The Role of the Church as the Climate Changes

The Role of the Church as the Climate Changes

By Cynthia Holder Rich

tz rain oneIt’s the rainy season in Tanzania. We live in the northern part of the country where Mount Meru forces rain much of the year (and at about 20’ shy of 15,000’, the amount of rain forced is significant). We have some rain in most months of the year, so we didn’t know what to expect when the “real” longer rainy season (March-May) began.

Now, as we have learned, there’s a reason they call this the “rainy” season. At this point, the rain has been coming steadily for hours every day (and often, every night) for months. At our house, this means that our clothes, which dry on a line on the back porch, are generally damp when we put them on. There is always some mud on the floor, no matter how much cleaning happens. Mold might be found on cloths left too long on tables. And salt, no matter what tricks we play to keep it flowing, has to be dispensed with spoons or fingers. It simply will not come through the tiny holes. The air has been much too wet for much too long.

tz rain twoWe’re grateful for the rain, despite the inconveniences. This heavy rainy season—which locals call “normal” – is the first “normal” rainy season the area has experienced in a decade. This is because the climate is changing – indeed, it has already changed and the changes keep coming.

Yes, I know. People in other areas of the world fight and debate and make decisions that impact people around the globe based on disagreement on this central concept. To say that the climate is changing or has changed is deemed “political” in some places, and pastors being “political” might result in their termination. Just ask Father Patrick Conroy.

In Tanzania, however, there is neither fight nor debate. It is not considered “political” to see, or to note, the changes in the climate. Because Tanzanian people–the entire society, and much of the economy–live close to the land, the fact that the weather has changed is not in doubt. Everyone in Tanzania knows that things have changed, and that many negative impacts have come along with the changes. Everyone knows, and no one disagrees.

As we prepared to move here, we both did some reading about the country, the people, the geography, the animals, and what challenges Tanzanians are facing. Climate change was on the list of issues that emerged, so we knew that was one challenge our future students would be confronting. At Christmas, we travelled outside the rain zone of Mt. Meru and saw how very few kilometers’ drive it took us to arrive in a much dryer landscape, with much less vegetation to feed people and animals.

Besides agriculture, another main economic driver for Tanzania is tourism. Tourists become aware of climate change, too – mainly through their views, and their comments upon, the snowcap on Kilimanjaro, and on beach erosion, and the number of animals seen in places like the Serengeti–and how these have changed over the years. Tourist raves and complaints on TripAdvisor and other websites drive how many visitors come, so keeping tourists happy in a context of climate change has become a governmental concern. This is challenging, as all of these are impacted by rainfall amounts, which the government cannot control.[1]

At Tumaini University Makumira, our Tanzanian students come from every part of the country, so have grown up with a variety of experiences of climate change. This semester, I am teaching Missiology and Ecumenism. Just like every other course we are teaching this year, this is a “new prep” for me – every class session has to be newly-created. For one class session, I decided to try writing a case study[2] based in experiences familiar to the students in the class. This is an approach that has some risk attached for instructors who’ve been in the country as short a time as we—so might get the particulars in the case wrong.

In the case, there was a pastor, grateful to be called to a congregation of devoted and active people in a small village. The village also featured a mosque, a large and growing Pentecostal congregation, and a traditional healer whom many people in town respected and consulted. Tension, and competition, had grown between these religious leaders.

Everyone in town was also impacted by climate change–the rains had not come at all last year and they were late, and light, this year. Last year, people had less money, so giving to the church decreased. A substantial number of people in town began to experience hunger, and the pastor preached about the need to pray for and serve those in need. The sermon elicited no response—except for the visit of some wealthy members, who shared that pastoral energy should be put toward caring for the congregation rather than getting involved in caring for others.

This year, hunger is worse. Some people are in serious need. The diocese called, asking for an increase in giving, as other congregations had decreased their pledges. The church treasurer stopped by, stating that the congregation’s budget would have to be adjusted, and the pastor’s salary was probably going to be cut. And the leader of the women’s organization came, with much enthusiasm for the congregation taking a leadership role in gathering all religious organizations to develop a community-wide strategy to address hunger in town, and to work toward the development of a better future for all.

