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Black Church Raises Flag on Green Crisis

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Photo Credit: Aaron Burden/Unsplash

Experts have long rung the climate change alarm, noting the impact that a warming planet might see. But right now in 2020 — with almost the entire Western United States on fire or seeing orange skies and breathing unhealthy, smoke-filled air — climate change has announced its inglorious arrival.

Green the Church is one of those groups that for years has been warning about the negative impact of a warming planet, and specifically how that would affect people of color, who too often live on the front lines of climate change. Add in the current social justice climate, and Kim Noble, chief operations officer for Green the Church — an initiative that amplifies the role of Black churches in the climate change discussion — feels there is something particularly important about the work she’s doing. 

As Noble sees it, COVID-19 and the rise of Black Lives Matter are contributors to a larger, perfect storm. The fact that Black and Brown people are disproportionately impacted by the coronavirus, according to Noble, is empirical evidence to support the claim that these communities are often relegated to living in areas with high pollution, making them particularly susceptible to respiratory diseases like COVID-19. At the same time, she said, the murder of George Floyd and the growth of the Black Lives Matter movement only further emphasize the issue of systematic racism in the country. 

“The murder of George Floyd was the polarizing moment,” said Noble. “You have slow death from pollution and rapid death at the hands of law enforcement. Injustices take on many shapes and forms and appearances, but still that very dark thread of racism runs through it all.”

When we talk about climate change, we don't talk about it in the sense of how is it affecting Black people now and how will it affect Black people in the future.

According to a 2020 study from the American Lung Association titled State of the Air, communities of color, especially African Americans, experience higher risk of harm due to air pollution. The study determined that approximately 74 million people of color live in cities with at least one failing grade of ozone pollution or particle pollution. Furthermore, a 2017 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine revealed that both ozone and particle pollution have been linked to lower life expectancy, which is most prevalent among low-income and self-identified racial minorities.

It’s for this reason, or the fact that many are perhaps understanding for the first time that racial justice is climate justice, that the work of Green the Church is especially resonant.

Founded in 2010 with the goal of creating a cadre of green church theologists to promote sustainable practices, Green the Church is no less important than it was 10 years ago, but is now helping people understand more closely the intersection between racial justice and climate justice.

Changing the Conversation

Green the Church was born when Rev. Dr. Ambrose Carroll, 51, was a fellow at Green for All, a movement that aims to build an inclusive green economy. At the time, in 2010, Carroll, who is now senior pastor at Church by the Side of the Road in Berkeley, California, had an idea to help Black faith leaders bring issues of sustainability and environmentalism into their congregations. Today, the organization has three main pillars surrounding the work they do: amplifying green theology, promoting sustainable practices, and fighting for economic and social change. 

Michelle Romero, national director of Green for All, feels the pandemic and the prevalence of Black Lives Matter is a wake-up call to the real issue of racism in this country. COVID-19, she explained, laid bare the inequalities of society. “People of color live near more pollution, which all leads to preexisting health conditions that would make COVID worse,” she said. “People also see racial unrest onscreen and are realizing we have a real crisis around race in America.” 

Carroll agrees that racism, climate change, and social justice are really all part of the same issue. “We don't have the luxury of splitting up conversations between environmental questions or social justice,” said Carroll. “It’s all one conversation.”

With upward of 1,000 congregations involved in Green the Church across the country, the organization is only expanding. While Green the Church’s annual summit — where the organization brings in industry experts and offers classes and church services for two days of programming — was canceled due to COVID-19, Green the Church is working toward expanding its digital community. Instead of one premier event, Green the Church is now holding more frequent webinars and capturing the stories of faith leaders and environmental activists in the Black community in the form of videos and blogs. 

The murder of George Floyd was the polarizing moment. You have slow death from pollution and rapid death at the hands of law enforcement.

One of those blogs featured the work of Green the Church movement member Tosha Phonix, 33, who is a Food Justice Organizer at the Missouri Coalition for the Environment, which helps battle food insecurity on the local level. 

“I fight for Black communities to have control of their own community through food system work,” she said. “I work with growers to be able to expand their operations to help feed our communities.”

Phonix, like many in the Green the Church movement and the Green for All initiative, recognizes that the connection between racial justice and climate change and Black Lives Matter is getting more attention at the national level, if not yet on the local level. 

She’s hesitant, however, to say that the conversation about racial equality and climate is changing. It has the potential to change, she said, but it has not yet. 

“When we talk about climate change, we don't talk about it in the sense of how is it affecting Black people now and how will it affect Black people in the future,” said Phonix. “I don't think the moment we are in is changing the conversation. But it can have the possibility to change the conversation.”

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