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  • Writer's pictureProfiles in Catholicism

An Interview with Anna Robertson

Gordon: What colleges and universities did you attend and what degrees did you earn?

Anna: I attended Xavier University in Cincinnati, OH, where I received a Bachelor of Arts in theology with minors in Spanish and Peace Studies, and Boston College School of Theology and Ministry, where I received a Master of Theological Studies.

Gordon: What were your primary responsibilities when you were Graduate Assistant for the Global Service and Justice Program, Office of International Programs?

Anna: During my graduate studies, I spent a year as a graduate assistant in Boston College’s Office of International Programs supporting an effort called the Global Service and Justice Program. While in this role, I had the opportunity to accompany a cohort of students in their final year of the fellowship as they prepared their capstone theses, integrating experiences abroad with an academic inquiry related to different aspects of service and justice.

Gordon: What is one of your fondest memories when you served as Student Chaplain at Brigham and Women's Hospital, Spiritual Care Department?

Anna: During my graduate studies in theology, I spent a summer working in the Spiritual Care Department at Brigham and Women’s Hospital while completing a unit of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE). This was a profoundly challenging and humbling summer. Day after day, I, who at the age of 23 knew little about suffering and death, would walk into patients’ rooms, introduce myself, and ask my icebreaker question: “How’s your spirit?”

There was one chaplain on staff who everyone loved—she was one of those people who emanated compassion and projected an orbit of ease in every room she entered. She was Catholic, and so when one day a regular patient of hers requested a visit from her while she was away, the request was passed along to me, a fellow Catholic.

My stomach dropped: what a let-down it would surely be for this patient when, expecting this near-saint of a chaplain he had grown to depend on, he was instead visited by me, a bumbling and awkward CPE student chaplain!

On the scene, my dread at my own inadequacy only grew when I found myself face-to-face with a young man with a mysterious and debilitating illness, deep in despair and depression. Nothing I said seemed to reach beyond those glassy and sad eyes.

As I grasped for something, anything, I could do to help ease this patient’s suffering, I remembered that I had brought my guitar with me to the hospital that day. “Would you like me to fetch my guitar and play you a song?” I asked.

For the first time since I’d arrived the patient’s eyes registered the faintest glimmer of light as he nodded in an approximation of enthusiasm. A few minutes later, I returned with my guitar and began to play and sing.

Over the course of those few songs, the patient visibly relaxed, his demeanor shifting markedly. A nurse even came into the room between songs and marveled at how the patients’ vitals had improved while I was playing.

That afternoon, grace certainly visited upon those of us gathered in that hospital room. I have no idea what became of the patient, and I harbor no illusions that the day of music had any lasting effect on his health.

But I do know that at that moment, despite all of my egoistic concerns for my inadequacy before his suffering, grace found a way to move through me and meet the patient where he needed to be met.

At the bedside of senseless suffering, that might be the best we can hope for, and we have to trust that, somehow, in our inadequacy, we are more than adequate.

Gordon: What did you enjoy most when you were a Graduate Assistant for the Arrupe International Immersion Program at Boston College Office of Campus Ministry?

Anna: One of the most formative aspects of my undergraduate education was the time that I spent in Latin America, first on an academic service-learning semester in Nicaragua and then as a Brueggeman Fellow interviewing Campesinos about historical memory in rural El Salvador.

These experiences shaped my sense of global solidarity grounded in messy and beautiful—which is to say, real—relationships with everyday Central Americans experiencing the impacts of realities I was learning about in the classroom, such as U.S. foreign policy, gang violence, and migration.

Throughout those experiences, mentorship and community were crucial for helping me to integrate my experiences and make sense of how to honor the relationships I was forming with my decisions moving forward.

In the year I spent as a graduate assistant to the Arrupe International Immersion Program at BostonCollege, I had the chance to accompany undergraduate students as they connected with communities in Latin America and grappled with the big questions these encounters seeded in them.

I believe that God meets us in the moments when our old stories for making sense of the world fall apart—God meets us in life’s big questions—and so it was and is an honor and a grace to walk alongside people as they open themselves to those questions.

Gordon: What were your responsibilities when you worked at Seattle University?

Anna: At Seattle University, I spent a little over four years serving as Campus Minister for Retreats, during which time I was responsible for overseeing the office’s major retreat programs while responding to the dynamic pastoral needs of students at the university. My work entailed seeing students as whole persons and developing them as leaders. This ethos has carried over into my current work in the Catholic environmental sphere, where I believe that organizing is as much about developing leaders as it is about winning campaigns.

Gordon: What are your primary responsibilities as Director of Youth and Young Adult Mobilizationat Catholic Climate Covenant in Washington, DC?

