Early in 2019, Jorge knew he had to get out of Guatemala. The land was turning against him. For five years, it almost never rained. Finally it did and Jorge rushed his last seeds into the ground. The corn sprouted into healthy green stalks, and there was hope — until, without warning, the river flooded.
Jorge waded chest-deep into his fields searching in vain for cobs he could still eat. Soon he made a last desperate bet, signing away the tin-roof hut where he lived with his wife and three children against a $1,500 advance in okra seed. But after the flood, the rain stopped again, and everything died. Jorge knew then that if he didn’t get out of Guatemala, his family might die, too. (Abrahm Lustgarten)
According to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, in 2022, the number of forcibly displaced people (often within their own countries) exceeded 100 million for the first time, with climate change displacing more people than conflicts.
If you live locally, you’ve probably noticed a lot of renovation work going on in Annisquam these days. Just look around the village and you will see project after project. The same is true across Cape Ann. And if you take a walk most any place on this island and listen carefully, not only will you notice construction and landscaping sounds, you are also likely to hear Spanish being spoken.
There are 850,000 Latinos living in Massachusetts, comprising 13 percent of the state population. 9% of the population is Black 8%, Asian; 70%, white. Since 1980, 92 percent of Boston’s population growth has been among Latinos.
Quite possibly, the Spanish speaking men working on our homes and yards have a story to tell about why they are here.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (known as UNHCR), reports that ninety percent of refugees and 70 percent of people displaced within their home countries by conflict and violence, also come from areas on the front lines of the climate emergency, including Central America. The impact of the worldwide climate crisis is deeply destabilizing economically and politically.
According to a recent study in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the planet could see a greater temperature increase in the next 50 years than it did in the last 6,000 years combined. By 2070, the kind of extremely hot zones that now cover less than 1 percent of the earth’s land surface, found in Africa, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, could cover approximately 19% of the land, including Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean, and South America, potentially placing one of every three people alive outside the climate niche where humans have thrived for thousands of years.
The very land that Joseph found as refuge for his family, in Egypt on the continent of Africa – soon might no longer be habitable.
Outbreaks of violence and extreme weather push people who have already fled once to flee again. But even if peace is restored, displaced people cannot go back if their home areas have been made uninhabitable by drought, floods or rising sea levels.
According to the UNHCR, “What we are seeing now is a devastating convergence of conflict and climate change that is both driving displacement and making life even more precarious for those already forced to flee…(Suggesting that) The world is finally waking up to the fact that climate change is an emergency for everyone, everywhere. The stark reality, though, is those who did the least to contribute to it are already suffering the most.”
In his 1967 Christmas sermon, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said: “It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly…This is the way our universe is structured, this is its interrelated quality. We aren’t going to have peace on Earth until we recognize this basic fact of the interrelated structure of all reality.”
Some of the people working on our homes and lawns just might be climate refugees.
Jesus was born into a dangerous world, his parents forced to flee. It’s a story that’s not dissimilar from many of our ancestral stories. In all likelihood, if you go back far enough in your own family tree, there was someone who left “the old country” for the new. If you are white, some of your ancestors likely decided to risk a harrowing journey for a fresh start. If you are Black, it is likely that some of your ancestors were forced to leave their homes against their will. Years later, generations of Black people freely chose to leave the south for the promise of a fresh start (the Great Migration) in the north. If you are Latino, you may have fled the danger of political violence, the climate crisis, or both.
As horrific as leaving home is because of a threat to life – whatever the cause — we can take hope. Theologian David Lose offers that today’s scripture reading asserts that “God is not only with us, God is also for us, promising to bring us through difficult times to the other side, if not unscathed, nevertheless still victorious.” (I’m not sure I like the word ‘victorious’, but it is worth considering.) Even the darkest, most dangerous portions of Jesus’ life story are held within a bigger picture of God’s ultimate providence and protection. Resurrection.
As Dr. King understood, we have a role to play in making that love and provision real in this world. In his last speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” he challenged “.. if something isn’t done, and done in a hurry, to bring the colored peoples of the world out of their long years of poverty, their long years of hurt and neglect, the whole world is doomed.”
Just as Jesus and his family found refuge in Egypt and later in Nazareth, we can trust that God waits to welcome us when we are on the move. Whether a job loss forces us to relocate; or a family member suddenly needs our help in another state, we can trust that our God waits for us there. If your home in Florida or California has been devastated by climate fueled weather events – as it has to some people in this church community or to your friends, take heart God is with you. If you’ve been told that the place you are renting has been sold or the rent is going up beyond what you can afford (which has also happened to people in this community), remember our God journeys with you and goes ahead of you. No matter what transition in life we are facing (including the ultimate transition (pause) at the time of our death), our God will be ready to open the next door to welcome us home.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus puts it like this, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.”
On this day when we remember the witness of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., hear what his son recently said: “The poor and disenfranchised – too often those in communities of color – still disproportionately bear society’s harms through no fault of their own…Because no matter who we are or where we come from, we’re all entitled to the basic human rights of clean air to breathe, clean water to drink, and healthy land to call home.”
I reached out to Abrahm Lustgarten, whose 2019 essay about climate migration inspired this sermon to see if he knew what happened to Jorge after their encounter. He tells me that after leaving Guatemala, Jorge settled in the Houston area (where, let me point out, three members of this community live in the winter). There he found good work in construction, with his son. Jorge saved enough money that he thought he could make another, more stable go of things at home, and then did, voluntarily move back to Guatemala to start a new business.
May we work towards a world where no one has to flee because of the ruthlessness of political leaders, the violence of war, and the consequences of our climate crisis. May we work towards a world where all can live safe and vital lives at home and those who must flee find welcoming refuge. Amen.
“‘Intolerable tide’ of people displaced by climate change: UN expert” (ohchr.org/en/press-releases/2022/06/intolerable-tide-people-displaced-climate-change-un-expert)
“I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” and “Christmas, 1967 sermon” by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (kinginstitute.stanford.edu/)
“Just in Time” by David Lose (davidlose.net/2016/12/christmas-1-a-just-in-time/)
“Powering Greater Boston’s Economy: Why the Latino Community is Critical to our Shared Future” (bostonindicators.org/reports/report-website-pages/latinos-in-greater-boston)
“THE GREAT CLIMATE MIGRATION’ by Abrahm Lustgarten, NYTimes, July 23, 2020 (nytimes.com/interactive/2020/07/23/magazine/climate-migration.html)