The case study evoked laughter and much deep discussion. Small group reports focused on a variety of cogent issues relating to ecumenical mission—gratifying to this teacher, as I’m always happy when my teaching leads students to make informed connections. In the large group discussion, I asked if they had experienced changes in the climate like those described in the case. Responses from every corner commenced, of “yes!”, “it’s very common!”, “so often”. So I asked, “What does climate change mean to you?”

“It means death”, stated one student.

Struck, I said, “Say more.”

“It means that people get sick”, said one. “It means more people are poor”, said another. “It means that people leave villages and move to cities”, said one. “Yes, and that means there are fewer people to care for the elderly and the sick”, shared another.

So I asked what for me is a constant in class: “What is the role of the church?”.

This month, people in many countries celebrated Earth Day, a day to remember the Earth and its gifts to us all, a day that has become part of the annual rhythm for a growing number of people around the world since it began in the early 1970s. The March for Science also took place this month, gathering people in many communities to stand up for scientific findings and the scientific method of developing learnings and understanding “truth” about the world.

scott pruittAnd this month, Scott Pruitt, US Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, testified before US Congressional Hearings. Mr. Pruitt has led the Agency for 14 months and change. In that time, the EPA has de-emphasized science—particularly scientific findings on climate change—and Mr. Pruitt recently suggested that climate change might be a good thing. Pruitt promotes a “pro-business and pro-environment” stance, deemed by many in the scientific community as aspirational and inaccurate. However, that inaccuracy is only problematic if you believe in science.

Or, if climate change means death to you.

A recent review of 50 peer-reviewed[3] articles on climate change in Tanzania found that changes in the climate have resulted in extreme drought, crop reductions, extreme flooding, greater temperature swings and a greater number of temperature extremes, increased food insecurity, increased outbreaks of infectious disease—especially diseases that are insect- or water-borne, and increased loss of life through disease, hunger, malnutrition and starvation. Authors recommended the building of increased infrastructure for irrigation (which brings its own problems, as they admitted), and a great increase in government and other budgets in the health sector.[4] From whence the money is to be procured is not discussed in the article, but other tables would surely have to take this up.

In a time of increased climate change and decreased funding for mission, What is the role of the church?

In a time when many in the US—including many Christians—deny climate change and scientific findings about it, What is the role of the church?

In a time when the church is encouraged to “not be political”, What is the role of the church?

We who follow Jesus spend most Aprils, and this one too, in the Easter season. This is the time in our faith walk when we focus on new life—resurrection—love coming again like wheat gloriously springing forth green.[5] This is the time when Tanzanian brothers and sisters in Christ, who begin most every sentence with Bwana asifiwe! (Praise the Lord!), pray for rain—just enough, not too little and not too much. They pray, for without rain, or with too much rain, death will surely come. We who follow Jesus believe in life, which Jesus came to bring in abundance (John 10). Following this one surely calls us to seek ways to work toward life for all, and that in abundance. How do we promote life? How can we support those whose life is vulnerable and at risk?

In this Easter season, we are called to cast out fear and act in love, courageously and joyfully serving those in need who wear the face of Christ. As the changing climate has put these at risk, we who have been blessed with safety, strength, and resources must seek to protect and defend the earth, our home, so that all may receive life in all its abundance, just as Jesus promised. May we do so, not counting the cost.

[1] We encourage those that visit us to read up on American Lutheran Rick Steves’ understandings of travel and tourism. Check out his top ten tips here.

[2] While lecture is the assumed method of teaching here, I lean on instruction I have received, primarily from my Mother, Ellagene Morgan Holder, and my professors at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, Drs. Linda Vogel and Jack Seymour, in developing more interactive ways of teaching and learning. I thank God for them all.

[3] Peer-reviewed is the gold standard for academic writing – if an article is called “peer-reviewed”, it has gone through a process of three or more academics in the research field of the article reading, commenting on, and approving its findings before it is published.

