A baby is born in the middle of the night in a small rural clinic. The midwife's work is lit by a rusty kerosene lamp that belches fumes but gives the light she needs. The baby's first breath takes in the fumes. But there is a better way: the electricity that we take for granted is for many a miracle that can transform lives. Yet some 1.3 billion people do not have access to electricity today. They spend long night hours in the dark, rely on primitive smoky stoves and walk miles to gather wood for fuel. Children cannot do their homework, clinics can't store needed vaccines, and women risk rape and assault when they venture out to to seek water and fuel and to relieve themselves.
Energy access for all is, rightly, a new international campaign and priority. The issue often has a distinctly technical cast: power grids, pricing formulas, energy use. It's an exciting field these days, with new solar and wind energy solutions and neat gadgets, cheaper by the day, that can bring light and power in new ways. Many, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton among them, wax eloquent about the virtues of clean cook stoves that save energy and keep noxious fumes away, especially from women and children (she spoke on energy at Georgetown University last week).
But light and energy are also issues with strong ethical and spiritual dimensions, though those dimensions have been fairly invisible so far. Shedding light on the topic was what the United Nations Foundation and the World Faiths Development Dialogue set out to do during a workshop on Oct. 10 at Georgetown University. What are faith communities doing to meet the dangerous deficit of light? Is this something that could perhaps mobilize and unite communities to care more for those who have so little, in far corners of the world? Can faith shed new light on a complex international issue?
Our explorations of experience unearthed a raft of fascinating faith-inspired experience. Bishop Alden Hathaway from North Carolina was moved by a Ugandan orphanage with no power to raise funds for a solar energy system. When neighboring communities clamored for similar systems he embarked on a retirement program to bring solar light to a mushrooming set of communities. A team took a fantastic Swedish yacht stove design and adapted it for refugee camps in Kenya and Ethiopia. The Swedish engineers made sure the stoves were perfectly safe and promoters of the refugees stoves boast that they have not had a single accident. Jacques Sebisaho, an African businessman, worked with Catholic and Protestant leaders on a remote island in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo to light clinics with a "solar suitcase," and lives were saved during a terrible epidemic of cholera. And Rev. Ruston Seeman and a self-described mad scientist in West Virginia helped their parishinors to build home made solar systems that actually allowed them to reverse the direction of the needles on their electric meters so they made money from the power company.
These efforts are inspiring and creative, but most are isolated and on a fairly small scale. And they have rarely been set in the context and spirit of the moral principles that the great faiths teach.
It does not take long to make the link between energy access and spiritual principles. After all, the Bible starts with a focus on light: "And God said, Let there be light: and there was light." Light is fundamental to Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In India, Diwali, the festival of lights, is one of the high points of the year. Candles reflect the spirit and the soul, chasing away the fears and dangers of the dark. The combination of faith inspiration and a deep-seated practical passion to help are what has sparked the raft of creative solutions to banish the evils and limitations of darkness.
Energy is a means to many ends. It makes possible progress across countless fields schools, health clinics, water pumps and irrigation systems among them. It's important to find ways to meet energy needs because otherwise progress is stymied. And it's important to do it in ways that do not worsen our environmental problems or rob resources from future generations. Those are all part of what evangelical pastor Richard Cizik calls the onion layers of faith inspiration and motivation.
What's especially exciting today is that we have real, practical prospects to link new, renewable and sustainable energy options to changing the lives of poor people. That was the central conclusion of the Oct. 10 workshop. Energy access can and should be a moral cause, a movement that unites small scale efforts, like asking for solar lamps in lieu of bar mitzvah gifts or building clean cook stoves on a mission trip, with large efforts to take those last steps to make solar and wind energy a viable option for larger communities or to extend the power grid at affordable prices to poor communities. Then babies can breath clean air from the moment they are born and all can have access to the miracles of modern energy. In the words of the ancient English book of Common Prayer, "Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee!"