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My Invitation to Ecological Conversion

Setting sun over mountainous terrain
Take Action!

By Hyein Anna Noh

“God always forgives. We humans sometimes forgive. The earth never forgives. There can be no future if we destroy the very environment that sustains us.”

In Quezon City, a poor neighborhood on the north side of Manila, Philippines, I found a small room where I could live among the locals. At the time, I was focused on living among the “poorest and most marginalized” because I thought that was the way of a missionary. In the late afternoons just before sunset, people began to bring bags of garbage they had collected to the entrance of the neighborhood. By evening, the garbage bags would be piled high, like a mountain. All around, people would rummage through the trash, collecting anything they could sell, such as scrap metal, plastic, and vinyl. These people were called “pickers.” The trash they collected was sent to a huge garbage dump in Payatas, about a 30-minute ride by jeepney (local public transportation) from our neighborhood.

bicycle in a fieldOne day, I went inside that village to meet another missionary who lived right across from the dump. Adults and children were picking things out the garbage heaps, then washing and drying the vinyl and plastic. These local people are pickers, who forage for recyclables, and this is their main source of livelihood. When my colleague told me they view this trash as a gift from God to sustain their life, I felt a deep connection to them and hoped to be able to better their lives.

When I was assigned to Korea in 2019, I wondered what I could do as an individual and a lay missionary in the Korean church. In 2020, the world was devastated by Covid-19, and the climate crisis showed absolutely no sign of improving. So, I knew I couldn’t just shrug and return to my former way of living, as if nothing were happening. I had to do something. They say, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”

vegetables, nuts, fruits, legumes in jarsI happened to hear a lecture on the environment and found out about Global Catholic Climate Movement’s weekly climate protests on Fridays in Gwangwhamun district of Seoul. I wasn’t sure what to write on my protest signs at first, and, although picketing isn’t a crime, I felt a bit embarrassed to stand so publicly in front of people with a sign. I was afraid someone would recognize me, but with a mask covering half of my face, I had enough courage to safely finish my first protest. When I go picketing, I think of the pickers who worked for their living at the entrance to my old neighborhood or In Payatas. It seems to me that they are protecting the earth at the forefront of the climate crisis.

It is ironic that the poor, who benefit the least from our planet’s resources, struggle for the good of the earth. They are the most vulnerable to the climate crisis. This isn’t only true in one geographical area. All around the world, climate change is intensifying droughts, floods, typhoons, heat waves, and severe cold, all of which first harms our world’s poorest people and destroys ecosystems.

Acorn seeds in a persons handSooner or later, this will negatively impact food production, leading to wars over food security. Climate wars will not only be a crisis for all of humankind, but for all of creation.

Since “everything is connected” (Laudato Sí, 91), we can understand that nothing in this world is unrelated to us. My temporary comfort today could cause another person on the other side of the world to become a climate refugee or send delicate biodiversity into crisis. I don’t have deep or extensive knowledge like professional climate scientists, but my heart aches as I hear the cries of the earth, cries of the poor” (Laudato Si, 49) day and night.

I’m still at a loss when I hear of the seeming impossibility of achieving climate-neutrality by 2050 and IPCC’s (UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Crisis) report that we’ll reach an average global temperature rise of 1.5 degrees Celsius even faster than predicted.

However small, the act of carrying my picket sign to climate protests at Gwanghwamun changed my life. Now, I grow plants, ride a bike, use less plastic, and sort my waste more carefully. For several months, I cut high-carbon meats out of my diet, until recently I began a vegetarian diet.

“The human person grows more, matures more and is sanctified more to the extent that he or she enters into relationships, going out from themselves to live in communion with God, with others and with all creatures.” (Laudato Sí 240)

As the action team leader for GCCM KOREA I’m inviting more people to get involved in the climate movement, not only through personal practice, but also by standing in solidarity and steadfast support of those raising a united voice to overcome this crisis. If you are wondering what you can do for our planet right now, let me encourage you to start taking action where you are.

As I mentioned at the start, I thought missionary life meant living in poverty among the poor, witnessing God in daily life. However, it is important for missionaries to pay attention to the demands and needs of our age and generation. I confess to having overlooked this for a long time and reflect on how, even if unconsciously, my consumption is often based on convenience and efficiency. In my ignorance, God reminded me that not only humans, but also everything that exists on earth, our common home, exists in God’s created order. That reminder brought me to my ecological conversion.

So, whenever I am exhausted and the road ahead seems hard, I would like to proceed silently in gratitude to God who waited for me over the last years. “The human person grows more, matures more and is sanctified more to the extent that he or she enters into relationships, going out from themselves to live in communion with God, with others and with all creatures.” (Laudato Sí 240)

Columban lay missionary Hyein Anna Noh lives and works in South Korea.