The Peripatetic Preacher Goes to Fiji

Fiji_June_2001Though I have relayed something of this story in an earlier blog—at my advancing age, I cannot remember exactly when—I had a very memorable preaching assignment on the main island of Fiji in August, 2004. The request to preach and teach in such an exotic locale was made possible by a former student who has spent nearly his entire ministerial career teaching in international places from India to Kiribati to Ecuador, to mention only a few of his posts. His blog would surely be titled “The Peripatetic Teacher.” David asked me to come, and my wife, Diana, came along to add her many gifts to the work we were asked to do.

She and I first had an idyllic four days on the island of Taveuni, one of the three largest islands among the hundreds of islands that make up the nation of Fiji. We stayed in a lovely small resort right next to the water. Ironically and wonderfully, she and were assigned the honeymoon suite, though we were the only couple there that was not on an actual honeymoon! BY 2004, we had been married 35 years. I suppose we could offer our long relationship as some sort of model for those just starting out; one or two of the younger ones did ask how we had stayed together so long. Patience and good therapy, we replied, as we still do now after 48 years!

1280px-Northern_Division,_Fiji_-_panoramioAfter four days of complete relaxation, including great food served on the outdoor lanai, snorkeling in water crystal clear down to 50 feet, and a massage or two overlooking the sea, we headed back to the biggest island, Suva, to begin our work time. I had decided to focus my attention on theology and the environment, having read an article written by a South Pacific theologian and published in a journal of the United Nations. In that article, he had argued that the giant first world nations, most prominently the US, were in the process of destroying the island nations of the South Pacific by their refusal to eschew fossil fuels and thereby to continue pumping hydrocarbons into the atmosphere at an alarming and truly destructive rate. As a result, the article said, any number of low-lying island nations were already experiencing regular flooding and in some cases permanent inundations by the ocean. I found this article not only deeply disturbing in its quiet anger, but heartbreaking in its human cry for help from those who have not heard the cries of the poor, a basic claim of the Bible’s call for all who would be followers of God.

I gave three lectures on my understanding of how the Bible offers to those who read carefully significant resources for a robust engagement with our God-given world, an engagement that moves us away from being masters of the world to servants of it and members with it in a balanced life of community with all that lives on the earth, animals, plants, and fellow humans. I also preached two sermons that tried to make those ideas resound in the ears of my hearers. I soon discovered that many of those who came to the conference, sponsored by the Pacific Theological College on Suva, had already thought deeply about these matters, primarily because they were forced to by their very real circumstances as islanders in a vast ocean, and because their ancient island theologies had taught them such things long before any Christians had appeared among them. It was I, the Western Christian theologian, who was the latecomer to these notions.

1280px-Poland,_KiribatiThis was made especially clear to me on the final day of the conference, just after our closing communion service (where the elements were decidedly not bread and juice), when an older pastor from the nation of Kiribati (pronounced “kiribas”) came up to me for a word of thanks for my efforts during the conference. But his thanks were ladled with something else. I am very sorry not to remember his name, but I will remember his face and its earnestness forever. He looked up at me—he was a short man—and quietly said, “You are destroying my home.” I was stunned, and I admit immediately defensive. Surely, I personally was not wreaking havoc on his beloved island, was I? He paused, and there was a silence between us. He continued, “The place on Kiribati where I was born and raised is now completely underwater. No, none of my family was harmed; we moved to what passes for higher ground on the island. We now live there, but we fear that it is only a matter of a few decades before all of Kiribati will no longer exist.” With that, he turned to leave. I had nothing to say by way of thanks or sadness or some sense of hope. After all, I had flown many thousands of miles to come to Fiji in a huge airplane, spewing large amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere. And when I got home to Dallas, Texas I would again each day jump into my car and drive to my workplace, after having showered in a lovely spray of hot water, made toasty by a gas-powered water heater, and after eating a nice bowl of cereal, crowned with cold milk, made cold by my electric refrigerator, and made possible by a cow that dispels methane gas, a far more polluting gas than CO2.

That pastor was quite right; I did play a powerful role in the destruction of his homeland. I could not deny my complicity. So, what to do? By purchasing a hybrid car, which I did after that experience, I reduced my carbon footprint by 60%. An electric car would be even better, of course. In my new tiny house in Los Angeles (about 500 square feet), we have instant water heaters, and are looking into the possibility of solar panels on our small roof. There are many other things I can do, individually, to aid this planet-wide problem. It is quite late in humanity’s attempts to curtail its reliance on fossil fuels, and the current leaders of our country are not helpful in this struggle. Nonetheless, each thing I do to aid the environment, from personal choices of what to buy to pressure on my government, I see the eyes of that pastor from Kiribati and hear his quiet voice, and I know that I can never again act as if I can do nothing to stave off environmental disaster. I urge you to preach and teach and live as if your life depended on it, because in the most real of senses it does.

(images from Wikimedia Commons)

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