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Solidarity with those who suffer

Posted: July 8, 2012 - 12:00am

I read recently that during the month of May Juneau had only two days without rain and that last month was the wettest June on record. I suppose I must be getting acclimated to life and the weather in Southeast, because I have found the weather and the temperature refreshing. From my travels and from what I have experienced during my time in Washington, D.C., I do not mind the weather of Southeast Alaska.

As grateful as I am for our mild (if wet) weather, it stands in sharp contrast to the suffering of so many of our neighbors who have experienced severe weather conditions this summer in various parts of our country. In Washington, D.C. where I spent 10 years serving at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, 1.8 million residents were struggling to stay cool without power (and air conditioning!) in temperatures over 100 degrees. High temperatures and winds have fanned wildfires that have destroyed 350 residences in Colorado Springs and forced 36,000 residents to flee their homes. In Florida, thousands of people are slowly recovering from devastating floods and the first tropical storm of the hurricane season.

I am reminded too of the crisis of drought and threatened famine in the western Sahel region of Africa. Catholic Relief Services reports that up to 15 million people in the countries of Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania, Nigeria and Chad are facing malnutrition or even starvation this summer because of failed crops caused by drought. According to the World Health Organization, 10-15 percent of the populations of those countries are already suffering from famine with 1-1.5 million children under the age of five suffering from severe malnutrition.

Throughout my years I have been responsible for signing contracts for various events and projects. In reviewing these contracts I have come across a phrase that always concerns me, that is, that there would be a release of responsibility of the other party if a calamity would occur, something described as “an act of God” (i.e., an earthquake, flood, etc.). Well, I would always cross out that phrase and replace it with “act of nature”. You have probably heard people speak of natural disasters as “acts of God.” I think that claiming a natural disaster as an “act of God” is a mistaken understanding of how God works in the world.

From my perspective, I believe that God does not desire calamity on people. While God has set the laws of nature in motion, it is not his will to have people suffer. Rather, God wills that through these moments we as a human family work in solidarity with those who are suffering and in need — whether it be natural disasters or foolish actions by human beings.

Writing on the virtue of solidarity, Pope John Paul II wrote in 1987:

“Solidarity is undoubtedly a Christian virtue. It seeks to go beyond itself to total gratuity, forgiveness, and reconciliation. It leads to a new vision of the unity of humankind, a reflection of God’s triune intimate life.... It is a unity that binds members of a group together.”

At the heart of the virtue of solidarity is our conviction that all of the peoples of the world belong to one human family. Our compassion and care should and must extend beyond the limits of our own immediate community and include all people.

I am grateful for the overwhelmingly generous response of people in our own community (and throughout the nation and the world) in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake that devastated the already impoverished island of Haiti. In my own diocese I have been edified by the solidarity with the poor and the suffering shown by the faithful in Southeast Alaska who generously support year after year the development and relief work of those who have been hit with natural disasters.

Our family and friends in the Lower 48 have been experiencing some difficult heat and weather. In comparison, I have found our weather to be refreshing. My hope this summer is that all of us will find ways to reach out to those in need at home and abroad by supporting the work of our churches, synagogues and other religious or charitable organizations to relieve human suffering. So that despite drought, flooding, heat and hunger, they may experience the refreshment of our compassion and solidarity.

• Burns is the Roman Catholic Bishop of the Diocese of Juneau and Southeast Alaska.

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