AN OVER­WHELM­ING MA­JOR­ITY OF FI­JIANS ARE RE­LI­GIOUS. REV­EREND JAMES BHAG­WAN EX­PLAINS HOW THAT FAITH CAN SPUR AC­TION. Faith lead­ers in Fiji and the Pa­cific more broadly have had a di­rect view for some time of the cat­a­strophic ef­fects that cli­mate change is

Fiji Sun - - Big Story - by KATE WHEEL­ING

Kate Wheel­ing is a staff writer at Pa­cific Stan­dard, where she spe­cial­izes in crim­i­nal jus­tice and the en­vi­ron­ment. She was pre­vi­ously an as­so­ciate ed­i­tor and ed­i­to­rial fel­low at Pa­cific Stan­dard.

Rev­erend James Bhag­wan’s of­fice shares a bright yel­low ed­i­fice with the Methodist Book Store on Suva’s bustling Ste­wart Street.

In­side, the pale con­crete walls are more muted, and the mod­est of­fice might al­most feel dreary on this gray Novem­ber morn­ing, if not for the brightly flow­ered, ex­u­ber­antly mis­matched cur­tains that hang over the win­dows and doors.

It has all the trap­pings of a busy of­fice—clut­tered desks, a ring­ing phone, white­boards filled with notes—but de­spite a staff of seven, on the day I vis­ited, it ap­peared to be un­der­pop­u­lated with ac­tual peo­ple.

The only per­son there, a video ed­i­tor, told me the pas­tor had just left for COP23 in Bonn, Ger­many.

This would seem to com­pli­cate my plan to in­ter­view him. For­tu­nately, he had only made it as far as Nadi, the cap­i­tal city on the op­po­site side of Viti Levu where Fiji’s in­ter­na­tional air­port is lo­cated, and where Bhag­wan was in and out of meet­ings be­fore his flight to Bonn. Bhag­wan, the sec­re­tary of com­mu­ni­ca­tion for the Methodist Church in Fiji, is part of the of­fi­cial del­e­ga­tion for the World Coun­cil of Churches, a global ec­u­meni­cal or­gan­i­sa­tion that seeks to unite Chris­tian churches of all de­nom­i­na­tions.

I found my­self in the cu­ri­ous po­si­tion of call­ing him from a phone in his own of­fice to talk about the church’s role in cli­mate ac­tion in the Pa­cific. While in some parts of the world, cli­mate change might be seen as a sec­u­lar is­sue, such is not the case in the Pa­cific is­lands.

Bhag­wan tells me that it shouldn’t be a sur­prise that the church is a strong voice in the fight to ad­dress cli­mate change—nor, he says, is it any­thing new.

Fiji is a deeply spir­i­tual coun­try.

At the last cen­sus in 2007, out of a pop­u­la­tion that then stood at 775,077, a tiny mi­nor­ity of just over 5,100 is­landers—just over half a per cent—said they didn’t iden­tify with any re­li­gion. Even in the ur­ban cen­tres, upwards of 80 per­cent of peo­ple at­tend ser­vices at least once a week, ac­cord­ing to a 2016 sur­vey of stu­dents at the Univer­sity of the South Pa­cific.

One of the main roles of the church is to care for its com­mu­nity, to pro­vide food, wa­ter, and shel­ter to those in need—all ne­ces­si­ties that are of­ten threat­ened by cli­mate change.

Faith lead­ers in Fiji and the Pa­cific more broadly have had a di­rect view for some time of the cat­a­strophic ef­fects that cli­mate change is hav­ing on their com­mu­ni­ties.

“The sci­en­tists and the churches were talk­ing about cli­mate change long be­fore it was fash­ion­able,” Bhag­wan tells me.

“The World Coun­cil of Churches has been in­volved since the very first COP.”


As far back as 2004, the Pa­cific Con­fer­ence of Churches met in Kiribati to dis­cuss the ef­fects of cli­mate change on is­land na­tions, and pro­duced the

Otin Tai dec­la­ra­tion, call­ing on in­dus­tri­al­ized na­tions to re­duce fos­sil fuel use, ac­knowl­edge re­spon­si­bil­ity for cli­mate change, and pro­vide more adap­ta­tion fund­ing, among other things. But the Methodist Church in par­tic­u­lar took on a more ac­tive and in­ten­tional role on cli­mate change in 2014, with the launch of its New Ex­o­dus—a re­vised con­sti­tu­tion and code of con­duct for the church.

“It has 12 pil­lars, and one is stew­ard­ship of cre­ation,” Bhag­wan says.

Now the church isn’t just telling the com­mu­nity to be good ste­wards of the Earth—it’s also show­ing them how, through ser­mons and ed­u­ca­tional ma­te­ri­als in news­let­ters, and by en­cour­ag­ing mem­bers to do prac­ti­cal things like plant man­groves or re­duce their in­di­vid­ual car­bon foot­prints.

The church was also in­stru­men­tal in shoring up sup­port for Fiji’s re­cent plas­tic bag levy.

It’s not as though the church is rev­o­lu­tion­is­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal ac­tivism; gov­ern­ments and non-gov­ern­men­tal or­gan­i­sa­tions all over the world have been en­cour­ag­ing peo­ple to plant more trees for years.

Lead­ing by ex­am­ple

But is­landers are more likely to lis­ten if it’s com­ing from the church. “The Methodist Church is the largest and old­est faith com­mu­nity in Fiji,” Bhag­wan says.

“When the Church speaks, the peo­ple do pay at­ten­tion.”

But it’s not just about who is talk­ing; it’s also about their fram­ing. “[Non­govern­men­tal or­gan­i­sa­tions] and gov­ern­ment have their own lan­guage,” Bhag­wan says.

“The peo­ple tend to speak in more spir­i­tual lan­guage.”

Of course, there’s also a risk that faith can breed cli­mate skep­ti­cism, or at the very least un­der­mine ac­tion on cli­mate change.

In Le­vuka, on Fiji’s Ovalau is­land, where the sea wall crum­bled af­ter Cy­clone Win­ston and the ocean laps against the main road along the coast at high tide, a kind old Fi­jian named Jim Ioane with a frizz of black hair and a sprin­kle of gray in his beard tells me that cli­mate change is God’s will.

“We’ve got lots of changes—the heat and the rain.

“To me it’s just like a Bi­ble prophecy,” he says.

“Maybe we are the chang­ers of cli­mate ... but the world wouldn’t change if we be­lieved in God.”

In other words, he says, it’s hu­man sin that is heat­ing the planet.

The church is likely the only in­sti­tu­tion that can change that per­spec­tive.

“With­out the the­o­log­i­cal lead­er­ship,” Bhag­wan says, “the peo­ple are not mo­bilised.”

Feed­back: jy­otip@fi­

World Coun­cil of Churches

Rev­erend James Bhag­wan is part of the col­lab­o­ra­tive call to ac­cel­er­ate faith com­mu­ni­ties to take more am­bi­tious cli­mate ac­tions within their re­spec­tive faiths/ tra­di­tions and to share the chal­lenges, suc­cess sto­ries and lessons learnt from var­i­ous...

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