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Hearing the Cry of the Earth and the Cry of the Poor in St Alban's

  • Mary Harber

LiveSimply team members from St Alban's, Hitchen and Harpenden. (Mary Harber front left)

LiveSimply team members from St Alban's, Hitchen and Harpenden. (Mary Harber front left)

On Saturday 19 November 2022 Ss Alban and Stephen Parish in St Albans's held a public meeting to consider whether CAFOD's LiveSimply project might be appropriate for the parish. Around 40 people attended.

The meeting was addressed by Ellen Teague, who runs a Justice, Peace and Ecology Media Desk for the Columban Missionaries, and who is also a freelance journalist. Ann Milner and John Scott from Our Lady Immaculate and St Andrew in Hitchin also spoke to attendees about LiveSimply as it works in their parish. And contributing to the discussion were Graham and Liz Ryan from Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Harpenden, who, over several years, have inspired members of the Parish of Ss Alban and Stephen to seek the LiveSimply award.

While parishioners were assembling, a video reflection on Living Simply was played. This had been produced by Barbara Bolgiano of the parish JPIC group and featured images provided by children at St John Fisher Primary School reflecting on LiveSimply issues; it also displayed photographs relevant to the theme of LiveSimply which parishioners had supplied and extracts from Gerald Manley Hopkin's poem 'God's Grandeur'. The meeting opened with the parish priest, Fr Michael O'Boy, reading a prayer composed by the late Bishop Ken Untener of Saginaw. Michigan, USA urging us not to be defeated by the scale of the problems facing the world but to 'plant the seeds' and to trust in God.

Ellen then spoke. She firstly outlined her experience of working with parishes who are aiming to become LiveSimply parishes. As an Assessor for LiveSimply she has evaluated around 10 parishes and schools. She assessed the first a decade ago and the latest just two days before at White City, West London. She is invariably struck by how vibrant such parishes are and how aware of 'the Good News'. The LiveSimply project is a community-building initiative and it is evident that it is successful in achieving that outcome in the parishes she has visited.

LiveSimply is about living simply, sustainably and in solidarity with the poor. It is about working towards gospel values. Ellen talked about other award winners she had assessed. Westminster's West Green Parish established a garden and started growing food; refugees were welcomed regularly into the parish hall for refreshments and practical support. New Barnet Parish established a Peace Garden and organised the recycling of clothes. Walthamstow parish in Brentwood Diocese introduced a 'no plastics' policy. Anyone using the hall for weddings or other celebrations had to sign a 'no plastics' agreement. The same policy is in place at the White City parish.

The LiveSimply project is similar to the Anglican Eco-Church scheme and there is a similar scheme in Scotland. It is part of an international movement for parish communities - and increasingly schools - to be more eco-friendly. Ellen mentioned Mount Carmel Primary School in Ealing, Westminster Diocese, which achieved the award in 2019 and described how the children had benefited from understanding the importance of biodiversity and creating homes for insects. In two weeks' time, the UN will be holding an international conference on biodiversity and the Columbans will have a delegation there. The Church works at all levels on peace, justice and ecology.

Alluding to the title of her talk, 'Hearing the cry of the Earth and the cry of the Poor,' Ellen said that LiveSimply pulls together the cry of the environment and of vulnerable people, which are key themes in the 2015 papal encyclical, 'Laudato Si''. But before that she had become aware of these issues as a volunteer lay missionary, along with her husband, in Northern Nigeria in the 1980s. She had been shocked to see widespread poverty, people suffering from leprosy - a curable disease - and to learn that environmental deterioration was further impoverishing communities. The first victims of climate and environmental crises are the poor. Long-term missionaries reported that the Sahara was moving southwards by about six miles every year. The town she worked in was called Kaduna, which means 'crocodiles' in the Hausa language, but she never saw a living crocodile. The desertified landscape had been a forest a century earlier, yet there was little sense at that time that anything could be done by the Catholic Church about environmental problems.

The Paris Climate talks of 2015 were attended by representatives of the Columbans, the Jesuits, the new Global Catholic Climate Movement established by Tomas Insua - now called the Laudato Si Movement - and Cardinal Turkson led a Vatican delegation. Catholics were present in force at COP 26 in Glasgow a year ago, including Ellen herself.

Biodiversity is another key issue. We are living in the worst extinction since the dinosaurs died out. There is too much indifference in the Churches and in society. Columban Missionary Sean McDonagh wrote his book 'The Death of Life' 15 years ago.

