By Xavier Sartre – Vatican City
Sarh is the third largest city in Chad, located in the south along the banks of the Chari River. Today, this city is home to a little over 100 thousand inhabitants. It was here that twenty-five years ago, Gaël Giraud arrived to carry out two years of civil service. He taught mathematics and physics in the Jesuit College Saint Charles Lwanga. This experience was a shock as well as a revelation to this young man with a brilliant university career who would later become a researcher at the CNRS (French National Center for Scientific Research), the headquarters of French scientific research.
“Already back then, I saw both the lack of water in the area, still a savannah and the rapid advancement of desertification there”, the Jesuit economist says. “This made me – someone from the Parisian French University elite – aware, touching it with my own hands, that the question of desertification, of global warming, of the lack of water, of the erosion of the soil and of the biodiversity, was something extremely tangible”.
Street children – the cry of the poor
Remaining in the city two years, where there was not even electricity, forced Giraud to acknowledge another reality – human in nature this time – street children. After spending one year as a volunteer in the Jesuit College in Sahr, he then decided to spend the second year among the people, living in the material conditions of the poor.
Every morning he would go to the well to fetch water, prepare tea on the kanoune, a type of stove. Day after day he found himself side by side with the children living on the street – not those begging for alms, as required by the madrasas (Islamic school) where they were studying – but those who no longer had a family or those who had been forced to leave their family because they were too much of a burden, most often for their mothers.
Gaël Giraud then settled himself among the ruins of the Rex cinema to sleep with these children. Thus, the Balimba center was born. Today it is located a few kilometers from the city and houses no more than 40 children at a time. Here they find a roof over their heads, food, and education. Those who exhibit violence do not go to school, but are instructed on site, thanks to the teachers who come specifically for this.
Realizing that everything is connected
This experience “allowed me to see with my own eyes what it means that those who have nothing are victims of global warming”, Giraud explains. “Essentially, when the Pope’s Encyclical Laudato sí says that the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor are one and the same cry, I recall the experience the street children made me live in Chad twenty years ago”, the priest says.
Returning to France, Gaël Giraud pursued theological formation and studies to become a Jesuit, while continuing his work as an economist. “Little by little, the experience I had lived in Chad and what I had learned in the field of economics helped me realize that my work as an economist was that of understanding the extraordinary impact of climate change on people”.
The faith: questioned and confirmed
The faith has influenced Father Gaël Giraud’s personal reflection and work. “The experience of the Christian faith nourishes a ‘hope against hope’ in me. This means that I have not reacted – or that I immediately did not react – by hiding behind denial” regarding the environmental situation and the catastrophe that is unfolding. At the same time, he says, his faith has grown.
“Today I perceive the fragility of creation much more strongly, as well as the fact that creation has been placed in our hands and that we have the responsibility as its caretakers”, the Jesuit explains. “This is exactly what Pope Francis wrote in Laudato sí. We do not own creation: God is the only one who owns creation”.
But He Himself "does not want to be the world’s master, but its servant”. This is the path we must follow, the economist states.
Laudato sí, an event
Gaël Giraud welcomed the Encyclical Laudato sí “with great surprise”. According to the economist, this text is “the most important ecclesial event after Vatican II”. Many people realized right away that this “was the first time an international institution, in this case the Catholic Church, was taking a position in such a clear, prepared, correct, global way regarding the fundamental issue of the ecological crisis, which faces our generation”.
Gaël Giraud is convinced that “We Christians have a role, a responsibility in resolving this extremely serious crisis”. According to the Jesuit priest, one of the anthropological causes of the current situation is the concept that appeared in the 16th and 17th centuries in Europe that man is the master and owner of nature. Christian anthropology makes a distinction between these concepts. We must understand the expression in the Book of Genesis “to dominate the Earth” along with the meaning “to serve the growth of creation”.
It is therefore up to Christians, strengthened by this biblical and spiritual tradition and incarnated particularly by Saint Francis of Assisi, “to invent together the solutions to the ecological crisis”. This is what Gaël will dedicated himself to in a new mission entrusted to him by the Society of Jesus: to create and develop a center for environmental justice at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., in the United States.