Black Churches Join the Movement for Environmentalism and Sustainability

(Eric Berger) On October 5, organizers held a panel at the Green the Church summit in St. Louis. Seated from left are the Rev. David Gerth, the Rev. Starsky Wilson, Myisha Johnson, Leah Clyburn, Tara A. Rocque, and Tosha Phonix.

Rosie Willis stood amid 54 garden beds filled with tomatoes, collard greens, okra, and sweet potatoes that she needs volunteers to help her dig. This was once just another vacant, overgrown lot in the poverty-stricken JeffVanderLou neighborhood of North St. Louis. Now it’s Fresh Starts Community Garden, a thriving grower that has sold to vendors like Metro Market, a nonprofit grocery store housed in a bus that sells fresh fruits and vegetables in food deserts around the city.

“This garden has truly been blessed,” said Willis, the Fresh Starts founder. “It’s here—it will be 11 years old next year, and we are steadily looking for ways that we can expand it westward.” She added, “The thing that bothers me the most about this is we don’t get the community participation that I wish we would, that I am prayerful we eventually will.”

Willis can’t be inside, she said; she has to be outside in the dirt. In 2009, she approached pastors of some 20 nearby churches in the predominantly black area asking for money to help start the garden on land she leased for $1 from the city. Not one church donated, she said, so she had to look elsewhere.

But standing before her now were more than 50 people—black clergy, churchgoers, academics, and activists—on a bus tour of environmental efforts in St. Louis. They were participating in the Green the Church Summit, the sixth annual conference aimed at promoting environmental justice and sustainability among black churches.

While nearly 250 people attended the October event, black church leaders there said that many in the African American community have not taken an active role in greening efforts for a variety of reasons, including the sense that environmental organizations are not concerned enough about the issues directly affecting them. While 20 percent of black voters listed the environment and climate as one of the three issues most important to them, that still ranks below racism, healthcare, job opportunities, education, and police accountability in terms of importance, according to a recent poll from BlackPAC, an African American political group. Leaders of Green the Church were now aiming to push black Christians to prioritize environmental justice as a crucial cause.  

The two-day event featured representatives from at least 15 Christian denominations and sessions on building efficiency and water conservation; food sovereignty and public policy; and the Green New Deal, among other topics; and a bus tour of sites such as the Fresh Starts garden.

The Rev. Ambrose Carroll, a Baptist minister who founded the summit in 2013, thinks the environment is central to the issues that plague the African American community. About a decade ago, he read The Green Collar Economy: How One Solution Can Fix Our Two Biggest Problems by Van Jones, a political commentator and former advisor to President Barack Obama. The book details a plan for sustainable development that would both address the environmental crisis and lift people out of poverty.

Carroll, now 50, became a fellow with Green for All, founded by Jones. In 2010, he and his organization, Carroll Faith Ministries International, started Green the Church “to wake up the sleeping giant that is the African American church and bring them to the table with other faiths and other communities on this issue.” (Three of his siblings are also Christian pastors and work in the organization.) Carroll, who leads Church by the Side of the Road in Berkeley, California, thinks black churches need green theology—meaning discussions in church on topics like climate change, global warming, and environmental justice “from the place of our Scriptures, from the place of our history as a people.”

In Carroll’s words, “Our bodies have been dominated along with the fauna and the flora and used and so, a lot of times, we have experienced trauma and don’t see ourselves as the body of people who have a notion to be the conservationists.” He hopes Green the Church will change that.

BARBARA JOHNSON, A BABY BOOMER and member of Our Lady of the Holy Cross, a Catholic church in St. Louis, grew up with her parents bringing milk and soda bottles back to the store, in an “era where you didn’t throw a lot of stuff away,” she said. She has lived in St. Louis since she was 4 years old, when her parents left Mississippi because of Jim Crow laws. On the bus tour of greening efforts around St. Louis, she described climate change as a big concern.

“We’re warmer in St. Louis than we used to be, and our winters were true winters,” said Johnson, a retired educator. She thinks climate change and the environment are important to much of the African American community, but to get more people involved, churches should teach people how these issues directly affect them. “I think churches could do that because they have a captive audience, and people listen to their pastors.”

Carroll would also like to see congregations take steps to make their buildings more energy efficient and shift to renewable energy sources like solar panels. In California, his organization is working to obtain funding to retrofit old black churches and make them more energy efficient, and it’s holding free classes on solar panel and battery storage installations. Carroll sees an opportunity for job creation in green industries. “We can put together systems to put our young people to work learning those green job skills.” Green the Church is also partnering with the Nature Conservancy—a national nonprofit environmental organization—to provide $50,000 in grants to 30 churches around St. Louis to fund environmental projects.

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Source: Religion & Politics