Anna: At Catholic Climate Covenant, I direct our youth and young adult mobilization efforts, which seek to inspire, organize, and equip young people in the U.S. Catholic community to be “protagonists of transformation,” a term I borrow from Pope Francis in Christus Vivit, within creation. In their current iteration, these efforts were born with the creation of the position I now hold, and so a lot of my first year in this role was spent listening and learning about the needs of my fellow young adults across the U.S.

Catholic sphere, as well as about the U.S. Church’s existing creation care efforts and its capacity to be a major changemaker in the face of the climate crisis. Unfortunately, the Church has not always been as outspoken on creation care as many young people would like it to be.

A 2021 study from the Springtide Research Institute found that nearly three-quarters of Catholics between the ages of 13-25 identified environmental causes as something they care about, whereas a separate study by researchers at Creighton University released the same year found that only 0.8% of over 12,000 official communications from U.S. bishops between 2014 and 2019 mentioned climate change at all, while even fewer did so in a way that recognized the legitimacy and scope of the challenge.

Meanwhile, the Catholic Church continues to grapple with high rates of disaffiliation among young people, almost 44% of whom don’t think religious organizations care about the things that matter most to them (Springtide).

I understand my role as being about stepping into this gap—elevating the voices of young Catholics on climate while also equipping faith leaders who accompany them to better respond to their pastoral needs and bear public witness to the climate crisis.

One concrete offering I’ll highlight that advances this work is Wholemakers, a multi-session small-group curriculum for young adults focused on faith and integral ecology. Through late July we are seeking groups of young adults to pilot this offering in the fall, with the hopes of launching the resource broadly in the spring of 2023.

Gordon: In general, how well informed are young people about climate challenges?

Anna: According to data from a 2021 poll by the Pew research center, 71% of Millennials and 67% of Gen Zers reported feeling that climate should be a top priority to ensure a sustainable planet for future generations. Clearly, young people are aware of and alarmed by the climate crisis.

The question of how “well-informed” they are is complicated because it depends on how you define “well-informed.” Is someone well-informed if they can recite the scientific causes of the climate crisis? If they have an awareness of possible solutions? If they have a sense of their own agency to participate in solutions?

According to the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, 70% of middle school and 55% of high school science teachers lack a proper understanding of the scientific consensus on the climate crisis. Of those who do teach about climate change, a full 30% incorrectly identify natural causes as the source of climate change.

Meanwhile, the messages young people are receiving about the climate crisis, whether through formal educational networks or informal networks like social media, often approach the issue with a doom-and-gloom, all-or-nothing tone that can in fact be demotivating while failing to account for the progress made on the climate crisis and the wealth of available solutions.

The research shows that young people are aware of the climate crisis and overwhelmingly view it as a concern. The work that remains for those of us who are in a relationship with young people is to help them formulate a vision of climate justice they can work toward and to articulate their role in bringing about that vision.

Gordon: What are the three actions that governments could do to reduce the damage of climate change?

Anna: An adequate response to the climate crisis is going to take a multi-pronged approach at all levels and throughout every sector of society. There is no silver bullet. That being said, in our current context, the Senate has the opportunity to pass $555 billion in climate measures, which would be a significant step toward meeting our 2030 emissions reduction targets.

The legislation, which has already passed in the House of Representatives, includes substantial clean energy incentives, investments in community resiliency in the face of climate impacts, and environmental justice measures to ensure that low-income communities, communities of color, and communities that are reliant on the existing fossil fuel infrastructure are not left behind in the transition to cleaner energy.

This legislation, endorsed by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in a recent action alert, leaves much to be desired but is an important and crucial step along the path toward a thriving future for all.

Another important step that governments can take is supporting the creation of financial support for countries dealing with “loss and damages” due to climate change.

Current mechanisms available under the United Nations Convention on Climate Change address mitigation and adaptation—i.e., the steps countries can take to better prevent loss and damages due to climate change—but, as the impacts of the climate crisis begin to be felt throughout the globe, there is a funding gap around addressing actual climate impacts, which are disproportionately being felt by countries in the Global South who have contributed the least to the climate crisis, to begin with.

At COP26, a group of countries representing six out of every seven people in the world put forth a proposal for the creation of a loss and damage finance facility that would assist countries in responding to the toll of the climate crisis, but their demands were blocked by wealthier countries, including the U.S. Especially in light of their historical responsibility for contributing to the climate crisis, there is a moral imperative for wealthier countries like the U.S. to address the impacts of the climate crisis. Supporting the creation of a loss and damage finance facility would be a significant step in that direction.

Finally, young people the world over are suffering from mental health challenges like anxiety and depression as they consider their futures in a climate-changed world. A recent study published in The Lancet found that 84% of young people ages 16-25 globally are worried about climate change, while half of the young people surveyed reported negative day-to-day impacts on their lives. Governments can respond by supporting the infrastructure for widely available and accessible mental healthcare and by making standard the inclusion of science-based and solutions-focused climate change curricula in schools.

Gordon: Thank you for an exceptional interview.

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