Ministry with* the Poor in an Era of Climate Change


Climate Change “is a global problem with grave implications: environmental, social, economic, political and for the distribution of goods … Its worst impact will probably be felt by developing countries in coming decades.”

(Encyclical Letter of Pope Francis “On Care for Our Common Home,” Laudato Si’, May 24, 2015, Para. 25)

The Crisis at Hand

In local communities around the globe, from the Pacific islands to Louisiana, Alaska to Liberia, the extreme environmental effects of climate change are inflicting devastating harm. These effects can displace whole populations, affecting the people who are most vulnerable, least powerful, and least responsible for contributing to climate change.

Examples abound. In Alaska, 86 percent of all indigenous villages are experiencing the consequences of climate change—forcing entire villages to relocate as ice melts and water levels rise (United States General Accounting Office, Report to Congressional Committees, December 2003).

In Louisiana—including the historic homeland of the Isle de Jean Charles band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Indians—almost two-thirds of the indigenous residents have relocated because of a vanishing coast. Coastal Louisiana loses a Manhattan-sized amount of land every year to erosion. These and many other impacted areas inhabited by indigenous peoples, people living in poverty, and communities in the early phases of development are on the margins of our environmentally wounded planet.

In late 2015, Thomas Kemper, general secretary of Global Ministries, visited Fiji, an island state where the Methodist Church of Fiji is the largest religious group in the country (34.6 percent of the population). “I learned from our Methodist church partners,” Kemper said, that “the rising sea levels are forcing people to resettle farther inland. Two communities have already been forced to move and another 30 communities will be resettled. The positive effects of the Climate Change agreement [COP21, Paris] simply can’t come soon enough for our Fijian brothers and sisters.”

In January 2013, Julia Edwards, a British mission partner serving the Pacific Conference of Churches and the Methodist Church of Fiji, reported that Fiji “was the first country in the world to have a formal relocation policy for those people forcibly displaced by climate change. Scientists predict,” she added, “that, by 2050, there may be as many as 650,000 Pacific Islanders so displaced and seeking a new home. Worldwide, hundreds of millions of people will be forced to move. National governments are not in the position to offer displaced people unlimited financial support.”

The urgency of the situation may not be so obvious to those in power. “While politicians, their representatives, and other special negotiators have the luxury of time,” Edwards writes, “few people in countries particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change can wait for a conclusion to the international debate.”

The villagers of Tibukag, ancestral home of the indigenous Talaingod Manobos, have had to flee their mountainous homeland to escape escalating militarization.

The Rev. Tevita Banivanua, president of the Methodist Church in Fiji, seems to agree. On November 1, 2015, she called for greater awareness of climate change and the need for action. “Creation is groaning from our mistreatment and we are suffering as a result of humankind’s selfishness towards the earth,” she wrote. “While we of the Pacific are not the major contributors to climate change, we are paying the price for it.”

Later in 2015, the Rev. Pat Watkins—a United Methodist missionary serving the program called God’s Renewed Creation at Global Ministries—attended COP 21, the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris. There, he came face-to-face with people from around the world who are on the frontlines of climate change and are struggling with its day-to-day realities. “Listening to the people of the Pacific island nations will break your heart,” he reported. “They just plead with the rest of the world … to do something.”

Caretakers of God’s Creation

Although The United Methodist Church has long recognized the theological, biblical, and social importance of responsible stewardship of the environment (see Para 160 of the Book of Discipline), as environmental science and environmental justice have evolved, so has the church’s level of awareness and engagement. This growing and shifting awareness is reflected in an array of environmental resolutions adopted and revised by a series of UM General Conferences, including resolutions on global warming and climate change.

A seminal moment in the global church’s growing commitment to environmental and climate justice is the 2009 pastoral letter issued by the bishops of The United Methodist Church, “God’s Renewed Creation: Call to Hope and Action." Here, the bishops recognize three “interconnected threats to life and hope”: pandemic poverty and disease, environmental degradation, and the proliferation of weapons and violence. These threats are not isolated, the bishops recognize, because the world comprises “one interconnected system that is ‘groaning in travail.’” (Romans 8:22 RSV)

Yet, as the bishops explain, despite “these interconnected threats to life and hope, God’s creative work continues. Despite the ways we all contribute to these problems, God still invites each one of us to participate in the work of renewal.” Climate justice is one aspect of the church’s participation in the renewal of God’s creation.

Climate Impacts on Poverty

Land that has been used to grow a monocrop, such as this DoleFil pineapple plantation in the Philippines, suffers from the unsustainable practice. Nutrients and moisture is leeched from the soil, leaving it unfit for further production. Climate justice focuses on the “disproportionate impacts of a warming planet on people in poor regions and nations who are least responsible for historic greenhouse gas emissions” (response magazine, November 2015, p. 11). Given these disproportionate impacts on the most vulnerable populations, climate justice naturally intersects with one of the UMC’s priority areas of focus: Ministry with the Poor. This ministry seeks to impact the root causes of poverty, emphasizing working with instead of simply giving to people and communities living in conditions of poverty.

At the intersection of Ministry with the Poor and climate justice, those living at “the center” of wealth, power, or privilege are called to partner with leaders from the margins. Ministry with the Poor emphasizes the critical importance of acting in solidarity with those actually experiencing poverty and injustice. So we must learn to cede the center to the voices of those suffering disastrous climate impacts as they struggle and advocate for systemic change.

Leadership from the Margins

Fortunately, the current grassroots struggles for climate justice are increasingly spearheaded by the impacted peoples themselves—low income people, people of color, and indigenous peoples.

That was in evidence in Paris at COP21, where John Hill, director of economic and environmental justice at the General Board of Church & Society, was part of a team of UMC delegates from Liberia, Germany, and the Philippines. Hill noticed that this climate conference was significantly different from its predecessors. “I felt like for the first time,” he said, that “the experience and realities of the most impacted communities were actually the dominant voices of the conference.”

This apparent growth of leadership from the margins is to be celebrated—not only because it embodies a valued theology of mission but also because it is an effective organizing principle. “The folks most affected are also the solution,” Hill pointed out. The challenge, he added, is figuring out “how to assist their work without displacing it.” It’s not the case that those on the front lines are voiceless, he explained; “it’s often that they don’t have an audience.” So providing an audience is one way the institutional church can play a supportive—but not displacing—role, “Because our church has status at the United Nations,” Hill noted, it’s “in a position to bring into that process the people who are deeply impacted by climate change and are working in solidarity with their communities.”

Similarly, the Rev. Kathleen Stone, United Methodist Women’s executive for economic and environmental justice, says, “My hope is that the institution will create ways of being in solidarity with the people.” She cautions that supporting these communities doesn’t mean displacing their work or taking the lead. “We’re always talking about empowering people,” she admits, “when what we need to do is get out of their way.”

Adam Shaw, a missionary with Global Ministries and a former Global Mission Fellow assigned to the Philippines to work with a network of grassroots indigenous organizations, notes: “The poorer classes of Filipino society are the people who rely on the environment for their livelihood. They are most affected by the environmental impacts of large-scale mining, as well as by typhoons, flooding, and natural disasters caused or exacerbated by climate change and degradation.” These, he says, are “the people organizing the most passionately on behalf of the environment.”

Shaw observed how indigenous peoples in the affected communities banded together to save their ancestral domain from environmental exploitation. Local leaders who survived typhoons Sendong, Pablo, and Yolanda are now advocating for legislative changes in mining laws.” Shaw concludes that the global church “shouldn’t speak for affected communities, but instead should make space and bring the voices of these communities and leaders to the table.”

Norma Dollaga, a United Methodist deaconess serving in the Philippines, has witnessed “the dignity of standing for what is right” by local leaders in Lumad and other indigenous Filipino communities. Recounting the story of a Lumad leader who opposed opening up the community to development by mining corporations, she concludes that the Lumad “have learned the ways of rising up, of helping each other, of not giving up hope.”

Solidarity with the Grassroots

It is difficult for those of us living in areas less directly affected by climate change to understand the gravity of loss and urgency of struggle in communities at the forefront of the consequences. As Kathleen Stone asks: “Where does their history go? Where does their culture go?”

One way to learn more about communities battling for climate justice is to participate in a study group engaged in the United Methodist Women’s climate justice simulation experience. This experience provides a series of maps and scenarios allowing a group to experience what it’s like to be part of a community struggling for environmental justice. Groups must marshal their community’s assets to find a way forward in a climate situation that seems bleak. Such tools can help us learn to center the voices of those in the midst of the struggle for climate justice.Climate Justice Simulation Experience

Finally, we cannot continue to ignore those struggling at the forefront of climate change in communities relegated to the political margins. Not only have their environments been impacted by the production and consumption of resources for our industrialized world, but they also represent the leading edge of our own environmental future.


For nearly six years, Mary Ellen Kris, a consecrated and commissioned United Methodist deaconess, has been engaged by Global Ministries to provide leadership, direction, and support for the UMC’s focus on Ministry with the Poor. Following a long career in law and public service, she earned an M. Div. degree with a concentration in poverty and justice from Union Theological Seminary in New York City. Nicholas Laccetti, who also has an M. Div. from Union, is the Ministry with the Poor communicator at Global Ministries. His studies focused on the intersections of popular religion, theology, and social change.


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