[4] Ojiji, Frederick et al, “The Impact of Climate Change on Agriculture and Health Sectors in Tanzania: A Review”, in International Journal of Environment, Agriculture and Biotechnology, vol. 2 issue 4, July-August 2017, 1758-1766.

[5] Text from “Now the Green Blade Riseth”, by John MacLeod Campbell Crum (could he be any more Scots??? Now there’s a name to make a Presbyterian heart’s sing.)

The Fine Art of Reading Scripture – by Cynthia Holder Rich

We teach at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, and the Bible is a primary text in most classes. For many bachelor’s students, reading scripture is something we have to teach. It’s not that our students aren’t literate. Rather, it’s the fact that most of them arrive on campus, having spent a lot of time in church, listening to scripture read and interpreted from a set of standard lenses. Then they come to University, and their profs ask them to read the text, study its context, and ask critical questions. At that moment, what they have “known” all their lives about the Bible comes face to face with what’s there on the page. Cognitive dissonance, a sense of dis-ease, and even at times a sense that they might be doing something wrong can result. An example of this happened last week in a class on Pneumatology – the theology and study of the Holy Spirit, a member of the Trinity that gets little attention in many Protestant churches.

In class, we were reading the 4th chapter of the Gospel of Luke, where the Spirit plays a prominent role. After reading the chapter in class, our discussion went like this.

Me:                  What is the relationship of the Spirit and Jesus in this text?

Student:          Jesus is the Son, the Son of the Father, so is more important than the Spirit.[1]

Me:                  Where do you find that in the text?  (silence as the class looks again)

Me:                  What do you see in the text about the relationship of the Spirit and Jesus?

Student 2:        Jesus is powerful.

Student 3:        Jesus is called by God.

Student 4:        Jesus is more powerful than the Devil.

Me:                  All good answers. What do you see about the Spirit in this text?

(pause as students look again)

Spoiler alert: we finally did find the Spirit in Luke 4, and had a rich conversation about the relationships within the Trinity – a surprising conversation to many in the class, as they had never heard the Spirit emphasized in reading, in studying, nor in hearing sermons on this chapter.

The class discussion came to mind as I read Dianna Anderson’s well-writtten article on elected officials today using, misusing and often downright abusing Scripture to make political points. In many cases, holy writ comes out twisted, lacking context and demonstrating misunderstandings when spoken by politicians. The problem is not only that scripture is misused – it is that at times, folks with a particular hermenutical and political agenda feed texts to pols who use them without understanding what they’re saying.

Of course, the use of Scripture by politicians is not new, nor is it limited to the US. Marc Ravalomanana, President of Madagascar from 2002-2009, used Mark 5:36b, where Jesus offers encouragement to a man whose daughter was reported to be dead, saying “Do not fear, only believe” as his campaign slogan. Speaking to people who had lived under a brutal dictatorship propped up by powerful and wealthy external forces who had vast financial and geopolitical interest in maintaining the status quo, the advice to not fear and only believe must have sounded foolhardy, and even dangerous. In this case, scripture proved powerful, as people who had grown used to being abused by their government took hope and inspiration for a better future from the words and the powerful campaign that they symbolized.[2]

There are also religious leaders in our time who claim belief in Christ and the name “evangelical”, for whom reading scripture seems difficult. There’s buzz in the news about concern among some evangelicals that scandals (that in any other era would stop evangelical support cold) could dim the potential for further leadership by the US President on “the issues that matter”, and so leaders are going to meet with the President (who has named Exodus 21:23-25, “an eye for an eye”, his favorite text), to see what they can do to remedy the situation to ensure ongoing evangelical support. At the same moment, evangelicals of the conservative and progressive camps are at odds about a Revival planned for Lynchburg Virginia in which one side asked the other for a time of prayer together, and was met with a threat of arrest for criminal trespass. I wonder what exegetical tools are being brought to bear in these situations.

