Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Correlating Conservation and Social Justice

Today our speaker, Colin Jackson, energetically and thoughtfully described the importance of environmental preservation in the fight against social injustice. I imagine it is a controversial topic to bring to the table in a room full of people who are faced with enormous social issues every day, like poverty, violence and HIV/AIDS. How can people in these circumstances even fathom concepts of environmental responsibility when they are blinded by the basic needs of hunger, safety, and health? It's the typical "forest through the trees" scenario, and Colin suggests that tending to our environmental responsibilities actually tackles many social issues from the top-down.

I remember thinking about this last year in Burundi as we drove by pile after pile of trash (mostly consisting of plastic bottles) and witnessed the drastic change in the color of the waters where the streams flowing from Bujumbura meet Lake Tanganyika. As someone who has grown to become quite conscious and intentional when it comes to recycling (and, specifically the use of plastic bottles), every bottle of water I consumed in Burundi broke my heart because I was well-aware of where it would end up. But, at the time, I felt the same sort of apathy towards environmental responsibility in a country that faces so much poverty and an intense history of violence. Hearing Colin speak this morning has rerouted that thinking...it has opened my eyes to the idea of looking at all crises as a whole - swirling social, environmental and political issues in one glass to gain a better understanding of how these issues are intertwined and feed into and out of one another.

Colin is alive with passion for his cause, and it is a passion I deeply connect with. I have walked away energetic and affirmed by my particular connection with nature. I didn't realize it until this morning, but I think I have been struggling with the concept of "service to others" for several years, and particularly for the last year since I stepped into this journey. I felt called into the battle of social responsibility and fighting injustices, but I am a fairly anti-social person. I have dabbled in humanitarian efforts, finding some fruits but not finding place. But, I so identified with Colin's passion this morning that my eyes have been opened to a new path to explore in this journey...a path I've already been on but hadn't ever thought of connecting environmental responsibility to social responsibility. It never even occurred to me to consider that these things are, actually, one in the same.

After Colin spoke, we mingled around tea and snacks. A woman I had met yesterday morning, Eunice, had asked me last night if she could look at some of my photographs, so I had brought one of my calendars into the conference room to give to her. It seemed like a simple gift to me - one I've given hundreds of times to friends in the US and have always been met with a smile, a thank you, and a "nice job"! But I didn't anticipate the look on Eunice's face when I handed it to her.

She held it in her hand and I sat next to her as she was comprehending that this calendar was not only the photographs of mine she had asked to see, but a gift for her to keep. We sat together as she tore open the shrink wrap, touching the cover and flipping it over with the same sort of awe. Then, month-by-month, she intentionally and carefully turned the pages, staring in wonder at the images and asking questions about every one. We sat there for at least 20 minutes, and by the time we got to May I began to anticipate her questions. With every page she turned I had the opportunity to share some wonders of nature with Eunice - like how the rocks in Sedona are red because of the iron in their chemical makeup, and how the Rocky Mountains divide the center of my country, and how the rivers flow in opposite directions from the Continental Divide. When she flipped to December (my favorite photograph in the Calendar of Bryce Canyon National Park), I was describing the makeup and fragility of the Hutus (rock formations) in the canyon. I explained that the landscape had come to be due to years of weathering by the elements.

"So, this was not sculpted by someone?" she asked. I started to repeat what I had just said about the weathering and stopped short when I looked in her eyes.

"Well, it was sculpted by God!" I replied. With that, she broke out into a laughter together with her friend who had joined us and was looking on. Later, Eunice would also inform me that she loves calendars and collects them at every chance she gets. I am touched and moved by her gratitude for a gesture that was so simple in my mind when I had the thought to give it to her.

If you know me and have ever owned one of my calendars, you will know that I have always explained that my passion and purpose for photography is to bring the outside world to others who would otherwise not know it. I walked away from my conversation with Eunice purely energized...it was in exact sync with my intention as a photographer. Exploring those sights together with Eunice was like a dream come true.

All this to say that I am opening my heart to learning more about how my passions are actually connected to the God's plan in his kingdom. I am realizing I don't have to come up with new passions to connect more intentionally and completely to humankind in a way that can truly make a difference.

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