In California, two young Catholics at the forefront of climate and environmental conversations and activism

In fall of 2021, the California Conference of Catholic Bishops made the exciting decision to participate in the Laudato Si’ Action Platform, sending a clear message about the importance of creation care that surely came as cause for celebration for the many Catholics across the state who have long been working to protect our common home and its most vulnerable members. Among those California Catholics are Elizabeth Johnstone and Bori Kozek, two of the many young people at the forefront of climate and environmental conversations and activism in the state. Today we introduce you to these young care for creation leaders and share a bit of their recent actions.

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Elizabeth Johnstone

Elizabeth Johnstone is a tenth grader in Santa Monica, California where she is an active member of the St. Monica Green Team. Elizabeth was instrumental in planning St. Monica’s Youth Climate Summit which took place in October 2021. The summit brought together more than 50 middle and high school students from the greater Los Angeles area who were passionate about environmental justice and the Church’s response to climate change. Elizabeth expressed that she and her adult counterpart in planning the summit, Meredith McCarthy, were both very surprised at the wide range of climate education and knowledge of the Catholic social teaching among participants. Elizabeth said that many of the presenters at the summit had to adjust their presentations significantly depending on the age and the background knowledge of the young people in their group.

Elizabeth said that the students, who were primarily from Catholic schools or parish youth groups, were at many different places on their own faith journeys. Regardless of where youth found themselves, Elizabeth thinks it was encouraging for them to know that their concerns about climate change are reflected by the Church, as demonstrated by the California bishops’ recent decision. 

Elizabeth is hopeful that the ongoing synodal listening processes leading up to the 2023 the Synod on Synodality will positively impact the Laudato Si’ Action Platform, which was launched around the same time: “I hope they [Church leaders] spend more time listening to the Catholic Church all over.” Elizabeth said. “I’m very happy that Pope Francis has prioritized listening to the Body of Christ, and I hope that that can be done with Laudato Si’ and creation care.”

Elizabeth shared that when she started learning about climate change and getting involved in creation care, her work could at times feel isolating, leading to uncertainty about her place in it. Everything changed for her when she branched out of her immediate environment by reaching out, listening to others in person, or connecting via email: “It’s a huge network, across the state, the nation and the world. There are so many people who are invested in this, and so many Catholics invested in creation care. There are so many people invested in environmental activism.” 

She says that for her, knowing that she is not alone in the work is so important for sustaining persistent hope: “If you feel isolated or alone in creation care and environmental activism, just know it’s one email away, one call away, one conversation away, the network is huge. There are so many great people fighting the good fight for the planet.”

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Bori Kozek

Bori Kozek was born and raised a few hours north of Santa Monica in Berkeley, California, and she graduated from the University of California at Berkeley with a Bachelor’s degree in Environmental Sciences and a minor in Global Poverty and Practice. Bori recently spent a year at the young adult discipleship school at the Chemin Neuf community, a Catholic charismatic community in France. She is passionate about environmental education and is particularly interested in making educational videos as a creative expression for ecological justice. Next year she will begin a Master’s degree program at a Jesuit University in Paris studying philosophy, theology and Laudato Si’

A key element of Bori’s own spiritual life and her response to climate change is an attentiveness to the work of the Holy Spirit. This attentiveness and deep listening cultivates authentic discernment in her own life, personally, vocationally, and in discerning her response to climate change. Regarding discerning her role in responding to climate change and caring for the environment, Bori sees the Holy Spirit leading her to a more intentional embrace of creativity. The video-making that she has already done on ecological topics is one expression of the Holy Spirit in her own life (you can find an example of Bori’s ecological education videos here). 

Bori wholeheartedly embraces Pope Francis’ understanding of ecological conversion as discussed in Laudato Si’, where he writes, “‘The external deserts in the world are growing, because the internal deserts have become so vast.’ For this reason, the ecological crisis is also a summons to a profound interior conversion” (LS 217). Bori is hopeful that ecological justice can become a point of conversion not only ecologically, but that through it “one can come to believe more deeply in a loving God.” Her hope is that through an authentic ecological conversion young people can come to grow in their relationship with God who is always waiting to embrace them with open arms, echoing the hope so clearly expressed by Pope Francis in Laudato Si’

Both Elizabeth and Bori believe that this ecological conversion can be a renewed source of hope for young people who may be disillusioned with the Catholic Church and an indication that their concerns and priorities are important to Church leadership, as well.

For Bori, an understanding of both the urgency of climate change and the scientific realities at play are needed in order to sustain hope. Bori is encouraged by Pope Francis’ understanding of integral ecology, because of how it holds in balance urgency and hope, lifting up both the specific scientific realities as well as the bigger picture of why theologically and morally we have always been responsible for the well-being of our neighbor and our common home. 

Finally, when reflecting on her specific experience of creation care work in the parish context, Bori shared the importance of having Laudato Si’ or creation care initiatives going hand-in-hand with community building opportunities. Bori here echoes Pope Francis in Laudato Si’: “The ecological conversion needed is also community conversion” (LS 220.)

Both Elizabeth and Bori demonstrate that for many young Catholics, the work of creation care and ecological justice is not isolated from their daily experiences, but rather that the relationship-building and discernment are deeply integrated in their lives and their concerns in ways that spring forth from their authentic selves. 

Elizabeth and Bori themselves are sources of hope for other youth in their intention, thoughtfulness and care in discerning where they are called to respond to climate change in their own lives. 

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