Familiarity in the Foreign

taj-mahal-India-environmentI’ve just returned from spending two weeks in India, a place that was at the same time the most foreign and the most familiar country I’ve ever traveled. This odd tension in perspective applied to many Indian cultural artifacts, including the country’s environmental situation.

The foreign: India’s sanitation and waste management system is inadequate to serve a citizenry of nearly 1.2 billion people living amongst lingering caste distinctions and disparities. Even the best efforts at sanitation battle longstanding habits of outdoor defecation and littering. As a result, water quality is a disaster in many areas, bacterial diseases thrive, and trash piles up in unofficial dumps. Among friends that I stayed with, even those who had access to garbage collection would throw scraps to the side of the road if not immediately presented with a trash receptacle. And while many food items are bought fresh at market or in bulk with little packaging, as the country develops, the inclusion of extraneous paper and plastic with store-bought items will increase, and these items will be flippantly discarded—but where?

On a different level is India’s tragic intimacy with the devastation of environmental disaster. Changes in monsoon rainfall patterns, flooding and drought, and the increased frequency of large-scale disasters like the 2005 tsunami may be blips on the radars of nations in the North, but they cut countries like India to the bone, most often adversely affecting the poorest members of both rural and urban communities. One Christian relief and development worker I spoke with explained that climate-related disaster “is happening everywhere, but the developing countries are in no position to accommodate the consequences.”

The familiar: One unfortunate similarity between India and the United States is that the church in India is “just waking up” to its environmental responsibility. The larger society, too, is making middling efforts at going green, most recently with a campaign to reduce the use of plastic bags—too familiar, indeed. But in India, as in the US, an overarching ethos of holistic sustainability that benefits both people and land, both at home and abroad, is still missing.

Yet a familiar hope exists, as it does everywhere, in small—but still life-changing—doses. The Evangelical Fellowship of India Commission on Relief (EFICOR) is an Indian non-profit that does mountains more than its name might suggest. Reverend Kennedy Dhanabalan, EFICOR’s Director of the Development Education and Capacity Building Department, articulated for me that holistic perspective on environmental sustainability that is still missing from so many societies and, very often, from the church: “You can’t separate watershed integration or climate change mitigation from literacy, health, and economic empowerment.”

Instead, EFICOR’s field programming for environmental disaster prevention and mitigation takes the shape of watershed rehabilitation, agroforestry, and the re-development of natural resources, all done in concert with local literacy programs, governance training, and microcredit initiatives. And its village-scale forestry and agricultural empowerment is bookended by international advocacy on behalf of those whom even perfect watershed management won’t protect against the unpredictable consequences of climate change.

EFICOR is also pursuing that crucial environmental “waking up” of the Indian church, educating and training congregations on the integrated gospel of Christ’s already-but-not-yet kingdom, a gospel that also preaches the thriving of Christ’s people in a healthy creation.

That integrated gospel is also being taken up, in India and around the world, by a fairly new missions-oriented creation care ministry, Eden Vigil. Directed by Lowell Bliss, a Christar missionary in India who could not separate preaching Jesus’ saving grace from restoring India’s land, Eden Vigil offers training and direction for missionaries who wish to “plant both churches and trees; to save both the planet and the least-reached.”

To be a Christian visitor to India is to be humbled and awed by the fact that Christ loves and died for every single human being in the masses that swarm past you. That gift of value as an individual, insists one Indian Christian friend, is God’s greatest gift. But having seen the desperate need for it in India, I would say that the gift of good land is a treasure, as well.

By Kendra Langdon Juskus

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