W., Secretary General, International Catholic Migration Commission

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A group of refugee schoolgirls in Malaysia participating in ICMC’s awareness-raising activities aimed to prevent gender- and sexual-based violence. © ICMC/WEI Chien Tee

In my global advocacy activities, both as the secretary general of the International Catholic Migration Commission (ICMC) and as part-time attaché at the Permanent Mission of the Holy See to the United Nations in Geneva, I have been amazed at the positive response of diplomats and international nongovernmental organization (NGO) advocates to Pope Francis’s landmark encyclical, Laudato Si’[1]. Many who would pass by me at the United Nations when they noticed my Roman collar now greet me warmly and tell me, “I like your Pope and his encyclical!” Despite my joy upon receiving these positive echoes, I am concerned that too many still see the encyclical as focusing on climate change alone (as vital and important as that issue might be) and do not discern the deeper implications of Pope Francis’s call for “integral human ecology,” which requires a profound discernment of our relationship with God, with nature, and with ourselves and each other.

In the sixth chapter of the encyclical, the Holy Father issued a rather curious challenge – that is, to promote “civic and political love”: “We must regain the conviction that we need one another, that we have a shared responsibility for others and the world, and that being good and decent are worth it (220)…. Social love is the key to authentic development (231).” What a contrast between Pope Francis’s admonition and the demeaning political rhetoric that dominated the recent referendum vote in the United Kingdom and the political campaigns in the United States and Europe!

The bitter debate about admission of migrants and refugees into Western countries is literally the most glaring proof of the crying need to promote civil and political love in our world. In February 2016, while standing at the border between Mexico and the United States, Pope Francis described the current situation in this manner: “We cannot deny the humanitarian crisis which in recent years has meant migration for thousands of people, whether by train or highway or on foot, crossing hundreds of kilometers through mountains, deserts and inhospitable zones. The human tragedy that is forced migration is a global phenomenon today. This crisis, which can be measured in numbers and statistics, we want instead to measure with names, stories, families.”[2]

On January 15, 2017, the Catholic Church observes the 103rd World Day of Migrants and Refugees. For this occasion, Pope Francis has decided to focus on “Minor migrants, vulnerable and voiceless,”[3] who often arrive unaccompanied in their destination countries, “are unable to make their own voices heard” and “easily become victims of grave violations of human rights.” In his message for this day, the Holy Father insists on the need to strike a balance between “the right of states to control migratory movement and to protect the common good of the nation … with the duty to resolve and regularize the situation of child migrants.” He reminds us that the migration phenomenon is part of salvation history, which speaks of the providential work of God in history and in the human community, with a view to universal communion.” Echoing dominant themes of Catholic social teaching, and specifically of Laudato Si’, Pope Francis calls for far-sighted perspectives, “capable of offering adequate programmes for areas struck by the worst injustice and instability, in order that access to authentic development can be guaranteed for all,” and reminds us that “this development should promote the good of boys and girls, who are humanity’s hope.”

My own organization, the ICMC, received a mandate from Pope Pius XII, “…to unite and organize existing Catholic associations and committees, and to promote, reinforce and coordinate their projects and activities in behalf of migrants and refugees.[4]” I recently visited the ICMC Refugee Service Centre in Istanbul, Turkey; our staff there are deeply engaged in assisting families to apply for resettlement in the United States. These refugees cannot return home, and their current host country is unable to offer them permanent residence, employment, and long-term safety.

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Monsignor Vitillo visits with refugee children at the ICMC Refugee Service Centre in Istanbul, Turkey. © ICMC

During my visit, I spent time with a group of children who were receiving instruction on life in America. As most children, they were enthusiastic and curious – they grinned from ear to ear and spoke of what they planned to do in their new homes. Each had colored a map of the United States, placed his or her destination state in a special color and spoke with confidence about heading to better and happier lives. But behind their smiling faces, I noticed pain and trauma in their eyes. They had witnessed terrible atrocities; several had lost their loved ones. I am sure that they were experiencing much anxiety and concern about how safe they would be as they boarded an airplane heading for parts of the world that would be very unfamiliar to them. What impressed me most about these children, however, was their sense of hope – they could imagine a better life for themselves and their families despite the many challenges they had experienced so early in life. They, like the Child Jesus, could still imagine the world described by the prophet Isaiah, where “… the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat. The calf and the young lion shall browse together, with a little child to guide them (Is. 11:6).”

For me, the time with these child refugees was a real lesson in a way to promote “civic and political love” that seems to be so lacking in our contemporary society and living proof that refugees and migrants are part of our common good!


[1] Pope Francis, Laudato Si’, 24 May 2015, available at http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/encyclicals/ documents/papa-francesco_20150524_enciclica-laudato-si.html.

[2] Idem, Apostolic Journey to Mexico, Homily during Mass at Ciudad Juarez Fairgrounds, 17 February 2016, available at https://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/homilies/2016/documents/papa-francesco_20160217_omelia-messico-ciudad-jaurez.html.

[3] Idem, Message for The World Day of Migrants and Refugees 2017 (“Child Migrants, the Vulnerable and the Voiceless”), Vatican City, released 8 September 2016, available at https://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/ messag[15 January 2017], es/migration/documents/papa-francesco_20160908_world-migrants-day-2017.html.

[4] Pope Pius XII, Exsul Familia Nazarethana, 1952, available at http://www.papalencyclicals.net/Pius12/ p12exsul.htm.