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Fellowship on the Mekong

By: Michael Scharff

November 24, 2009

by Michael Scharff (2009-10 WFDD Fellow)

Phnom Penh, Cambodia - As international heads of state, leading environmental scientists, and international donor representatives prepare to gather in Copenhagen for the upcoming UN-sponsored conference on climate change, much will be discussed about what can be done to address issues of environmental degradation. But on the waters of the Mekong River, a different kind of conversation is happening.
I had the opportunity to spend a recent Sunday afternoon with the International Lay Missionaries of Cambodia, a group dedicated to promoting fellowship between lay members living and working in Cambodia. Members of the group include a former Jesuit priest from Washington, DC, a Catholic lay sister from Peru, a Filipino employed by a missionary organization from Quebec, Canada, as well as laypersons from Hong Kong, Japan, France, and Colombia.

We took to the waters of Cambodia's Mekong River aboard a chartered boat. The afternoon was both a celebration marking the end of the missionary calendar and a prayer meeting - and it served as a prime example of how religious groups of various faith traditions are speaking out on the moral necessity of addressing climate change.

Nearly 30 minutes into the trip, the captain cast off the makeshift anchor and cut the engines. Bill Burns, the former Jesuit priest, led us all in an opening prayer and described how the afternoon's activities would unfold. Together we read aloud select Bible passages and Psalms that focused on the theme of nature and creation and spent time reflecting individually on how the teachings could be applied to the current battle against climate change. "œGod gave us so many wonderful gifts in nature," said Burns. "œIt'™s important we take the time to start thinking about how we can help preserve these gifts for generations to come."

The voices of religious groups as a whole are a potentially potent force in influencing ongoing discussion. In fact, Burns'™ call to action in promoting conservation is one that has been echoed now for some time by other faith leaders.

In 1989, Pope John Paul II quoted the Second Vatican Council when he urged the church to take a more active role in helping to preserve the environment. "God destined the earth and all it contains for the use of every individual and all peoples," said the Pope, reciting the Council'™s declaration. "It is manifestly unjust that a privileged few should continue to accumulate excess goods, squandering available resources. Today, the dramatic threat of ecological breakdown is teaching us the extent to which greed and selfishness - both individual and collective - is contrary to the order of creation."

Recalling the Pope'™s words, Lieke Coenegrachts, a native of Belgium, and one of the leaders of the missionary ensemble, addressed the group. "Somewhere I think we have to have the courage to live differently, we have to think about how we can live with everyone. I believe that if we start with small efforts, things will start to change." As she spoke, a small wooden fishing boat drifted by. Onboard, a family of Cham Muslims was hard at work retrieving, by hand, the fishing nets they had left floating on the water'™s surface earlier in the day.

As the sun set low on the horizon during Coenegrachts'™s reflections, and with dusk fast approaching, we turned back to shore. But the evening was not yet over. There was one more prayer left to say. And so, on a small and somewhat dilapidated boat, in the middle of a river in the Kingdom of Cambodia, we bowed our heads in prayer that God may give strength and wisdom to the world'™s leaders as they confront the pressing issues of climate change at the Copenhagen summit.