by Jill Ragar Esfeld
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment, “Laudato Si’” counseled Catholics to join as a global community in protecting the earth.
Subtitled “On Care For Our Common Home,” the document explained how those in developed nations have a moral responsibility to help those most impacted by environmental degradation, the poorest of the poor.
Kevin McKlean, president of Sun24, a nonprofit based in Florida, has found a way to heed that plea by partnering with the Catholic Church in sub-Saharan Africa to distribute solar lights to families without electricity.
And he’s reaching out to Catholics in the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas to join his effort.
The concept of Sun24 came about after McKlean contacted a microfinance nonprofit he worked with in Uganda to offer them a donation of LED lights.
“I’m an environmentalist,” he said. “So I contacted the president of that organization thinking that they still were using incandescent lights.
“She told me they did not, in fact, even have electricity.”
That got McLean researching.
He found that 1.3 billion people worldwide are without electricity, and half of them live in sub-Saharan Africa.
Crude kerosene lamps are the main source of lighting in these areas, and McKlean was appalled at the health hazards associated with the lamps, as well as their disastrous impact on the environment.
Father Emmanuel Tamale, former pastor of Sacred Heart Church in Emporia, is well aware of the problem.
In 2006, Sacred Heart Parish established a sister-parish relationship with Father Tamale’s home parish, Our Lady of Fatima in Mubende, Uganda.
Father Tamale now resides in the Kiyinda-Mityana diocesan headquarters, about 50 miles southeast of Mubende.
But on a recent visit to the archdiocese, he talked about the poor of Africa and their desperate need for solar lamps.
“In my diocese, few homes have electricity,” he said. “Traditionally, we use kerosene lamps, which cause hazards and fires.
“The kerosene lamps give off a lot of fumes and a lot of soot, which cause lung disease and headaches.
“And sometimes the children even swallow the kerosene.”
Worldwide, one million people die every year from fires related to fuel lamps. Drinking kerosene is by far the leading cause of child poisoning in the developing world.
“There are so many reasons to get rid of these,” said McKlean.
Kerosene is also expensive for the subsistence farmers who use the lamps.
“You have to understand,” said Father Tamale, “the cost of kerosene in Uganda is about 75 cents, and the income of our people is about $6 a month.
“So, that is a big expense on the part of a family.”
Added to the human hardship caused by kerosene lamps is their negative impact on the environment.
Fuel lamps emit black carbon, which is now known to cause more climate damage than methane. In fact, it is second only to CO2 in the damage it causes.
McKlean found a simple solution to this huge problem in solar lamps.
“By replacing one kerosene lamp with a solar lamp, we can reduce 1.8 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent,” McLean said.
He offered this comparison.
“In two years (the lifespan of a solar light), one crude kerosene lamp damages the climate as much as driving 4,250 miles in a typical American car.”
At a cost of about $5 each, small solar lamps are a healthy, cost-efficient alternative to fuel lamps, and they provide better light.
But Sun24 needed a method for getting the solar lights to families in need.
McKlean found the perfect distribution partner in the Catholic Church.
“The Catholic Church has an incredible infrastructure in Africa,” he explained. “Parishes are extremely spread out, so they have outstations.
“There can be 15 or 20 outstations [per parish] and they can be very remote. The parish priest doesn’t get out there every Sunday.
“So they put their catechists to great use.”
Father Tamale called the parish catechists the “right hand of the priest.”
“We have a parish, like Sacred Heart,” he explained, “but it has many outstations. So the catechists are the ones who go to those outstations.”
The distribution process for Sun24 relies on this structure.
“We donate the lights to the diocese,” explained McKlean. “The diocese distributes the lights to the parish priests, who then distribute them to the catechists.
“They know their communities. So through this structure, we were able to get right down to the very poorest of poor.”
McKlean also appreciates the Catholic philosophy of “need, not creed.”
“Importantly, the Catholic Church is very good about not only providing benefits to its members,” he said
That philosophy played out when Sun24 donated 1,000 lights to Father Tamale’s diocese.
“The mission is based on the model of one-plus-one,” said Father Tamale. “An individual is given two [solar lamps], one for the Catholic family and the other is a gift to give to a non-Catholic family.
“And this has even created relationships and opportunities for evangelizing.
“The Sun24 solar lights are a great blessing.”