Faith and the Face of the Storm
Stewardship and sacred stories.
In November 2013, as one of the fiercest typhoons in recorded history barreled toward the Philippines, Latter-day Saints went to work. On islands further from the storm, members gathered for marathon projects assembling hygiene kits and other supplies for people who were about to be homeless. In the storm’s forecasted path, unpaid local leaders rushed from door to door to contact as many members as possible, warning them to take shelter in the relative safety of a meetinghouse. Over 14,000 people spent nights in Church buildings. Many remained for weeks, helping with cleanup by day and then returning to sleep in classrooms.
It’s hard to describe the scale of disruption those Saints ventured into after the winds calmed and the waters receded. News footage captures the fields of splintered wood and crumpled metal where neighborhoods used to be, but not the weight of unanswered questions on any given person’s heart. Will I recognize any of the bodies in the wreckage? Will I ever be able to make a life here again? After all, a city is more than houses: it’s a garden of relationships that grow between neighbors and friends, buyers and sellers, workers and employers. Disasters cast a shadow of physical, psychological, and social damage that stretches on far after the light of the news cameras fades.
Long after the storm passed, many Saints were involved in Church programs to rebuild homes and livelihoods. Some Saints decided to leave the only region they had ever known and counted on new wards in other cities (or even countries) to welcome them. Others stayed, turning to fellow Saints for help wrestling with their troubles and processing their grief. Some wounds run deep. Analyn and Gemmer Esperas lost their six-year-old daughter in the storm. The Church’s recovery programs helped with their physical needs, but it was a temple trip to be sealed to her child that Analyn credited with stilling the nightmare she’d been living. In a world where a storm can flatten whole cities in a night, the Esperases and other affected Saints leaned on the resilient social and spiritual infrastructure they’d built over years through faith.
I think about those people a lot, because they are pioneers in a future the world continues to choose. As we pump carbon into the atmosphere, ocean storms grow more frequent and more intense. Countries like the Philippines—with its three-quarters of a million Latter-day Saints—are especially vulnerable, but people who live far from the sea are hardly spared. As rains batter coasts, inland areas around the world are getting drier. Crops shrivel. Lakes shrink. Fires burn and burn and burn.
Forty years ago, it was still possible to consider climate change as primarily a scientific and political issue. If governments and industries had acted in a coordinated way, maybe it could have stayed a mostly technical problem with technical solutions. But now, climate change has also become an inescapably religious issue because religion is concerned with how to make meaning out of life in a difficult world, and the world is growing so much more difficult because of climate change. People caught in the systems that accelerate climate change often sense a spiritual weight that political language alone cannot convey. People who live in storms’ paths deserve a faith that speaks to their experiences of disruption and displacement.
As an American Latter-day Saint writer, I often focus on the former. After all, my lifestyle and my community are built around the casual use of fossil fuels. Scriptural warnings animate my poetry: Jeremiah, who felt God’s voice like a fire in his bones; the people of Coriantumr and Shiz, who became locked into a logic of destruction; the man who built his house upon the sand and never considered the coming waves. I’ve also searched the scriptures for models of radical change. I look to the waters of Mormon for hope. I wonder what it might mean today to leave the ways of the king.
All that is good. We need to be better stewards of the earth. We need to listen to her groaning and understand the excesses and inequities that contribute to it (see Moses 7:48). We need the spiritual will to imagine Alma-sized changes to our lives and society. But working to reduce emissions is not enough. What comfort are lifestyle changes or legislation to the brother or sister already sifting through the wreckage in a place they loved and called home?
For the countless Saints who will have painful, direct experience with our changing climate over the coming decades, other beliefs and traditions will matter desperately. During a flood or fire, we don’t turn to our environmental ethic. We turn to the people around us and feel grateful for the ones who show up. To the extent that we are able to build up local relationships in a branch or ward and bring them together with resources from a global community, we can be a tangible blessing to areas in crisis. From the week-to-week calling system to our yellow Helping Hands vests, we have systems that prepare us to know and serve each other.
In a crisis, our sacred stories are just as vital a resource. Latter-day Saints celebrate stories of migration and new beginnings, of prophets and pioneers who lose everything and begin again. One basic mental model for our faith is restoration: we sift through the fragments of a broken past to meet God and shape a new future. If the mental load of a disaster sometimes strips a person down to their most deeply ingrained life scripts, it’s good to have a bedrock of scripts like those.
As we work to reduce the scale of climate change, we must not give up on the small but simple acts it takes to tend networks of relationships and share sacred stories. In the nineteenth century, Latter-day Saints were called to build up communities together “for a defense, and for a refuge from the storm, and from wrath when it shall be poured out without mixture upon the whole earth” (Doctrine & Covenants 115:6). Whether we imagine the unfolding age of disasters as coming from a just God or as the natural consequence of a long culture of extraction and exploitation, we are now facing an objectively verifiable global peril. To be a Latter-day Saint in the twenty-first century then, means to answer that old call. Brothers and sisters in a global faith must stand together as the world warms. In such a time as this, let’s open the storehouse—using our traditions, our institutions, and our culture as resources to help save lives and salve souls.
James Goldberg is a poet, playwright, essayist, novelist, documentary filmmaker, scholar, and translator who specializes in Mormon literature.
Art by Janessa Lewis, a recent graduate from BYU’s BFA program in Art.