As I reflect on the ways scripture is heard and misheard, used, misused, and oft-times twisted beyond recognition, I think about scholars and leaders who work every day to get people to read the surprising and revolutionary words of scripture with new eyes. This month, the Center for Womanist Leadership opened with its inaugural conference. Many established and emerging scholars came together to present, discuss, hear, inspire, and learn together. Many of these women, some of whom I am honored to call friends, engage with students, colleagues, churches, and the public about the meaning of scripture as part of their daily life and ministry. There is so much to learn about scripture! There is so much work to do, and we are indebted to scholars and leaders who can help us open our eyes to meanings that have been hidden from us through the dulling power of hearing what we think is there so many times. I’m looking forward to what comes out of this new Center, because the church in the world needs tools and resources to look and listen with new sight and hearing.

Here’s the reason all of this is swirling in my mind: it is the Easter season. I have watched as good friends and slight acquaintances have posted a variety of well-intentioned but exegetically-bad takes on the Easter story over recent weeks. This, coupled with political uses of scripture that border on blasphemy, have forced me to reckon once again with a hard reality – that the vast majority of believers in many countries, including my own – including many regular church-goers – are scripturally illiterate. Just as our students are not illiterate, those who attend worship in the US include many who can read, but who have not gained a serious understanding of scripture. So when people in power use/twist the Bible for their own ends, many who profess Christ don’t know the text sufficiently to answer them—or even to know that the Bible is being misused.

So what? Why does that matter?

Easter is the major festival of the faith for all who follow Jesus. It matters that we who profess belief understand what Jesus is about, and the Gospel narratives are a key tool for this understanding. At a time when the public is so very polarized and there is so very much at stake – from the fate of God’s creation, to the potential for war—even nuclear war—which seems closer than it has for decades, to the ongoing slaughter of people with darker skin than mine in encounters with the police across the US, to violations of human rights that are being encouraged by those in power in many arenas (including international diplomacy, the refugee crisis worldwide, the lack of coherent immigration policy and the separation of families as part of US practice, the massacre of Palestinians on the Gaza border, and the ongoing epidemic of gun violence – just to name a few) – it matters so very much that we who follow Jesus understand his stands, and where he calls us to stand with him. It matters because the Gospel has power to lift people up, as happened in Madagascar in 2001. It matters because we should know what we’re celebrating as we decorate with lilies, put on our pastel shirts and flowery dresses, and sing and preach about resurrection. It matters because Jesus has something to say about all the issues named above and a host of others, AND it matters because we don’t follow Jesus in private. We who follow lift high the cross in the public sphere, where people need good news that is solid and reliable and true. We who follow, whether in Tanzania or the US, live and move among people who either have never heard this good news, or have heard it and found it—or the way it has been presented—lacking. When it is found lacking – that’s on us.

NB: In the US, we have little excuse, because there are BOOKS and a host of other resources available to help. If what I’m saying here resonates with you and you are looking for ways to increase your own scriptural literacy and understanding or to help others, here are a few recent books to check out. We’ll be continuing to add to this list, and I encourage you to share ideas with us, too.

Womanist Midrash by Wilda Gafney

I Found God in Me edited by Mitzi Smith

Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

Food and Faith by Norman Wirzba

 The Very Good Gospel by Lisa Sharon Harper

AND: part of the scriptural illiteracy issue here in Tanzania is a lack of access to resources. If you want to help us provide books like these and many others in the library here, BE IN TOUCH – we will share how you can be part of the solution. There is a particular need for STUDY BIBLES. We would like to help provide study Bibles to all our students. PLEASE be in touch if you want to help with this ongoing need.


[1] This patriarchal, hierarchical understanding of the Trinity is common, both in Tanzania and in the US. Imagine their surprise when I shared this image of perichoresis!

[2] Both our former missionary colleague, Dr. Stanley Quanbeck (in Conrad Braaten’s Beyond Madagascar), and Dr. Britt Halvorson, the grandchild of missionaries in Madagascar (in his dissertation, Lutheran in Two Worlds: Mission from Madagascar to the Midwest United States), have written about the use of Mark 5:36 in Ravalomanana’s campaign.


