The Black Church & Climate Change
TeleSUR’s The Global African looks at the role of the black church and how climate change affects people of color in the United States
BILL FLETCHER, HOST, THE GLOBAL AFRICAN: Today on The Global African, we’ll talk about the black church, and we’ll also look at the relationship between climate change activism and the black community.
That’s today on The Global Afrrican. I’m your host, Bill Fletcher. Thanks for joining us.
FLETCHER: The black church’s role as an agent for social justice has been well documented in U.S. history. Throughout various social movements, the black church has been instrumental in bringing about change.
Today on the program, we’ll discuss the black church, its complex past, and where it stands today.
We’re joined in the studio with the Reverend Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou. He studied continental philosophy at the New School, systematic theology at the Union Theological Seminary, religion at Harvard University, lectured throughout the country and abroad.
Welcome to The Global African.
REV. OSAGYEFO SEKOU, THEOLOGIAN AND ACTIVIST: It’s good to be here, dear brother. Good to see you.
FLETCHER: Absolutely. Absolutely.
The black church–you are an outspoken leader within black Christianity. How do you see in this moment with the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, where does the black church fit in or not?
SEKOU: Well, you know, about a week after the murder of Michael Brown, Phillip Agnew, one of the premier leaders to emerge in the kind of post-Trayvon era challenged me and said that Ferguson will determine whether or not the black church is still relevant. And so I’ve taken that question, and it has haunted and troubled me as we’ve tried to make some sense of it.
I mean, part of what we’re wrestling [incompr.] is a certain kind of mythology and nostalgia of the black church, right? Žižek makes his compelling argument that nostalgia is a form of mourning, because the present is unbearable and the future’s unforeseeable. And so the kind of nostalgia that we have around the black church in terms of every black pastor who’s over 40 participated in the civil rights movement is as deeply problematic. Nineteen fifty-eight through 1961, Martin Luther King has to leave the National Baptist Convention and create the Progressive Baptist Convention–
SEKOU: –because the conservative forces within the National Baptist Convention do not want civil rights to be part of an agenda, in part because John H. Jackson is closely tied to the Daley machine in Chicago.
And so this reality is that religion is as religions does. I can hear my professor James Cohen [spl?] say religion always shows up late.
And so if the–the black church is like hip hop: if the people are on the move, hip hop’s on the move; if the people are on the move, the black church is on the move.
And so the real question before us is: what are the ways in which religion, faith talk can provide some kind of existential weaponry in the face of deadly material conditions which often make a compelling argument for suicide? You know, Albert Camus’ meditation on suicide. I understand the conclusion, given the high level of devastation in Europe, given the way in which the church has been in cahoots with the powers, the way in which the vast majority of Christian churches in Continental Europe side with Hitler. And so he comes to this conclusion that we’re in this all by ourselves, there is nobody coming to save us, and the only meaning that we make is the meaning that we make.
And so those conditions are very similar to the conditions that we face an American now, when we look at the exponential increase in wealth to the top 1 percent, 40 percent of black babies living in poverty inside the United States of America, the high level of militarization, the high level of privatization, the gutting of the economy throughout the world.
The question is that can the church provide some kind of existential weaponry against these material conditions.
FLETCHER: Well, give me an answer to that.
SEKOU: I think the jury’s still out.
FLETCHER: Why? After all of these years, after–I mean, I think, first of all, your analysis about the mythology around the civil rights movement is absolutely on the money. I’d extend it, because I think the mythology’s not limited to the black church. I think that the mythology is–suggests that anybody over the–anyone black and over the age of 60 had been involved in the civil rights movement.
SEKOU: That’s right. That’s right.
FLETCHER: And half of them were at the March on Washington.
SEKOU: Yes, and the majority of them were on the bridge at Selma.
FLETCHER: That’s right. Exactly. So I’m with you.
But, like, at this moment–you know, so we’ve had black religious institutions–Christian, but also other faiths–that have played major roles in the black freedom movement since King. But at this particular moment, why is there even a question? Why isn’t there more leadership?
SEKOU: Well, I think the reality is is that we’ve also seen two generations of the unchurched, that there’s been a way in which young folks in particular have not had kind of relationships with the best of the black prophetic tradition, given the rise of prosperity theology, which mirrors the rise of the multinational corporation, and now the financialization of the market, and so that you see the mega-church or you see pastors not be pastors, but they’re CEOs, that they have stadiums and not sanctuaries.
And so, given these kind of architectural as well as theological formations that suggest that the black church and the most visible black church leaders in the country are those who subscribe to a certain form of conservatism, a certain form of capitalist rhetoric in which they’re reifying the market discourse, and then, lastly, given the fact that this is an unchurched generation, meaning that they do not have proximity to the best of the black prophetic tradition, there is something else at work.
