Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. served as pastor and his funeral was held, has been a leader in a growing movement among American Black churches to embrace environmental activism.
The current pastor, the Rev. Raphael Warnock, a Democrat, is making climate change and environmental justice part of his campaign against Sen. Kelly Loeffler, a Republican and former business executive.
Loeffler is trying to hold onto the seat that Gov. Brian Kemp appointed her to a year ago. The Jan. 5 runoff is one of two closely contested races in Georgia that will determine control of the Senate and, potentially, the direction of climate policy in the United States.
If he wins, Warnock could bring an environmental justice focus to a chamber in which he would be one of only three Black members.
In matters of faith and climate, Warnock could also provide a counterweight to Republican senators more aligned with the party’s white evangelical Christian base, which largely rejects mainstream climate science.
“I could imagine he could be a tremendous resource,” said Dianne M. Stewart, an associate professor of religion and African American studies at Emory University in Atlanta.
“He could offer an intelligent perspective or analysis that is theologically informed, if that is called for, that would challenge many of the positions that certain right wing evangelicals have taken on climate change,” said Stewart, who studied with Warnock at the Union Theological Seminary in the 1990s. “The question is, will he prioritize that?”
Warnock declined an interview request but provided a written statement, in which he said it was “past time” to ameliorate “environmental wrongs and provide communities on the frontlines of our climate crisis a voice and a means to fight back against the pollution that threatens their children and families.”
Achieving “true justice for Black and Brown communities in Georgia and across the country,” he said in the statement, requires addressing “historic shortcomings by placing equity and justice at the center of federal climate and environmental policy.
He added, “In the U.S. Senate, I look forward to being a strong partner in that work.”
Loeffler’s media staff did not return requests for an interview or comment on climate or on environmental justice matters. In a Dec. 3 debate with Warnock, Loeffler repeatedly attacked Warnock as a “radical liberal.”
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A history of environmental activism
Some Black pastors and their churches have been engaged in environmental issues for decades. They were the driving force behind environmental justice struggles in the 1980s and 1990s, fighting toxic dumps or chemical plants in their communities, without much help from white-led environmental groups.
“They were trying to answer the question of why their environment was not as protected as other people’s environment,” said the Rev. Michael Malcom, founder and executive director of the Alabama People’s Justice Council and Alabama Interfaith Power and Light, both faith-based justice groups.
The landmark 1987 report on toxic waste and race by a United Church of Christ commission, led by the Rev. Benjamin Chavis Jr., a civil rights activist who had once worked with King, documented “an insidious form of racism.” The report found that race was a major factor in the location of toxic dumps.
The movement in Black churches has accelerated in recent years. And there has been a growing focus on climate change and climate justice, because it’s often low-income communities and communities of color that face the biggest risks from increasingly extreme weather.
“Not only are we having to deal with the direct impacts such as flooding, such as hurricanes, but we also have to deal with the direct impact of the pollution that is causing climate change,” said Malcom, the environmental justice minister for the Southeast Conference of the United Church of Christ. “This is happening to us now, and it happened to us historically, and it’s been ignored.”
With religion and climate change, it has always been important to recognize who is being disproportionately affected, said Laurel Kearns, professor of ecology, society and religion at the Drew University Theological School. And that is often those who have the fewest choices of where to live.
Too often that means flood zones, next to oil refineries, chemical plants or toxic waste dumps, or in urban heat islands, where living conditions can be much hotter than in the leafy surrounding areas.
As a result, Black churches are more likely to frame climate and environmental issues in terms of public health, because that is where the impact is most immediately felt, Kearns added.
She and other religion experts draw connections between Black churches’ growing interest in environmental and climate justice and this year’s social unrest over police brutality and economic inequity, the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and the disproportionate toll of the coronavirus pandemic among Black communities.
“Environmental injustices have been around a long time,” said Tina Spencer-Smith, administrative minister at Zion Hill Baptist Church in Atlanta, and an expert in environmental policy and religion. “Atrocities against people of color have been in this country since slavery. It hasn’t gone away. The face of injustice just changes.”
‘Faith was at the heart of it’
Globally, religious leaders and organizations of various faith traditions have weighed in on climate change as a moral challenge, and they were especially vocal in advance of the signing of the Paris climate agreement five years ago this month.
Pope Francis, for example, addressing 1.2 billion Roman Catholics around the world, wrote in his influential 2015 teaching document, ‘Laudato Si,’ that climate change “represents one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day,” whose “worst impact will probably be felt by developing countries in coming decades.”
Leaders of several Black church denominations also released a statement that year, focusing it on President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan to corral greenhouse gas emissions from coal-powered electricity generation—a rule that the Trump administration replaced with weaker power plant regulations.