In Tanzania for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

Serving with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania

Greetings friends! We share two experiences in this newsletter –

  • UNIVERSITY GRADUATION happens, just like in the US, in the
  • SPRING IN TANZANIA – which is right now!

The short rains (November) have come to an end. We hear thunder on the mountain often, and we know it’s raining up there – but these days, rain rarely falls at our elevation. Now it is in the 80s and low 90s during the day, and blessedly cool breezes blow every evening. Many more flowers are making their entrances, and many can be found right in our yard – a few of these are pictured here. We’ve included a picture of our orange tree – which we share with the monkeys, who get to most fruit before it’s ripe.

On Saturday December 2, over 800 people received diplomas, certificates, and degrees from Tumaini University Makumira. Students in law, education, music, languages, computer and information technology, business, math and science, and theology robed, walked, and were celebrated by faculty, administration, and ELCT Presiding Bishop Frederick Shoo (Rev. Dr.), who also serves as University Chancellor. The speeches emphasized the impact graduates will have on Tanzania, where only 45% of students enroll in secondary education (middle/high school) and university enrollment is in the single digits. The ELCT is committed to education for church and society, and we are grateful to join them in this work.

Procession 2017

Graduation 2017

Our teaching semester continues, with midterms just before Christmas. We’re both enjoying the ministry of teaching and getting a kick out of seeing our students respond and grow. The Faculty of Theology has begun a process of curriculum review, in which we’re both involved. A lack of things to do is not a problem! If you’d like to support ELCA Global Mission and our ministry, please be in touch! Thanks for your prayers, notes, and encouragement, the best gift of the season.   Advent blessings, Mark and Cynthia!! (;

Becoming Accustomed

“Your Kiswahili is getting good,”, said Elisa, the gardener who works in our yard, making me laugh at his kindness. He wasn’t exactly telling the truth – which both of us knew – but his comment had me smiling all the way to class.

We’ve been here at Tumaini University Makumira, in Usa River, near Arusha, Tanzania, for 2 ½ months now, and each day, we feel more like we live and work here. Many things have happened that have helped us get to this point.

It helped a lot to start teaching early this month. We are both enjoying getting to know our students and the return to the classroom. We are both teaching at both undergraduate and graduate levels, as well as supervising Master’s theses. Our students are aware of their contexts, ready to think critically, excited about ministry, and enthusiastically taking part in class discussions and learning activities. We’re grateful.

It helped a lot to get back into the routine of swimming. Kennedy House, a local private school in our town, has a pool that is open for use by community members. We’re committed to a regular schedule of exercise, and having it be close, clean, and cooling on these increasingly-hot days makes going a treat.

It helped a lot that the bookcases we ordered many weeks ago arrived. It makes such a difference to be able to actually see and use resources, many of which are like old friends to us both.

It helps a lot to be here together, to continue our learning journeys, discovery of new things, thoughts, foods, and ideas, and growth in familiarity with this wonderful place as things we encounter together. We’re grateful.

It helps a lot to hear from and be in touch with so many of you. We so appreciate your prayers, on which we depend for strength, guidance and support.

Cynthia and Mark


In Tanzania for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
Serving with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania

Dear friends,
The rainy season has started. As we write you, the rain, which began before we arose thisNov 2017 1 morning, continues unabated. This makes it hard for the electricity to continue, which makes us grateful for the generator owned by the University – which generally brings power back a little while after it cuts out. We’re also grateful for a warm and dry house, and for the University’s work to paint and repair the house over the last month, which has helped our efforts to make this a cozy and welcoming home. It is a very gray and wet day at Makumira – the first of more than a month to come, we understand, as the annual “short rainy season” continues.