And so, much of social movement is happening outside of traditional method, traditional spaces of resistance vis-à-vis, even though a small slice, of the black church. Right?
And so what we see emerging among young people is what kind of Durkheim calls a “collective effervescence”. Something happens when young people gather in the street and we protest together in the face of tanks and tear gas and rubber bullets and character assassination through the mainstream media, and that I would actually argue that it’s not what are the ways in which the black church are going to take leadership, but what are the ways in which the black church are going to acknowledge what’s happening in the street, and that a new form of leadership has emerged, which is largely queer, which is largely women-led, which is largely black poor.
And so, as a result of that, something else is happening. And the question is is: do we have the eyes to see and the ears to hear? Because I think that the black prophetic tradition, what Cornel West called the “black prophetic fire”, is at work in the streets of Baltimore, at work in the streets of Ferguson, at work in the streets of Madison, and at work in the streets of various places in which black bodies have been subject to the arbitrary violence and the people have risen up in response to it. And if the question is, can we read it, can we see it, can we acknowledge it, can we understand it, and admit that the days of [incompr.] gendered man leading us to the promised land are just over, right, that we’re not getting that, Martin Luther King it coming back, right, and so–but what we have is, you know, Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza, right, Opal, these three sisters, two of them queer, who gave us a language–black life matters.
And part of it is that the reason why I believe black life matters has taken off is because the first victory that a people must have is an existential victory, when they decide to stand up, and that–given that we needed a discursive intervention. And so these simple words, black life matters, right, well, a discursive intervention at the existential level, right, and so then if I’m reading, I’m attempting to do what I’m saying the church must do, I’m reading some religious discourse upon this moment, right, so if black life matters is the word, then Ferguson and Baltimore are the word made flesh. It is the embodiment and incarnation of a people trying to make sense of the world and articulate their dignity by simply saying–and seeming almost unnecessarily so, right–that black life matters.
And so, if we begin to read this moment with a certain religious sensibility for those of us who are Christian or Muslim or nonreligious, right–and also part of deconstructing the mythology is the reality James Lawson [spl?], who trained me and who trained the folks in Nashville, says, that in any city that they went to, less than 10 percent of churches participated. And so it was always socialist, communist, atheist, Jewish brothers and sisters, right? Fifty percent of those who went to the South were Jewish brothers and sisters, ’cause they knew something about oppression, that in that context that that has always been a multiracial, multi-contextual, multi-faith, no-faith coalition that broke the back of American apartheid, with black bodies at the center of the leadership.
FLETCHER: What role should the church play in helping to construct organization, helping to construct strategy? How does it promote united fronts?
SEKOU: Well, I think the role of the church may be defined in narrow Christian terms in three words, three ways: prophetic, priestly, and pastoral.
SEKOU: And let us begin with the prophetic, being able to articulate some form of moral discourse that attempts to keep track of the suffering of the most vulnerable. Right? So Matthew 25:35: for such what you’ve done unto the least of these, so you have done it unto me. So it’s a mandate in the biblical text to have to some concern about the prison-industrial complex. When I was in prison, you visited me, right? So in that those who are hungry, when I was hungry you fed me, right? And so in that sense, that–so I think that is the prophetic, to treat the needs of the people as holy, right; those who suffer, not as an appendage, not as a committee, but it’s central to the life of the church is to treat the needs of the people of holy.
Pastoral in the sense that we have buildings, right? In places like Baltimore, there’s literally a church, sometimes two churches on every corner, but there’s devastation surrounding it, right? And so, what are the ways in which we open our sanctuaries and spaces when people are being tear gassed and targeted and hunted by the police? Can we open our sanctuaries and be able for young people to come into those? And we saw some of that in Baltimore. The churches fed people. I think Metropolitan United Methodist Church, pastored by the great Eric Wellington King, fed over 1,500, right, when the schools were closed or churches open. So they can serve in terms of pastoral. And then also to be able to help people make some sense of this, given the high level of PTSD that our communities have dealt with, at a slow level, but has heightened in these acts when the people rise up in uprisings when someone is killed and then the state represses them. And then–so that’s the pastoral.
And then the priestly, that we have–for me, part of my position as a keeper of the tradition of the black church is that I should be able to bury my people with dignity. And so how do we form our ritual in such a way to remind people of their humanity, to remind them that there is something bigger than this? It may not necessarily be connected to a holy other from any forces in our communities and in our struggle, but it is to say that there is something about when we break bread together, there is something about the ritual, this obsession with a first-century Palestinian who was born to a single mother in an important part of the world among unimportant people, who died, and his followers believed that he defeated the empire. And so, how do our rituals reflect that story?
