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    Congo’s Christians Confront a Climate Crisis

    An ecologist and pastor says Christians in the DRC are finally shedding otherworldly colonial theology and getting serious about climate action.

    By Sarah Holcomb and Jean-Pierre Ibucwa Lipanda

    May 17, 2022
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    Jean-Pierre Ibucwa Lipanda is an expert in natural resource management and environmental science as well as a pastor. He works with the Church of Christ in Congo, an alliance of ninety-two Protestant churches, training religious leaders and bringing Pentecostals and evangelicals into dialogue about the environment. Freelance journalist Sarah Holcomb spoke with him about his work and the theology guiding it.

    Sarah Holcomb: Tracing your environmental advocacy back to its roots, you were deeply impacted by the natural world as a child growing up in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), home to almost half of Africa’s rainforest and twelve percent of the world’s tropical forest. Could you set the scene for us?

    Jean-Pierre Ibucwa Lipanda: I have been a friend of nature since my childhood. Fifty-eight years ago I was born in Itombwe Massif, a forested region in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Kivu province. It’s a beautiful, green region, world-renowned for its biodiversity. My father and my mother were agricultural breeders. Growing up surrounded by fantastic landscapes, I was always drawn to the savannah and forests. There are two large rivers that pass our village, and there I’d watch the birds and various animals coming to bathe. As I got older, I decided to study environmental sciences and human ecology, and eventually I began to consider how to mobilize churches in the effort to preserve and restore the natural world.

    How did you encounter God in creation and experience the spiritual dimension of the natural world?

    One day when I was twelve, my older sister took me to a Methodist church near our home where the preacher read Psalm 24:1: “The earth and everything in it belongs to God.” This came as a surprise to me. I was so taken by it that I practically jumped in my seat. From that point onwards, I decided to look for God to whom all things belong. Now, when I saw the mountains, the rivers, the animals, the birds, and everything surrounding me, I realized that God made all of it, even my own being.

    vultures in a tree looking out over the savannah

    Photograph by Bibhash Banerjee (Public domain)

    I started learning how to raise small wild animals at home. I planted vegetables and flowers. I didn’t know much at the time, so I wasn’t very successful. But I had concluded that the environment is a tool God has given us to meet our daily needs, and we needed to protect it.

    The DRC is one of the most biodiverse areas of the world, but right now the region is under tremendous strain. What does the present reality of climate change and environmental damage look like?

    Climate change is already having a clear impact on the environment. We can look at the city of Bukavu in eastern Congo and its surroundings, for example. Climate change is altering the times when plants are flowering and the migrations of birds and insects. We are seeing loss of biodiversity in forests and wetlands, species disappearing and others appearing. There is both a scarcity of rain and an increase in floods, which pollute rivers and lakes. Water sources are drying up, temperatures are rising, soil is growing infertile. These factors are intensifying armed conflicts, political instability, and hunger. Climate change is posing a problem of survival, as the supply of drinking water decreases and poverty increases in many communities. Many local religious communities are not yet informed about climate change, environmental conservation, and sustainable development. There is much for the church to do.

    You’ve pointed out that over a century ago, Western missionaries to Congo brought a distorted gospel – one that had little to say about the welfare of humans or the place we call home. What influence does such theology have on Christians in the DRC today and how religious communities respond to environmental crises?

    During Belgium’s occupation of Congo during the early twentieth century, British Baptist missionaries greatly expanded Christianity in the country, spreading a faith that emphasized escape to heaven after death, not flourishing for the earth and humankind. This partial “gospel” condoned gaps between the rich, the middle class, and the poor. The economic and environmental concerns that Pentecostal and evangelical communities are facing today in the Democratic Republic of Congo are consequences of this. The missionaries developed a faith of dependence and divine hope, without being concerned with the development of harmony between humans, nature, and God. This mode of evangelization has impoverished many Christians and their churches, who only expect manna from heaven when in reality human and spiritual health are intimately linked. A healthy body must live in a healthy environment.

    The environment is a tool that God uses most often to provide for God’s people. Environmental management is a matter of justice; it is the poor who suffer first when the environment is damaged by deforestation, pollution, desertification, climate change, and unsustainable extraction of resources. The Bible shows that God is passionate about justice and encourages people to challenge oppression and injustice. The church has a responsibility to creation and must uphold it as well. In doing so, the church must not only preserve the earth, water, and air as part of the creation belonging to all, but it must especially protect humans from their own destruction.

    What is your approach to engaging churches around environmental issues, given this responsibility?

    As a research ecologist, my specialization is environmental theology in connection with human ecology. I aim to bring Pentecostal and evangelical religious communities to the center of stewarding God’s natural world. Through raising awareness, I believe that churches can step up to lead in caring for the environment for the good of present and future generations. At the Biblical Institute of Lwindi in Bukavu, I am teaching a course on ecology and the Bible, which has been attended by sixty-two religious leaders. We also host environmental protection and natural resource management trainings, where community leaders learn how to fight biodiversity loss and carry out other conservation projects.

    My prayer is that churches in the West join us in this effort by incorporating environmental protection into their Christian education programs, supporting conservation projects, eliminating racial barriers that add to environmental injustices, and advancing relief work that is rooted in sustainable development.

    Our work is a response to God’s love and salvation for the full community of creation. Together, we are awakening the church to step into its rightful role of caring for God’s creation.

    Contributed By

    Sarah Holcomb is writer based in Washington, DC, covering faith and environmental justice.

    Contributed By

    Pastor Jean-Pierre Ibucwa Lipanda holds degrees in environmental sciences, environmental theology, and ecology. He coordinates the nonprofit association Networking with Federations of Women and Children in Distress (TRAFFED), which works to empower women and girls, people with disabilities, and Indigenous peoples.

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