“Human life is grounded in three fundamental and closely intertwined relationships: with God, with our neighbor and with the earth itself. According to the Bible, these three vital relationships have been broken, both outwardly and within us. This rupture is sin.” –Pope Francis, Laudato Si’ – On Care For Our Common Home
“Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain that they may live.”- Ezekiel 37:9
With the release of the Pope’s Encyclical on climate change, renewed attention has been paid to the role of religious communities in the fight for climate justice. A few weeks ago I found myself in a wood paneled conference room a stone’s throw from the U.S. Capitol. Adorned in my favorite brightly hued rainbow colored dress, I stood out in the sea of dark suits and collars that surrounded me. To my left and right sat bishops, presidents, and other distinguished clergy representing the multitude of historically black denominations that have come to collectively be known as the “Black Church.” We were convened that afternoon by a coalition of partners led by the National Religious Partnership for the Environment to consider the leadership role the Black Church can play in combatting climate change.
My task, as a consultant at the convening, was to facilitate a discussion on the connection of climate change to other pervasive social justice issues in African-American communities from food insecurity to intergenerational poverty. As I spoke, the eyes around the room begin to light up with curiosity and concern. One pastor opened his bible to Genesis 2:7 and read aloud the story of God giving the breath of life to Adam. “There are three reasons black people can’t breathe,” he said paraphrasing the last words of Eric Garner, “police brutality, pollution, and public policy.”
The past 12 months of violence against unarmed black bodies continues to draw national attention to the ongoing challenge of police brutality in the United States. Under the collective action call of #blacklivesmatter, activists and concerned citizens across the country challenge the ideology of white supremacy undergirding our criminal justice system and demand an end to state violence against black bodies. Yet the #blacklivesmatter movement is about more than an end to police brutality; it is call for the health, wholeness, and vitality of all black communities and a world in which black lives are no longer systemically and intentional targeted for demise. This includes an account of the physical environment in which black communities reside.
The same toxins that are killing the planet are killing communities of color. The NAACP reports that 68 percent of African Americans live within 30 miles of coal-fired power plants, which produce a large proportion of toxic emissions that directly poison local communities in the United States. For decades, activists in the environmental justice movement have drawn attention to the disproportionate impact of environmental degradation, toxic pollution, and climate change on black and brown communities. These communities are more likely to reside in fenceline zones, areas of vulnerability that border toxic chemical plants, than the rest of the United States population. African Americans are 75 percent more likely to live in these communities while Latinos are 60 percent more likely to reside in these dangerous environments. Studies have shown the direct correlation between living in these zones and death-dealing health outcomes.
We cannot divorce the observation of these trends from an analysis of oft-unspoken reality of environmental racism and exploitation of poor and working class communities. As the harmful consumption patterns of middle and upper class Americans continues to grow, it is the most vulnerable communities who bear the lived consequences of our behaviors. Those of us who live lives of relative wealth and privilege may not see daily impact of our choices, but that does not mean they are not being felt each day by children in the North Carolina inhaling coal ash or by fisherman on the Gulf Coast still reeling from the impact of the BP Oil Spill five years later.
Fixing this tremendous issue will not happen in a vacuum. It will require people of different racial and religious backgrounds to work together. Yet, the mainstream environmental movement is notoriously white with people of color absent from the leadership of major environmental organizations and their membership bases. This reality has led to the perpetuation of a great myth: that people of color do not care about climate change or environment. A 2014 Public Religion Research Institute survey found that more than 7-in-10 Hispanic Americans are very (46 percent) or somewhat (25 percent) concerned about the impact of climate change. Similarly, nearly 6-in-10 black Americans are very (36 percent) or somewhat (21 percent) concerned about climate change. By contrast, less than half of white Americans are very (23 percent) or somewhat (20 percent) concerned about climate change.
Throughout the United States, congregations and clergy of color are pushing back against this myth through the launch of campaigns geared at curbing the detrimental impacts of climate change. On a national level, Green for All’s Green the Church campaign taps into the power and purpose of the African-American church community to explore and expand the role of churches for environmental and economic resilience. Examples of local initiatives include Building Power a program that seeks to help faith institutions in the Bronx refocus resources from powering their buildings to building community power. Through a partnership of organizations including the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition, the Bronx Cooperative Development Initiative, BlocPower, and the Emerald Cities Collaborative, the program is helping faith communities in the Bronx go green and save on energy expenses by retrofitting buildings with solar panels and other tools.
The sin of environmental racism and degradation is choking the life out of communities and must be stopped. As Christians, we must re-examine our definition of dominion over the Earth (Genesis 1:28). For far too long we have used thin theologies to translate this God-given authority as an invitation to plunder and exploit Creation rather than serve and protect it. Our actions have created an environment in which God can’t breathe. May we be bold enough to work collaboratively to reverse the trend before it is too late.