FLETCHER: Let me ask one final question, but it’s a big one. So you’re–.
SEKOU: Like you’re prone to asking small questions.
FLETCHER: There you go.
You are suggesting what sounds to me like a neoliberation theology. And the theology that you represent and is represented by a number of other very important people is in contention with a very different kind of theology. You mentioned it before, the theology of getting rich, the theology of passivity, the theology of entertainment, if I may.
SEKOU: Yeah, yeah.
FLETCHER: And so you have these humongous churches that people attend and where they are encouraged, essentially, to get rich. How does the struggle around these two very different versions of theology, how does it take place, and how should it take place?
I think the reality is in the strengthening of social movements. So, in the strengthening of social movements, as the social movements get stronger, they create the space that–you know, I’m paraphrasing Martin Luther King. Social movements create–are their thermostats. They set the political climate. And so once the political climate of resistance is set, right, so it’s not like white liberal churches had black life matters signs outside their church before Ferguson. Right? That happened because the movement, the people in the street, young people, lumpen, the black lumpenproletariat setting the political agenda for America, we haven’t seen that kind of resistance since the slave rebellions, right, where the lumpen are setting their terms of the political discourse. And so, as the people are on the move, the churches are going to respond in the best way that they can.
And I have to admit, you know, sometimes, Brother Bill, sometimes I feel like a missionary to Christianity, trying to save it from itself, that I quite honestly don’t have much hope in the church. I got hope in young people, though, and that, you know, I recently resigned from my position as the pastor for formation and justice at the First Baptist Church in Jamaica Plain–great place, doing amazing work. But I’m going to try something out in the street. I’m going to see if there are some young people I can stand alongside, engage in some ritual way, and support, that the sanctuary of the street, the communion of protest might be the place where we can experiment with some revolutionary nonviolence that is about radically transforming America, breaking the back of the American empire, articulating an anti-capitalist vision, a anti-homophobic vision, an anti-sexist vision, a kind of transnational queer, womanist, internationalism that is anti-imperialist and an anti-capitalist. And so I think that part of it is that I think the street might be the place. I could be wrong, but we’ll see.
FLETCHER: We’ll see. Reverend Sekou.
SEKOU: Thank you, dear brother. It’s always a blessing.
FLETCHER: Always, always, always. Thank you so much.
And thank you for joining us for this segment of The Global African. I’m your host, Bill Fletcher. And we’ll be back in a minute. Stay tuned.
FLETCHER: An article from The Nation magazine states that 68 percent of African Americans live within 30 miles of a coal-fired power plant and communities of color breathe in nearly 40 percent more polluted air than do whites. When it comes to the safety and health of the black community, they aren’t taken into consideration by U.S. policymakers. A study by the NAACP’s environmental justice and climate change initiative found numerous cases of blacks being dismissed and even falling victim to a failure on the part of policymakers to enforce environmental regulations. Climate change advocacy groups have a role to play in addressing environmental concerns, but oftentimes they do not feature many voices of color.
With black perspectives missing from the climate change discussion, a hole is exposed in the climate justice movement. How do we address these fundamental issues?
That is what we’re going to discuss in our next segment.
We’re joined by Leslie Fields, who is the national environmental justice director at the Sierra Club.
Leslie, welcome to The Global African.
LESLIE FIELDS, NATIONAL ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE DIRECTOR, SIERRA CLUB: Thank you so much. I’m honored to be here. Thank you, Bill.
FLETCHER: It’s our honor.
I want to start with a big question. For years, if you think about the rise of the more modern environmental movement as with the emergence of Earth Day, in that period of time, almost 50 years, the appearance of the environmental movement and the way that it is often thought of is as a white movement. Yet when we look at the statistics, people of color, and black folks in particular–well, not just black folks in particular; people of color are disproportionately affected by the departmental crisis. Why this disconnect?
FIELDS: That’s a great question, Bill, and mainly because when the modern environmental movement started in 1970s, think back of where things were–what was going on back then. And those folks at the Sierra Club–Sierra Club was a club. You had to be invited into the club. And so those folks, upper middle-class white folks, they already had their good representation, they already had their good housing, they already had their good education and all these things from an upper middle-class life. And African Americans and other people of color were still struggling for these things. That doesn’t mean we didn’t care about the environment. We come from the land. Most of our–many of our grandparents, many of our ancestors were farmers or go back to land. I learned how to fish with my grandparents. We grew up fishing. We still fish off my brother’s boat. But you didn’t have to be in a club. And so the formalized environmental movement grew up at that time because those folks actually really had the luxury of doing that. And the struggles of people of color, and African-Americans in particular, were still very much about place-based issues as well, but they’re about also getting our representation, getting schools, all the school desegregation. All that was going on at that time. It was very time-consuming.
