GenerationNext Earth Advocates
United Methodist Women and the Scranton Center for Women’s Leadership of Seoul, Korea, joined with the Wesley Center of Japan to train a new generation of leaders for environmental justice in Tokyo, Feb. 17-23.
Participants were young women 18 to 35 from the United States, South Korea, China and Japan. U.S. participants came to the seminar from United Methodist-supported colleges, the United Methodist Native American International Caucus and United Methodist Women groups. Participant Melissa Merritt of West Virginia Conference said she came to “hear what other parts of the world are doing about climate change,” while Detroit Conference participant Dorthea Thomas came with hopes of “building connections on an international level, addressing women’s involvement in the decision-making process of disaster and preparing and learning about social justice from an interfaith perspective.”
The seminar examined what climate change is and how it is impacting women particularly around food, energy and migration. The Asia-Pacific Region provided a context for the seminar: Not only does United Methodist Women have a long legacy of mission in the area, but the region is experiencing negative impacts of climate change through increased frequency and intensity of storms that displace people and communities. Rising sea levels threaten major chunks of countries in the region where a significant percentage of the population lives in coastal areas. Some of the first permanently displaced people due to climate change were residents of Pacific Island nations.
Seminar participants explored various faith perspectives on life and nature as well as spiritual and cultural practices that demonstrate the interconnectedness of creation. A panel of religious leaders representing Shintoism, Buddhism and Christianity shared what their faith traditions say about caring for creation. Participants had an opportunity to experience spiritual practices like walking a prayer labyrinth, breathing meditations, singing Taize songs and creating enso, a Japanese word associated with Buddhism that means circle. “The spiritual element helped me to continue my faith and bring me back to become more compassionate toward certain situations,” said Victoria Lopez, a participant from Rio Grande Conference.
The seminar also included hands-on learning opportunities at the Asian Rural Institute (ARI), a Japan-based United Methodist Women mission partner training rural leaders from around the world in sustainable agriculture and foodlife, an ARI term for the interdependency of food and life. Seminar participants fed pigs, gathered eggs, planted onions, filled soybean sacks and made fertilizer. They also shared meals and devotions with staff and volunteers and learned more about the program from ARI general manager Tomoko Arakawa.
Japan’s 2011 earthquake, tsunami and subsequent Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster was a major issue at the seminar. Terumi Kataoka, a pastor’s wife from the Aizu region of the Fukushima Prefecture, told participants how she began to organize to address the needs of families, particularly children, in her church and community during the crisis. In the absence of accurate information from the Japanese government and other authorities regarding the harmful effects of radiation, she started the Aizu Radiation Information Center. The center convenes discussions and study groups for the community members, tests the levels of radiation in food and air, offers free health and safety checkups and safe outdoor experiences for children from radiation affected areas.
Participants also created and shared action plans for taking what they learned at the seminar back to their respective communities. Participants Maria Cribelar, Julie Shin and Hye-In Lee of South Korea, shared their plan to explore ways to decrease the carbon footprint of the Scranton Center for Women’s Leadership’s offices in Seoul. Ms. Lopez shared her plan to produce a video about the interconnections of climate change, migration by exploring environmental health and destruction along the border of Texas and Mexico. Ms. Merritt plans to help make recycling more available in her West Virginia community. Kayleigh Vickers plans to share her new knowledge with the United Methodist Church Native American International Caucus.
“Before attending the seminar, I felt people outside of Fukushima were forgetting about what is happening there and felt very isolated from other places,” said Yuko Endo, a participant from Japan and staff of the Christian Alliance Disaster Relief Network. “However, one participant from a Native American community shared that after hearing our story, she wanted to tell her people, ‘We are not the only one.’ I was so touched by her comment. I was so worried about being forgotten by other societies, but I realized that the most important thing is to be a part of human struggles in the world and always carrying the sense of ‘We are not the only one.’ Our pains can unite us, and our compassion becomes our energy and motivation to move forward in the midst of struggle.”
Jennifer McCallum is United Methodist Women executive for social justice education at the Church Center for the United Nations. Ms. McCallum was a planner for the climate change seminar at the Wesley Center in Tokyo, Japan.