Moving beyond creation care to address environmental justice

From its founding in 1868 as a parish to serve formerly enslaved people, St. Ambrose Episcopal Church has borne physical witness to the gifts and challenges of place.

The Raleigh, North Carolina, church was first located in Smoky Hollow, an area near downtown set aside for freed Blacks where few people wanted to live, because — as the name described — it lay in a valley polluted by smoke from passing trains.

In 1900, when the city decided it needed the church’s land for a mill, St. Ambrose was forced to move its building, rolling it on logs a mile south.

In the early 1960s, St. Ambrose moved again, to follow a growing Black community hemmed in by housing restrictions. Many of the families had relocated to a community called Rochester Heights about two miles to the southeast.

historic Ambrose images
St. Ambrose painting by C.N. Drie from 1872 at the Lane and Dawson Street location. The St. Ambrose Church building at the S. Wilmington and Cabarrus Street location.

The only site where the city allowed the church to build, though, was in a flood plain. Walnut Creek, which ran through the area, was prone to overflowing its banks. Worse, the city had dumped raw sewage into the creek for almost 70 years before St. Ambrose constructed its new building alongside it. The city had stopped that vile practice, but the area was such a mess that some people had begun using the creek and surrounding land as an unofficial dumping ground.

St. Ambrose’s history has made it very open to the environmental justice movement, said the Rev. Jemonde Taylor, the rector of the 400-member church.

“We were born out of environmental injustice,” Taylor said. “The city dumped sewage; [others] dumped garbage. Then they dumped Black people.”

Among the church’s efforts was the creation of Episcopalians for Environmental Justice in 1996. The nonprofit group involved itself with cleaning up the creek and surrounding wetlands. Taylor said they removed tires, refrigerators, medical equipment, even cars.

St. Ambrose and Raleigh skyline
A aerial view of St. Ambrose in foreground with Walnut Creek and wetlands in midground, and downtown Raleigh in background.

The church sees such work as part of a biblical mandate to be good stewards of the Earth, combined with commands to atone for sin, Taylor said.

“For us, this has not been just a theological exercise; it’s survival.”

Toward environmental justice

St. Ambrose is at the forefront of efforts to get Christians more involved in environmental causes. Often called creation care, such efforts include advocating for policies to stem climate change, encouraging recycling and a green lifestyle, and preventing and cleaning up pollution.

The fight for environmental justice emerges amid the growing struggle in faith communities to recognize and atone for the church’s role in systemic oppressions. In this case, the movement works to ensure that environmental hazards do not fall disproportionately on communities left vulnerable by discrimination and oppressive policies.

Among indigenous communities, for example, deeply grounded religious commitments to the earth continue to be undermined by ongoing harms rooted in colonial abuses. Just last month, the Supreme Court’s ruling against the Navajo Nation regarding water rights that must be negotiated with the state of Arizona has day-to-day implications for the one-third of families on the reservation who lack access to clean, piped water. An already existing crisis there has been exacerbated by a regional drought.

How does the interconnected harm of climate emergency and environmental injustice show up in the landscape of your church or the nearby land? How can your congregation participate in its healing?

Leaders in environmental justice efforts say they are making progress but that their message isn’t always easily accepted. A public opinion poll taken in April 2022 by Pew Research Center threw light on the challenges.

The poll asked respondents how they felt about this statement: “God gave humans a duty to protect and care for the Earth.” Christians overwhelmingly agreed; 92% of those who described themselves as highly religious (those who pray each day, regularly attend religious services and consider religion very important in their lives) expressed support.

But that same survey found surprisingly weak support among Christians for fighting climate change. Only 42% of the highly religious agreed with the statement “Climate change is an extremely/very serious problem.” And only 39% agreed with a core belief of climate change activists: “The Earth is getting warmer because of human activity.”

How could religious people care so much about the Earth but be so unconcerned about climate change? The seeming contradiction is explained by a likely suspect: politics.

As the survey narrative explained: “Highly religious Americans are more inclined than others to identify with or lean toward the Republican Party, and Republicans tend to be much less likely than Democrats to believe that human activity (such as burning fossil fuels) is warming the Earth or to consider climate change a serious problem.”

Who are our sources for wisdom in addressing racialized environmental injustice as we face a new climate reality that confronts all people with impacts of unsustainable pollution?

Avery Davis Lamb
Avery Lamb

An expression of faith

The Pew Research Center results did not surprise Avery Lamb, co-executive director of Creation Justice Ministries, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that “educates, equips and mobilizes” Christian congregations and communions “to protect, restore and rightly share God’s creation.” Lamb said he often encounters the impact of politics in his work.

“The biggest difficulties we encounter are our own Christian siblings who have not come to understand environmental justice or creation care as an expression of their faith,” Lamb said.

