ST. PETERSBURG — On the fifth anniversary of an historic papal document about the environment and as the coronavirus continues to imperil the world, a panel of Catholic and evangelical clergy met online last week to discuss their Christian response to disease outbreaks and climate change.
Points were made about the poor and people of color and the disproportionate burden they bear from air pollution. Details were offered about the effects of global warming, the spread of disease and the deadly link between air pollution and the coronavirus.
The Rev. Mitchell Hescox, president and CEO of the Evangelical Environmental Network, said he was pleased to join his Catholic brothers and sisters in the environmental cause.
“For us in our ministry, we like to say that creation care is a matter of life, because everything that we do, that we put into God’s creation that isn’t supposed to be there, comes back and impacts you in life,” he said.
The hourlong session, convened by Bishop Gregory Parkes of the Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg, included a presentation by Dr. Sandra Gompf, associate professor of infectious disease at the University of South Florida College of Medicine. The ecumenical gathering coincided with the fifth anniversary of Pope Francis’ encyclical, “Laudato Si’, On Care for Our Common Home.” In it, Francis called for dialogue among religions “for the sake of protecting nature, defending the poor and building networks of respect and fraternity.”
Parkes said he believed those gathered on May13 were meeting in the spirit of the pope’s call.
“In these things, we are united in the challenges, and, therefore, we must work together for a common solution,” Parkes said.
Gompf addressed the impact of warming temperatures on human infectious diseases. Increasing warmth “increases and changes the habitats for insects that are vectors for human disease,” she said, noting that tick habitats have been expanding across the United States and into Canada.
“For us in Florida, our old friend the mosquito is a problem,” she said. Dengue, transmitted by mosquitoes, which had not been endemic to Florida since the 1930s, is now endemic to the Florida Keys, she said. She also mentioned the zika virus and chikungunya.
She spoke about water-borne disease, an issue “very close to my heart,” she said. Gompf lost her son to Naegleria fowleri in 2009.
And air pollution, she said, "increases susceptibility to COVID-19” and the "severity of COVID-19.”
“The Christian community must work together to ensure that low-income communities and communities of color are not bearing the dangers of air pollution for the rest of us,” said moderator Sabrina Burton Schultz, director of life, justice and advocacy ministry for the St. Petersburg Diocese.
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Hescox, whose organization is based in New Freedom, Penn., focused on what could be done.
“We’re not hopeless or helpless,” he said. “We can make a difference.”
While the coronavirus is devastating, 190,000 to 200,000 people die each year in the United States from air pollution related to fossil fuels, he said.
The Rev. Joel Hunter, retired senior pastor of Northland, A Church Distributed, in Longwood, said God’s first command, in Genesis 2:15, was to care for the earth.
“There is an interesting convergence here with the COVID-19 crisis,” he said, "because what happens when your own breath becomes a source of pollution or infection? How are we personally responsible to follow social guidelines so that we personally don’t become an infectious source of pollution?”
The Rev. George Corrigan is pastor of Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Tampa, which draws parishioners from the diocese’s five-county area — Pinellas, Hillsborough, Hernando, Citrus and Pasco counties. He once was a missionary in Kenya, where he witnessed disease outbreaks and spoke about outbreaks in Tampa over the decades.
“The only vaccine or antibody was the community,” the Franciscan friar said, "the solidarity of the people’s response across families, across communities and across government.”