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On the Road to Dubai

A Letter from Jed and Jenny Koball, serving in Peru

Winter 2023

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Write to Jenny Koball

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“The Earth is the Lord’s, and all that is in it, the world and those who live in it” – Psalm 24:1

Dear friends,

If you want to solve the climate crisis, listen to indigenous peoples. This is the essence of a message emanating from deep in the Amazon Rainforest. Only in recent years has this message reverberated beyond the roaring rivers and canopy treetops of the jungle and reached the ears of the industrialized world – ears like mine!

Alpaca herders in the central Andes turn to their ancestral wisdom in order to harvest water in the mountains in the need to adapt to climate change.

Historically, the Church does not have a good record of listening to indigenous peoples. One might argue that over past centuries the Church has been highly instrumental in silencing indigenous peoples and eradicating indigenous cultures from the Earth. As a mission co-worker, this history is something I take seriously in light of past missionaries of all denominations who may have been (and continue to be) active participants in a quest to annihilate indigenous wisdom and ways of living. It is a history I pray earnestly not to repeat or legitimize in any way. Indeed, it is a history of harm I hope to help repair and a continuing threat to the world that I hope to help resist. With gratitude to global partners, I am learning how to better do this work.

Upon arriving in Peru nearly 15 years ago, Angelica – a leader from within our global partner Red Uniendo Manos Peru, invited me to visit a community with which she worked high up in the central Andes. The community members were alpaca herders, and they continued to practice ancestral wisdom and spirituality passed down over generations. As Angelica noted, they believe that the mountains that surround them are sacred. It is the mountains that protect them and give them water. The mountains for them are life.

In the heart of the Andes, community members meet with Presbyterians from the U.S. to share about their wisdom, spirituality and struggle to remediate their lands from mining activities and adapt to climate change.

But, also in those mountains are people who take life away. In the search for gold, silver, copper and other metals essential to the industrialized world and the backbone to the global economy, mining companies blow up the land and poison the waters. In addition, on the other side of those mountains, in the jungle below, others deforest the land in search of oil and other resources, contributing to climate change that melts the snowcaps, the source of water. As Angelica explains, the people who do these things are just like you and me – humans in need of clean air, clean water and clean soil. The difference is that they believe the earth belongs to them; whereas we believe that we belong to the earth and that the earth belongs to God.

When someone believes that the earth belongs to them, then too often they believe they can turn the earth into wealth and buy and hoard all that they need. Yet, when one believes that we belong to the earth and that the earth belongs to the Creator, then we know that we must live in harmony with all of life in order to sustain what all of life needs.

Climate change is but one manifestation of the enormous harmful impacts of believing that the earth belongs to us. The crises we face in this world – from climate change, to hunger, to war and so much more – are more than political crises, economic crises, technological crises, or even ethnic or religious crises. Fundamentally the crises of the world are a spiritual crisis rooted in the answer to one simple question: to whom do we belong?

East of the Andes, the mountain waters flow into the Amazon jungle, one of the most biologically diverse areas in the world and essential to conserve in the fight against climate change. It is from here that the voices of indigenous peoples beckon to be heard in order to solve the climate crisis.

Earlier this year, my colleagues and I in the Presbyterian Hunger Program launched the Global Solidarity Network to unite Presbyterians with communities around the world including in the United States that are most impacted by land theft and the destruction and poverty caused by mining and other extractive industries. We began with a five-week book study in which more than 150 Presbyterians participated. The book we studied was The Land is Not Empty: Following Jesus in Dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery, written by Sarah Augustine. Sara is a member of the Tewa nation as well as a Mennonite. Much of her seminal work talks about reconciling her indigenous identity with her Christian spirituality. At the heart of this conflict is the Doctrine of Discovery. Comprised of a series of papal documents written as early as 1452, the Doctrine of Discovery provided the mandate and moral framework for the conquest and colonization of foreign lands by European kingdoms. In effect, these words of the Church justified the theft of land, the destruction of the land, and the oppression and eradication of the people living on the land. And while many churches, such as PC(USA), have repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery in recent years, it continues to be deeply seeded in law, culture and economy. Those most impacted are indigenous peoples who continue to be displaced from their lands as well as other vulnerable communities from both urban and rural areas around the world that are impacted in health and livelihood by the extractive industry.

From Angelica to Sarah, what I am learning is that to follow Jesus – the One who came that we might have life and have it abundantly – we must work to dismantle the systems of death that destroy the sacred lands to which we belong. We must work to dismantle the Doctrine of Discovery as it continues to manifest itself in the world. And to do this we must listen to indigenous peoples.

In early December, I will be traveling to Dubai as one of four representatives of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to serve as an official observer at the 28th Conference of the Parties (COP-28) – the annual United Nations Conference on Climate Change. While I will be listening attentively to government leaders and environmental activists, what I am most excited and most called to do is to listen to the voices of indigenous leaders who will also be present. In this journey to come, I covet your prayers and hope that you may join with me in spirit!

In solidarity, Jed (and on behalf of Jenny)

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