Black History Month is a time to reflect on the contributions African Americans have made to this country. We are right to pause and look back on those who have fought for justice and equal rights. But we mustn’t stop there. We also need to look forward and act to address one of the deadliest legacies of racial inequality: toxic pollution that is harming our children and poisoning our environment.
Before the announcements of the new agreement at COP 21, when the thousands of people who were not closely engaging with official delegates of the 190 countries gathered in Paris, I was sitting at a small white table with my new found friend Kenneth.
We spoke for nearly an hour before I asked him the question.
We had been talking about the work of the Ghanian Religious Bodies Network On Climate Change, which brings together Muslims, Christians, and Indigenous peoples across Ghana to work on climate change because, after all, “climate change impacts all of us.” We touched upon capacity building, workshops, seminary education, practicalities, and visions. It was the kind of conversation that most people who were not directly involved in the negotiations were in Paris to have: networking, information sharing, and building cross-cultural relationships around common endeavors.
Finally, I asked him, “Are you religious?”
It was not so long ago that the cobblestones of Paris were red with blood. November 2015: terrorism. 1940: WWII. 1914: WWI. 1871: Prussians (post Napoleon). 1789: Revolution. One could keep going: 1479 – Joan of Arc.
With such a history in mind, and with politicians screaming “crusades” not so far away, it is no small thing to witness thousands upon thousands of people gathered to sit at tables with laptops and coffee and microphones and to talk to one another, countries who have warred with one another and taken one another’s trees and lakes and minerals. Here are 190 countries – not counting the many indigenous nations still unrecognized but many of which are still present.
By choosing to focus on the plight of the poor and the groaning of the earth itself, Francis is tapping into something much deeper than denominational squabbles and political maneuvering. He is seeking to make an end-run around the tedious shouting matches of privileged contenders in pitched ideological battles. This is a pope, not of the pundits but of the people – and of the planet.
We’re all connected. Just as the body of Christ is one – despite all of our institutional and ideological boundaries – all of humanity, all life is one. We’re rooted together in the soil that feeds us, in the natural ecosystems that sustain our very existence.
Columbia, Mississippi is a small rural town most known as the home of Walter Payton, NFL player for the Chicago Bears. It is also my home — the place where I was born and raised.
On January 1, 1992, Jesus People Against Pollution was founded in Columbia. Residents had discovered that the town had been heavily polluted from the Newsom Brothers/Old Reichhold Chemical Company facility, now closed but still registering high levels of hazardous waste — what the EPA calls a “Superfund site.”
In March 1977, the plant exploded and wrecked the facility and surrounding community. The Old Reichhold Chemical Company abandoned their facility and hired an inexperienced contractor to dispose of the remaining toxins left on the site.
We had a very hot ride in the police van, but the Park Police processed us very quickly. We were released from custody and greeted outside with water, granola bars, and hugs. What could be better?
But the point was not to get arrested. The point was to make of our lives a living witness. To make it clear that climate change has gone too far and we are no longer going to stand idly by while our sisters, brothers, and home planet are torn apart by oil companies. Here are a handful of photos from the event yesterday: