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.
The bus tour included visits to such projects. At last year’s summit in the Bay Area, Carroll met people like Leroy Gill Jr., the pastor of Jubilee Community Church, a black church in North St. Louis that built a community garden. Green the Church chose St. Louis as the site of this year’s event in part because of those interactions. Carroll, whose father pastored at First Baptist Church, the oldest black church in St. Louis, said, “You have these individuals that are ahead of the curve that people nationally would not be able to vocalize.”
Carroll was also drawn to St. Louis because of a recent report, “Environmental Racism in St. Louis,” from the Washington University School of Law’s Interdisciplinary Environmental Clinic (IEC), that outlined how African Americans in St. Louis face greater environmental risks than white residents. (Religion & Politics is a product of Washington University.) The report found that black children in St. Louis were 2.4 times more likely than white children to test positive for lead in their blood and made roughly 10 times more emergency room visits for asthma each year than white children.
Carroll sees those statistics and other examples of pollution—such as high levels of lead in the water in predominantly black cities like Flint, Michigan—as issues of environmental justice. “No matter whether you are doing renewable energy, no matter if we are fighting pollution, we are always looking at it from an equity lens,” he said.
Tara A. Rocque, the IEC assistant director, spoke on a panel at the summit, “Environmental Justice and Implications for Mid-America.” A white woman, she said she had long been an environmentalist, but the report opened her eyes to the disproportionate effect of environmental degradation on communities of color. “When I realized that, I got angry at myself, I got angry at everyone for not knowing this, for not yelling about it, for not screaming about it, and so that’s what I’ve been doing. I have been yelling about it. I’ve been screaming about it. I’ve been talking to anyone who will listen,” she said to applause.
THERE ARE OBSTACLES TO building an environmental movement within black churches, including the issue of representation. A 2014 study from Green 2.0, a nonprofit that advocates for diversity in environmental organizations, found that ethnic minorities occupy less than 12 percent of the leadership positions in the environmental organizations studied. “What would it look like to have environmental policy in the city that really puts the interests of black and brown folks at the center?” a white attendee asked panelists at the summit.
“It would look like environmental justice,” Tosha Phonix, who is black and works for Missouri Coalition for the Environment as its food justice organizer, said on the panel with Rocque. “In our communities we name things so different. You might be like, ‘Oh yeah, we’re going to fight for our environment,’ and you’re talking about trees and the water. And we’re like, ‘My landlord is a slumlord; my immediate environment matters. I can’t think about out there unless you change my immediate environment.’”
Nichole Phillips, a sociology professor and the director of Black Church Studies at Emory University, echoed those sentiments in an interview. “There are so many injustices in addition to environmental injustice that black communities must tackle, like mass incarceration, domestic violence, state violence against black bodies, educational inequity,” she said. “Those are injustices that are most visible that we can connect with … and our immediate reaction is to respond to that which is most visible.”
Green the Church leaders see an ancient connection between black people and the environment, but it’s a connection that has been disrupted since slavery. The Rev. Dianne Glave, a United Methodist minister from Pennsylvania and author of Rooted in the Earth: Reclaiming the African American Environmental Heritage, said, “Going back to Africa, before the Middle Passage, all parts of life were integrated into African spirituality, and that included nature.” Glave, who led a worship service at the summit, also pointed to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s support of a strike by Memphis sanitation workers who toiled in dangerous, toxic conditions. She explained, “We’re seeing sort of a neo-slavery going on here in which people of color, specifically African-Americans, are exploited to clean up after people, to clean up people’s garbage.”
The Rev. Starsky Wilson, head of the Deaconess Foundation, a faith-based organization which aims to improve the health of children in St. Louis, said during the panel with Rocque that he also sees “black church apathy” in congregations comprised of middle-class African Americans, which have separated themselves “off of and away from poor black people” and have “become wholly and completely an apolitical body.”
He sees political efforts such as addressing environmental injustice as integral to the proper functioning of a black church. “The black church is a political entity … in the first place. And the integration of the theological concepts of care for the earth and the integration of [conversations] about marginalized people based upon Old Testament stories of those who were enslaved — that’s part of what it means to be a black church,” he said.
Even after the visit from the Green the Church bus tour, Willis, the garden founder, said she remained “frustrated with the black church — and churches period.”
“We have a lot to be concerned about,” she said. “If I had a pulpit, how about one morning coming down here and having service in the garden? How about that? How about having services in some of these vacant lots?” She continued, “You want to talk about the environment, let’s have church service on one of these lots—bring your own chair, bring your own snack. Let’s just look at what’s in our environment, and let’s pray that nobody gets shot while we’re sitting out here on this lot.”
Eric Berger is a journalist based in St. Louis and writes for Columbia Journalism Review, Religion News Service, the Riverfront Times and the St. Louis Jewish Light.