FLETCHER: In 1991, this changes to a great extent with the Environmental Justice Conference.
FLETCHER: Can you just give a summary of what happened? How did that come together?
FIELDS: Well, it had been brewing for a very, very long time. The issues of the urban environment, the issues of pesticides in the rural environment, you know, Cesar Chavez, United Farm Workers, I mean, they worked very hard on the issues of pesticide exposure, particularly for children and people working in the fields. But in the urban environment, we started to see really where these environmental injustices, these impacts, these facilities had been sited in communities of color. It wasn’t by accident or osmosis; it was due to the fact that we had segregation in our country and then a discriminatory land use.
So, starting–I mean, it had been going on for a while. And if you look at places like Cancer Alley in Louisiana, between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, 50 miles, these petrochemical chemical plants had been sited in that community, which was predominantly African-American. Those folks didn’t go anywhere after slavery was ended. And so–because of less political power, but really because of race. And so all over the country there are all these areas. And the land is cheaper. And there were jobs for a while, but those jobs have been mechanized–they’ve gone away. And so people have become sick. Then they also put–and they realized their children were sick, their schools were sited on toxic dumps and near toxic facilities. And they started coming together. And in 1991 in Washington, D.C., was the first People of Color Leadership Summit, and out of that came the principles of environmental justice.
And the best part about it is that the people are devising solutions for themselves and they’re engaged on all these different levels–local, state, federal, international. And the climate crisis is–as the national security community says, climate change exacerbates all other inequalities. Alright? So if you’ve already got your terrible water situation, if you have where you’re seeing all kinds of critters and all kinds of insects, the disease vectors, more mosquitoes, we’re having more malarial borne diseases. And if you’re in a community like that, you’re going to see that. If you’re in a community with a high concentration of polluting facilities, the asthma rates are high, you’re going to see a lot of people suffering from asthma and respiratory problems. The number-one reason our kids miss school is because of asthma.
FLETCHER: African-American kids?
FIELDS: Yes, African-American kids, is because of asthma, which means then, of course, they get behind, they fall behind, they stay behind. And all the problems that we’re seeing in our cities–we’re here in Baltimore–these children who have been exposed to lead, to all the polluting, to all the greenhouse gases, and the heat island effect because it’s gotten warmer now. With everything, we’re just cooking, okay, we’re getting fried in the pan here. And all of that is contributing to our health and the mental stress of being where people–those people tend not to have health insurance, access to health care, and all of these things combined create all sorts of problems. Parents miss work, which means there’s worker productivity issues, might lose their jobs, or they couldn’t go back to work, they couldn’t get another shift because they’re sitting in the emergency room with their kids. So it’s a very serious problem. And it’s just very much exacerbated whatever inequalities exist.
FLETCHER: We were talking earlier about a particular struggle in Baltimore. And I was sort of struck by that. If you could just give a snapshot of what that was.
FIELDS: So much is going on in Baltimore. Baltimore’s amazing. There–speaking of young people, there is a group of young people down in South Baltimore. It’s called Curtis Bay. And they found out that there was going to be an incinerator put next to their school. And they went door to door and created a campaign and beat back that incinerator. And the group is called Free Your Voice. And a lot of folks have helped them, including, I know, the Maryland Sierra Club and some unions. But, yeah, it’s right down–because that area–. The Panama Canal has been widened, so all these port cities are now getting–or their ports are being widened and widened, with more impacts, more truck traffic, more rail traffic because of these containers. Baltimore is a sea–it’s a deep port. It’s one of the few on the East Coast. So they’re widening the other ports to compete. Meanwhile, this port is expanding, and they’re expanding into these communities, and it’s very scary because you have chemical trains. You don’t know what’s on these trains. You don’t know. With the coal trains, the coal’s blowing off like you see in Hampton Roads. Those people are constantly covered in coal dust down there.
And so, as the ports get wider ’cause of globalization, the communities all over the world that are in these port communities are seeing these impacts of these mobile sources. And then, additionally, because that land now has been zoned for industrial use, even though there are people living there–and why is that? ‘Cause of discriminatory land-use policies from back in the day–they’re getting impacted. And these young people said, we’re not going to have this, because this impacts our development as human beings, and their development to contribute to society is being impacted.
And now they have this great win. So that’s–it’s very exciting and it’s very inspiring. Right here in Baltimore.
FLETCHER: Leslie Fields from the Sierra Club, thank you very much.
FIELDS: Thank you very much, Bill.
FLETCHER: And thank you very much for joining us for this episode of The Global African. I’m your host, Bill Fletcher. And we’ll see you next time. Take care.
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