What about Flint and Puerto Rico? Notre Dame fire revives fight against injustices on the backburner

What about Flint and Puerto Rico? Notre Dame fire revives fight against injustices on the backburner
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After news spread that Notre Dame caught fire there was an unexpected outpouring of social media posts expressing all a wide range of emotions, mostly positive, but some negative. I received text messages from Catholics and non-Catholics alike, some even expressing sympathy about the fire.

I had the privilege of visiting Notre Dame Cathedral in December of 2015 during the UN COP climate talks for an interfaith prayer service. It was an eventful evening as there were people of faith from all over the world and from all faith backgrounds joined in prayer in support of our planet.

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Often at my job at the Franciscan Action Network, we talk about the “many branches of the Franciscan family tree” and how those branches extend all over the world. It didn’t dawn on me what that truly meant until meeting the Franciscan delegation in Paris: we had representatives from six continents gathered to advocate for what Pope FrancisPope FrancisVatican bans West Virginia bishop from public ministry over sexual misconduct allegations Pope Francis: 'No one is exempt' from helping migrants Pope 'profoundly saddened' by migrants' drowning in Rio Grande MORE calls “Caring for Our Common Home” the title of his encyclical on the environment.

As I experienced this great moment of human interconnectedness in Paris, a reality check quickly set in. One of our delegation members, a Franciscan friar from Southern India was in despair and as he asked us to pray for his country. Southern India was experiencing massive flooding, it’s worst in decades, perhaps even exacerbated by climate change. There wasn’t much that this friar could do to help his people, he could only sit halfway around the world, watch videos of the floodin and pray.

The irony was not lost on me: Here we were in Paris to advocate for a reduction in our earth’s carbon emissions and for and end to climate change while at the same time one of our own was directly being impacted in that moment by a 100-year flood. We’ve seen these “extreme weather events” increase in frequency and intensity in recent years. I believe that until we reduce the earth’s temperature that these extreme weather events will only continue to get worse.

My privilege was not lost on me either: even though I pride myself on staying on top of the news, I was unaware of the historic flooding until the Franciscan friar mentioned it.

I thought about my time in Paris and at Notre Dame earlier this week as the fire raged there. There is so much in the world that divides us: In an increasingly politically polarized time we seem to have forgotten that we share a common humanity and we need to look after one another.

Notre Dame means so much to so many people. It is more than just a famous medieval Gothic Catholic church and a spiritual home to over 2 billion people. It is a connection to our many of the important things that give us a sense of community: to art and to architecture, to our past, and to our shared common future: as highlighted by the COP Interfaith prayer service to care for our planet.

Following the fire, some questioned why other important issues of justice were not getting attention like Notre Dame. Others questioned why individuals would give to the rebuilding effort. I don’t begrudge any individuals who wish to give, but I was once again surprised by another twist in the story: Billionaires had already committed to raise a mind-boggling $700 million dollars to repair Notre Dame. And then suddenly, the rising tide began to lift other boats: the three churches in Louisiana who were burned in a disgusting act of white nationalism were up to nearly $1.5 million dollars. Pleas were made for Flint and Puerto Rico who are still suffering greatly.

I started to wonder if perhaps the billionaires could put their immense and frankly obscene amounts of wealth to other causes. Individuals, aware of our shared humanity and the importance of each of these issues began to chip in to the churches in Louisiana. There was no reason why it couldn’t be a “both/and” for all of us, including the billionaires.

Often with so much going on in the world we can exhaust ourselves, going from one injustice to the next. Working to combat injustice appears to never end. The fire at Notre Dame has ended up being a blessing in disguise: it brought people together and helped to re-shine the light on issues that were inexplicitly put on the backburner.

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And before I knew it: another fire. Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site in Islam and a flashpoint between Israelis and Palestinians, caught fire in Jerusalem. I once again thought of the floods in India and my privilege: the mosque caught fire on the same day as Notre Dame and was getting almost no news coverage in the United States. If one is to believe that these fires are a sign from God, this is most certainly the message: We have a shared humanity and must take care of ourselves, one another and our planet.

Notre Dame Cathedral will be rebuilt but unfortunately, a myriad of injustices will continue to plague us. We might not see an end to these injustices in our lifetime, just as the medieval builders did not see a completed Notre Dame Cathedral. Yet, they had faith that the work would be finished. Together we can all do our part to continue the work of justice and do our part to ensure a better life for one another and our planet.

Jason L. Miller is the director of Campaigns and Development at the Franciscan Action Network in Washington, D.C.