Flint, Michigan is a hard scrabble town. It has been for a while. Like many of its sister Rust Belt cities, it’s the kind of place where as soon as one problem is solved, another arises. In the 1980s, it was the departure of car manufacturing by GM and Cadillac from a town that was known as “Vehicle City.” In the 1990s, it was the rise of gang-related crime. In the 2000s, the city experienced multiple financial emergencies. And now, tap water in the city is laden with lead. All of this in a majority African-American city that still experiences significant segregation (as seen here).
Flint is, sadly, just the latest in a long line of African-American communities to be hit hard by environmental devastation. In the 19th century, the Great Dismal Swamp (bordering Virginia and North Carolina) was home to several free and refugee African-American communities known as “Maroon societies.” At that same time, the swamp’s ecosystem was being devastated by logging and construction practices that ultimately reduced the size of the wetland by as much as 90%. In the 20th century, Altgeld Gardens in Chicago was constructed as a housing community for African-American veterans of World War II. The community was surrounded by 53 toxic facilities and 90% of Chicago’s landfills – a location that led to excessive rates of cancer in adults and tumors in newborns. In the 21st century, we continue to witness the disproportionate impact of environmental devastation on African-American communities from New Orleans to Flint to Dickson, Tennessee. And that’s without even discussing the impact of environmental damage on Native Americans and Latinos.
I’m hardly the first person to make this point; Jim Wallis recently made this point as well (click here for the article). Still, we in the United Church of Christ have a particular history with challenging the phenomenon that we call “environmental racism.” We aren’t the only folks who use that phrase, but we had a key role in its development and dissemination (as you can see here). For years, our denomination has decried the injustices of environmental racism through advocacy. Yet communities of color (including African-American communities) continue to be devastated by environmental disasters like the situation in Flint. How might we, as local churches and individual people of faith, engage on this issue? According to a recent article by veteran political strategist Charles D. Ellison, environmental damage kills more African-Americans than police brutality. As Christians, is Jesus leading us to repent of our environmental sins, in order that folks in African-American communities like Flint aren’t disproportionately doomed to an early grave?
On Ash Wednesday, we in the church often read from the book of Isaiah, where the prophet calls us to “satisfy the needs of the afflicted.” I ask you: Who is more afflicted than Flint right now? And how might churches like our United Church of Christ rise up to satisfy their needs? Our Massachusetts Conference has promoted a Carbon Fast during the season of Lent to offset the effects of climate change. Many of our congregations have increased recycling in recent years to create less waste for landfills. I grew up around the oil and gas business, and I’m not interested in denigrating anyone for making a living in the energy business. I am, however, interested in how consumer demand for energy shapes our environment and hurts my neighbors. How else might we – the whole church – repent of our energy gluttony this Lent, so that communities like Flint might experience resurrection this Easter?
Rev. Dr. David Lindsey currently serves as the Senior Pastor of Little River United Church of Christ in Annandale, Virginia, in the Central Atlantic Conference.