He said he is sometimes asked what denomination is easiest to work with. “You know, it hardly ever plays out by specific denomination or specific theological tradition,” Lamb said. “It certainly plays out in terms of congregations that trend red or blue, especially when it comes to climate change. … Climate change is politically fraught in this country, and that doesn’t stop when you enter the church.”

Environmental justice seems to be one of the biggest hills to climb for faith leaders in the creation care movement, especially because talking about it brings up potentially divisive concepts such as systemic racism.

Similar to Pew’s seemingly contradictory findings on environmental issues, polling by the market research firm Ipsos in late 2021 showed a disconnect among people of faith on race and racism.

Mitch Hescox
The Rev. Mitchell C. Hescox

Language and politics as sticking points

Even language can make the work a particularly difficult sell, said the Rev. Mitchell C. Hescox.

“We don’t use the term ‘environmental justice,’” he said. “It has become a loaded progressive talking point in today’s world. What we talk about instead is bringing about fairness to front-line communities.”

As president of the Evangelical Environmental Network, Hescox travels the country spreading the message that people of faith have a special obligation to save the Earth and be kind to the environment. The Pennsylvania-based organization equips and mobilizes evangelical Christians to reclaim “the Biblical mandate to care for creation” and work toward “a stable climate and a healthy, pollution-free world,” according to its website.

Even in conservative communities, Hescox has had success convincing people of faith to be more concerned about the environment, he said. His most effective argument focuses on the impact of climate change on the next generation. “Everybody is concerned with their children and their grandchildren,” he said.

Environmental injustice does not happen only in communities populated by people of color, Hescox said. He noted that any community close to highways and factories or near mining operations, like some parts of Appalachia, can suffer serious health consequences from environmental factors.

Groups in the creation care movement often find success when environmental issues hit close to home. But not all churches feel the impact of environmental problems in their backyards. Across town from St. Ambrose, Greystone Baptist Church is in a mostly white neighborhood that is one of Raleigh’s most upscale areas and has never experienced the kind of human-caused environmental problems that the Episcopal parish has.

Chrissy Tatum Williamson
The Rev. Chrissy Tatum Williamson

In May 2022, the Rev. Chrissy Tatum Williamson, Greystone’s senior pastor, gave a series of three sermons focusing on creation care. “I think it was the first time that we have spent three weeks on a topic that wasn’t what folks would think of as a traditional theological or ecclesiastical topic,” she said.

One sermon focused on the impact of Earth’s rising temperature. Warning the church to “buckle your seat belts” as she began, Williamson said people of faith must “repent and change the way we live.”

She concluded: “We have broken our covenant with God, the one that was given at creation when God gave us the Earth and called us to be stewards of the Earth, and the one that was renewed after the flood.”

As part of the series, Greystone took surveys of the congregation and had group discussions to get reaction. “I think it was received very well,” Williamson said of her congregation, which she describes as “theologically and politically diverse.”

Christian McIvor, the church’s minister of worship, music and the arts, agreed: “There was no pushback whatsoever.”

Williamson and McIvor note that a green lifestyle is well accepted at the church — for instance, recycling bins are prominent, and there is a composting operation out back.

But McIvor added that the church has not delved deeply into potentially more controversial topics. “To start thinking about the systemic nature of environmental injustice …that might raise some questions,” he said.

Healing and resurrection

St. Ambrose’s Taylor acknowledged that it’s easier for members of his church to embrace the environmental justice cause because of its location and history. For some congregations, creation care measures like installing solar panels and energy-saving devices are “cute,” he said. “If you didn’t do those things, your church would be OK. That’s not our reality.”

Taylor and Walnut Creek
The Rev. Jemonde Taylor at Walnut Creek.

St. Ambrose has adopted such measures; the church has installed sun-blocking windows and water-saving toilets. But the most important work it has done, he said, has been cleaning up the nearby creek and surrounding wetlands.

“If we had not acted, this church would have been washed off its foundation,” Taylor said.

He said another factor is the vocal support from Episcopal Church leaders. The Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina has made creation care one of its five mission strategy priorities.

“When the top is talking like that, that sets the tone,” Taylor said.

The emphasis on creation care comes from the very top of the Episcopal Church. Presiding Bishop Michael Curry “made it really clear from the very start” that environmental justice would be an important focus for the church, according to the Rev. Melanie Mullen, the denomination’s director of reconciliation, justice and creation care.

How do individual green lifestyle choices mask our collective responsibility to address systemic environmental injustices? How do they inspire collective action?

st. ambrose and water measures
Water from the gutter above fills a cistern at St. Ambrose (left). Water level monitoring stations have been installed along the trail to warn of rising waters in an area prone to flooding.

In 2017, the Episcopal Church began distributing grants for environmental projects around the country; since then, it has given out more than $800,000, Mullen said.

Projects with an environmental justice component are strong contenders for the grants, she said.

“We kind of lean into something we’re learning to express — we don’t give money for gardens,” she said, chuckling. “But we do encourage people to think seriously about relationships. The themes that we teach in racial relations we take seriously in environmental care. It’s great that you have a plan for solar panels or planting an orchard, but we ask that you show us that the grant works toward equity as well.”