In their statement, the Black faith leaders described climate change as “one of the greatest public health challenges of our time, particularly for black and other marginalized communities.”
The statement continued, “We affirm the natural world as God’s handiwork and dedicate ourselves to its preservation, enhancement, and faithful use by humankind.”
One prominent Black pastor has acknowledged that he was slow to understand that there was a faith imperative to climate change.
“Ten years ago, I could have cared less about climate change,” said the Rev. Gerald L. Durley, a retired long-time pastor of the Providence Missionary Baptist Church in Atlanta, in a Dec. 8 Union of Concerned Scientists discussion on faith, climate and justice.
Durley, who was a student civil rights leader in the 1960s, is the national chairman of Interfaith Power & Light, which works to move people of faith to act on climate change.
“My life was always around civil and human rights, starting with Dr. King in 1959,” Durley said.
But, he added, he came to realize that “God gave us a balanced planet” and that “We are commanded to keep the environment clean” and to fight for environmental justice where companies put profit over people.
“In the civil rights movement, we understood that faith was at the heart of it,” Durley said, noting that science and facts can only get people so far in solving the problems of climate change.
“We are at that point with the climate,” he said. “We have to go back to what is really real—the connection to a deity that is greater than any of us.”
Green the church
Black church leaders continue to take their own approach to climate and the environment.
One example comes from Green the Church, an initiative of Carroll Ministries International, led by the Rev. Ambrose Carroll Sr., the senior pastor at the Church by the Side of the Road in Berkeley, California. Green the Church is working to create church communities committed to promoting sustainable practices and helping to build economic and political change.
Carroll said about 1,000 Black churches are participating, including Ebenezer Baptist.
Part of what Green the Church does, Carroll said, is to tap into ways of thinking about religion that connect with an African spirituality that is closer to the land; values the idea of doing more with less; and has a connection to wilderness or wild places.
“In African theological concepts, there is no dichotomy between the sacred and the secular,” Carroll said. “Everything is sacred.”
He added that, coming out of slavery, “there was a theology of escapism, that this world isn’t my home, or ain’t my home …. Because the world is an evil place and when we die, we will go to mansions in the sky.”
As a practical matter, church communities that participate in Green the Church, often located in food deserts, are growing healthy food in gardens or connecting Black farmers with churches. They are also cleaning and retrofitting church buildings to make them healthier and more energy efficient; inspiring children to pursue education in science, technology, engineering, agriculture or mathematics; and working for political and economic change without leaving Black people behind, he said.
“We can move from a dirty energy economy to a clean energy economy and people who are poor and impoverished can still be poor and impoverished,” he said.
Carroll said Warnock knows “These are not side issues. These are what people need, if we are going to be free.”
He added, “You cannot be a free people if you do not know how to free yourself.”
A new recognition
At Ebenezer Baptist, starting in the 2000s, Atlanta engineer and sustainability entrepreneur Garry Harris transformed the church’s singles program into an environmental ministry. Participants created community gardens, distributed efficient light bulbs, held workshops on energy and the environment and performed energy efficiency upgrades in the church.
Harris brought decades of experience in the energy field to the ministry he led for more than a decade, including working in the nuclear power industry and as a federal regulator.
“We were trying to care for God’s creation,” said Harris, who no longer leads the Ebenezer ministry and now works with other churches and organizations in Atlanta and elsewhere on environmental justice and sustainability. The church’s ministry “recognized that ecosystems are connected, and if we harm one, we can harm many.”
Ebenezer Baptist partnered with the Clinton Foundation and other organizations in 2016 to make the church more energy efficient and to help congregants adopt energy efficiency at home.
And last year, Warnock hosted an interfaith meeting on climate change at Ebenezer Baptist with former Vice President Al Gore and the Rev. William Barber II with the national Poor People’s Campaign.
Tameka Bell, a spokeswoman for the church, said the environment ministry is now part of the church’s social justice ministry. For 2021, she said, there are plans to make sure its work acknowledges the imperative of being good stewards of the earth, and to advocate for marginalized communities who experience harm from pollution and other forms of environmental racism.
Harris said that, in general, “Rev. Warnock was supportive of our initiatives,” and added that he was pleased to see the pastor embrace climate and environmental justice in his campaign.
“He is well-positioned to be an advocate (and) to put his real true power to work that he witnessed in his own church,” Harris said.
Nationally, Harris said, with increasing heat, sea level rise, stronger and more dangerous hurricanes and other extreme weather, climate change is penetrating the walls of Black churches in ways it has never done before.
“Finally, pastors are talking about climate change,” he said.