October was a month of PREPARATION, VISITS, and THANKSGIVING
Nov 2017 2We have done much to prepare for long-term living in our house. Although some of our books are on shelves, we have ordered more shelves from the Watoto Foundation, a local social service agency which houses and educates 54 former street kids, offering them a chance at a better future. We visited the Foundation during our Kiswahili class. “Watoto” means children in Kiswahili – the Foundation’s founder, a man from the Netherlands, first learned of the plight of street children in Tanzania when he studied Kiswahili at the same training center where we studied. The students learn trades, including carpentry, welding, cooking, and hotel management, along with school subjects. We look forward to our bookshelves being delivered soon. One delivery has arrived, however–Cynthia’s keyboard, which our missionary colleague Randy StubbsNov 2017 3 offered to bring along with him! As our visas when we entered the country wouldn’t allow this as part of our luggage, we’re very grateful to Randy. Thanks be to God for supportive co-workers! Thanks be to God for the University helping us make our house a home!

We’ve both been very busy preparing to teach. Classes start on Monday, November 6, and both of us will be in the classroom that day. Mark has picked up another class – he will teach Systematic Theology I and Synoptic Gospels-Acts to undergrad students and Theology of Religions at the Master’s Level. Cynthia will teach Introduction to Christian Education (thanking God daily for the good work of Drs. Jack Seymour and Linda Vogel of Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, her main professors in the Master of Christian Education program) to undergrads and Gender and the Bible at the Master’s Level. Please pray for us as we begin this important work!
Nov 2017 4As classes begin next week, New Student Orientation is going on now. Mark and I got in on a bit of it, attending the first chapel service of the new school year (which starts every day at 7:20 am) – thanking God for the ability to get up in the morning! We met the Student Body President, who was busy with many responsibilities during orientation. We were grateful to see two women students leading Chapel worship, and to see so many more people on campus. Tumaini University Makumira has over 3500 students enrolled in a host of subjects. We thank God for the opportunity to teach at this vital institution.


Nov 2017 5We were pleased to visit the Lutheran Centre, head office of the ELCT. We visited with Mr. Brighton Killewa, General Secretary, and the Rev. Anza Amen Lema, Youth Coordinator, learning much about the ELCT. The church is a very large and fast-growing church that is engaged in mission work in all of its eight neighboring countries, as well as conducting serious evangelism efforts in three mission areas in Tanzania, which may become dioceses at some point in the near future. We thank God for the opportunity to serve with such a vital communion.
Nov 2017 7We also received a visitor from the World Council of Churches in Geneva, Daniela di Mauro, part of a team from the WCC working on the Conference on World Mission and Evangelism, which will be held near campus in March 2018, and the companion Global Ecumenical Theological Institute, which will gather 120 theological students from across the globe to learn together on the Makumira campus. We are grateful to God to be part of the local organizing committee. Ms. di Mauro met with Faculty of Theology Dean Angela Olotu (our boss!) and University Administrator Mr. Eliakim Lekoringo and us to plan, and then toured the campus, ending with a visit to the Cultural Arts Center, where Director Randy Stubbs greeted us. We’re looking forward to a great event in March!
We also visited Moshi, Tanzania and caught our first glimpses of Mount Kilimanjaro lastNov 2017 6 month. What a thrill! We continue to thank God to live and serve in such a beautiful place.

We received word late last month of our first sponsoring congregation-THANK YOU, Calvary Lutheran Church, Green Bay WI! We continue to receive contributions to our missionary fundraising page-THANK YOU to all our supporters! We are grateful for all who are supporting us through the ELCA Tanzania page-THANK YOU! And most importantly, for all of you who are remembering us in your prayers, daily, weekly, and/or at worship-THANK YOU! We are still looking for congregational sponsors and individual supporters. More information on how to covenant to provide ongoing support is available here. THANK YOU!

Prayer requests: For wisdom and strength as we begin teaching; for our children, Joseph, Paul and Ella, all involved in young adult adventures in growth and learning; for Tumaini University Makumira and its ministry; for the ELCT and its many ministries; and for the people of Tanzania, many of whom live in significant poverty. Although the economy is growing fast, many people are not benefitting from this growth, and women and children are among the most economically marginalized citizens. Thank you for including us and all of these prayer concerns in your devotional and worship times. We could not be here, nor do the work we do, without your prayers and support. Thank you so much.
In Christ, Mark Rich ( and Cynthia Holder Rich (  And please follow us on Facebook: M&CinTZ