Mozambique and the “Unnatural” Disaster: An Episcopal Priest Reflects on Cyclone Idai

The Rev. Cn. Helen Van Koevering and her husband, Bishop Mark Van Koevering, spent decades in Mozambique, where their hearts remain. Mozambique has been ravaged by Cyclone Idai and the flooding and cholera that have followed, leaving more than 100,000 homeless. Now the rector of St. Raphael’s in Lexington, KY, Rev. Helen kindly shared these moving thoughts with Episcopal Climate News. She reflects on what Lent’s call to “bear fruits worthy of repentance” may mean in a time when climate change and extreme weather ravage the most vulnerable among us.

The apocalyptic views and news have been unbelievable. The tropical Cyclone Idai’s trauma-filled path through Mozambique’s Beira Corridor to Zimbabwe’s Chimanimani mountains has been devastating. A week after circling through the province of Zambezia and into Malawi, the cyclone built up force in the Madagascar channel and then smashed into one of the world’s poorest nations. Beira has been crushed, everyone’s aware of the repercussions of water-borne diseases and the losses to an agrarian economy, and in amongst all the heroic energy of activity to rescue compatriots and neighbors, the question “why” raises its head. Because this cyclone can’t be classified a “natural disaster.”

A cursory glance at the history of this part of East Africa speaks volumes. An historian of Mozambique, Malyn Newitt, has written that the very name of this East African country reflects her history as “a dialectic between forces of integration and those of disintegration.” (History of Mozambique 1995). After Vasco da Gama rounded the Cape of Good Hope in 1498 bound for India, this land of the natural ports of Sofala (Beira) and Quelimane was named after the small coral reef Ilha de Moçambique captured from the Arab trader whose home it was, Mussa Ben Mbiki. Five hundred years of colonialism, multi-generational trading of inestimable numbers of slaves through these ports, and issues of land use impacted this East African coastline as people groups migrated for space and safety. “Portuguese East Africa” was named in 1891, and held until independence in July 1975, when the country’s abrupt abandonment by their colonialists, the “assimilado” system and no local leadership preparation in a largely agrarian country dependent on its subsistence farmers and the vulnerability of the rainy season. The sixteen years of war and destabilization levelled against the nation after independence resulted in enormous physical destruction, economic losses and social trauma of population displacement with which the country has been burdened for the past 25 years. The floods of 2000 were a warning, and the several unpublicized ones since then, where land use, forestry, instability and ongoing colonial attitudes have cycled regularly around.

And now, after almost thirty years of life lived in and with Mozambicans, I find myself with my family here in the USA and a priest in the Episcopal Church, far removed from the chaos of last week’s tragedy, but living the trauma through social media news, watching what Mozambique does best – rising up to survive and holding on in the hardest places. And then the comment of a parishioner wanting a response: Is climate change to blame? Isn’t it just what happens in tropical Africa?

With my life lived internationally, I love being part of a worldwide church of 85 million in 165 countries. I love the seasons of the church that connect us spiritually, open us up to the lives, joys and cries of those on the other side of the globe. Especially the season of Lent. Connections are important to our humanity and our ‘com-paixão’, our love with and for others. Last week’s Gospel of the parable of the fig tree raised the question of our response to other’s suffering as seen in bearing fruits of repentance. And to be reminded of the El Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero’s assassination on that day in 1980, and his words, “one must not love oneself so much as to avoid getting involved in the risks of life which history demands of us” spoke to my grief for Mozambique, the land that formed me in the work of the church and my vocation as a priest.

We are on a Lenten journey where repentance means to turn towards Easter’s resurrection hope that inspires us towards efforts to bring God’s Way of Love to the world, efforts that Romero said, “God blesses, God desires, and God demands of us.” It was when Romero had just spoken the Priestly prayer, just said “may this body and this blood sacrificed for humans nourish us also, so that we might give our body and blood to suffering and pain – like Christ, not for self, but to impart notions of justice and peace to our people” that he received his fatal gunshot. 

Love calls us to “bear fruits worthy of repentance.” That’s a whole lot more than a teary emoticon. Repentance is much wider, larger and deeper – individuals and communities turning away from things that violate God’s purposes (like idolatry, greed, injustice, disrespect), and turning towards who we are – world-lovers – with faithful living, just practices, mutual regard, reflections of God’s life for the reality of the poor of our time. Because our lack of turning looks like leaving the most vulnerable, the poorest of the poor, to new cycles of disintegration in the face of powerful climate change.

We have not yet recognized our radical interdependence with all life and the vulnerability that is bringing climate change and greater suffering to the poorest. We have not begun to understand that how we love God by loving God’s world is what is at stake. Our responsible use of the everyday things like heating, food production, cutting and burning tree, land use, and transportation become ways for us to love God. Especially as we come to see who we are together, standing before God. And see that the world today needs us to do nothing less than be ‘reborn’, act on the self-giving love of Jesus, and include care for the poorest in our need and desire to change the way we live.

It’s beyond time for theologizing about loves meaning, and letting our faith and love of neighbor be overshadowed by political beliefs – it’s time for real and sacrificial love that changes us.  Is it too late to repent? To turn, return, fall in love with love’s meaning in Jesus Christ, and change how we live. For the sake of the poorest, the voiceless, the ones who now have less than nothing.

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