The Signs of the Times are worrying. Two thirds of Pakistan has recently been under water because of severe weather associated with a warming planet. The Columbans in Pakistan have witnessed huge suffering and been involved in the aid effort. One woman with a child was turned away from a feeding station by soldiers who told her to go to her own village for aid. She responded that her village no longer existed. Her home had gone, and her husband and her other children had been swept away. People are living on the sides of roads on higher land with nowhere else to go. Around 2,000 people have lost their lives. We must try to keep global temperatures below a rise of 1.5 degrees Celsius at the very least, and so advocacy is vital. At COP27 the key issues under discussion were 'Loss and Damage' payments to countries coping with the destruction of severe weather and reducing greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels. We learnt the next day that a 'Loss and Damage' Fund has been set up but tackling greenhouse gas emissions remains inadequate.

Church Justice and Peace work is inspired by the Signs of the Times, imperatives in Scripture, the Church's Social Teaching, saintly lives and examples, as well as liberation and creation theology.

What does Living Simply mean?

Slowing down, spending more time with family and community; living more sustainably by consuming locally produced food and avoiding excessive packaging; conserving water, being in solidarity with the poor and with those who have more limited choices. Ellen supports the campaigns to disinvest from fossil fuels, particularly Operation Noah, and we should note that Westminster Diocese has not fully divested. Also, initiatives to ban nuclear weapons and build peace.

The Bishops' Conference met in Leeds just days previously and encouraged greater support for the LiveSimply programme. The Church teaches care for the poor and vulnerable, care for the Earth, work for peace for people and planet. As people of faith we need to renew our relationship with the world. The annual National Justice and Peace Conference considers how the Church can move forward on this and the July 2023 conference in Derbyshire will focus on Sustainability.

Ellen concluded her talk by showing the 'Coat of Hopes' from Glasgow's COP26. It was made up of small squares from communities throughout the UK, all giving their vision of the future and the importance of living simply, sustainably and in solidarity with the poor.

A shorter talk was given by John Scott and Anne Milner of Hitchin parish, which registered for the LiveSimply Award in 2012 and achieved it the following year. Their power point display included: cleaning up a local stream, supporting CAFOD's World gifts, installing bike racks purchased from funds raised at coffee mornings; water butts on the church site; extensive recycling, and vigil prayers for the climate.

The Ss Alban and Stephen parish wants to involve as many in the parish as possible. We had a shared lunch where we continued to discuss ideas and plans. And it was noted that the parish is a large and vibrant community which already practices some LiveSimply ideals.

Two members of the JPIC group have run a Fairtrade stall once a month at weekend masses for around 20 years, raising thousands of pounds for CAFOD. There is a popular 'Knit and Natter' group which is about to launch outreach to a local care home at the request of the home. There is good support for parishioners who need lifts to Mass. There are regular social events including, pre-covid, a very sociable Christmas Day dinner, with entertainers from the parish, and more recently home deliveries of Christmas dinners on Christmas Day all supported by volunteer cooks and drivers. Pre-covid, the parish hosted English conversation for Syrian and other displaced women and is now involved with Churches Together in preparing to support more migrants who are due to be moved to the area. The Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation group maintains contact with local schools and encouraged one of the parish schools to participate in St Albans' Sustainability Fortnight by decorating the route of a walk, designed by the JPIC group, with images of Sustainable Living. There are annual signings of Christmas cards for prisoners, a market stall in the local market where the parish Christmas and Easter cards are distributed by way of invitation to the celebrations, collections for the local food bank, a bike rack, a Toddlers' Group which is open to everyone in the community and is run by parish volunteers and a 'You Can Be Santa' scheme which identifies those who need some help with the cost of Christmas and provides vouchers to enable those families to meet some of the expense of Christmas. The scheme also provides vouchers at Easter.

Members of the parish recently conducted a Net Zero Assessment of the parish and its use of resources in conjunction with the parish priest, Fr Michael O'Boy, and the Diocese of Westminster. The parish is mindful of the need for constant prayer and reflection on our place in the world and, at the invitation of the parish priest, the JPIC group has prepared weekly reflections on the Advent gospels with LiveSimply themes in mind, which can be seen on the parish website. But there is a need to revisit what we do, encourage new ideas and explore a parish-wide understanding of LiveSimply ideals and practice. The parish is now exploring how the CAFOD LiveSimply scheme might help with that process.



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