The Episcopal Church has adopted a creation care covenant, and one of the pillars of that covenant is “liberating advocacy,” which the church describes in this way: “For God’s sake, standing alongside marginalized, vulnerable peoples, we will advocate and act to repair Creation and seek the liberation and flourishing of all people.”

“I think everyone’s learning to speak a language and acknowledge that there’s a commonality,” Mullen said. “We are stewards of this Earth, and we have to take care to leave no one behind. Our struggles are the Earth’s struggles. We come from different places, but everyone has to realize that in caring for the Earth, we are united.”

What can church leaders do to prioritize the climate emergency in the ministry of the church?

For Taylor, healing is an essential element of St. Ambrose’s environmental efforts. The church has made significant progress in abating the abuses of the past. Dumping has “subsided substantially” since cameras were affixed to light poles near the creek, he said. On a recent visit, the creek’s waters were clear and flowed freely; the banks were thick with vegetation.

“Having a resurrected wetlands heals the community from a mental and emotional standpoint,” he said. “I frame it through the lens of the resurrection. … The wetlands have been a victim of sin against God, against other people, against the land and against ourselves.”

The creek and the community may never be perfect, he said. But “as Christians, we hold up that vision of hope and work to make that more of a reality, realizing that we will not reach perfection until the second coming of Christ and the resurrection of the dead.”

How are environmental and racial injustices linked in your community? How can your congregation work with others in the community to hold these injustices together?

green wetlands
A birdhouse for waterfowl in the wetlands near St. Ambrose.

Questions to consider

  • How does the interconnected harm of climate emergency and environmental injustice show up in the landscape of your church or the nearby land? How can your congregation participate in its healing?
  • Who are our sources for wisdom in addressing racialized environmental injustice as we face a new climate reality that confronts all people with impacts of unsustainable pollution?
  • How do individual green lifestyle choices mask our collective responsibility to address systemic environmental injustices? How do they inspire collective action?
  • What can church leaders do to prioritize the climate emergency in the ministry of the church?
  • How are environmental and racial injustices linked in your community? How can your congregation work with others in the community to hold these injustices together?

When Ambrose Carroll started Renewal Worship Center in Colorado in 2009, it was the first intentionally environmentally friendly inner-city African American congregation.

Talking about ecology, clean energy and better food systems wasn’t “an additional conversation,” Carroll said. “It was the meat of the matter.”

To prove that his church wasn’t alone, Carroll founded Green The Church as a repository and catalyst for stories about Black churches becoming environmentally conscious, and he is seeing stories spreading about how individual churches are getting excited about environmental justice, food sovereignty, public health and conservation.

One of the keys to helping grow the conversation about environmental issues, Carroll said, is to make sure Black churches can talk about it in their own terms and in the context of their own history.

In addition to his work in Green The Church, Carroll is the senior pastor at Renewal Worship Center, now in Oakland, California.

He spoke with Faith & Leadership’s Chris Karnadi about the organization and how to break down walls in talking about environmental issues in the Black church context. The following is an edited transcript.

Faith & Leadership: What are some good ways to begin the conversation about making a church eco-friendly?

Ambrose Carroll: I think that we begin at the beginning. Theologically, I’m from the Black church, and in the traditional Baptist churches where I’m from, the pulpit is dead in the middle of the sanctuary; preaching is central. What we preach about, how we incorporate Scripture, how we incorporate that theology is a good place to start. To start, not in terms of what’s outside your own experience, but to start within the confines of your own experience.

For us, we talk about amplifying green theology. We spent a lot of time with academics and others, making sure that we understood the Bible and lived liberation theology. [Now] it’s part of our everyday communication in talking to individuals in communities that are in the midst of environmental injustice.

Again, I think it’s always about attempting to meet people where they are. A lot of our congregations are big around youth ministry, and so then the question is, “How do we get the youth outside for the sake of being in nature?”

In my congregation, we did not do solar, but the congregation did grow food. But as the members individually heard green theology and that narrative preached, a large percentage of our members did solar on their own homes. A large amount of our members would report and tell us about their hikes, would tell us about their gardens at home. Some of our youth did their own recycling programs.

So I guess I’m saying that our language is not “environmentalism.” Our language has been language of “revival.” The old and decrepit can be made brand-new again. It’s creating our own tables, our own spaces, doing our own conservation and then interpreting that back to the majority culture that may not see us showing up around conservation.

F&L: What do you think are some of the barriers that churches might have to becoming eco-friendly?

AC: For Black churches, I think sometimes it lives in another dimension. It’s just not our conversation.

We live in a society that has systematically taken the responsibility for certain things away from our communities. To be Black in America, to a large degree, is to experience the effects of redlining and now gentrification. The ability to move freely as people has been taken away again and again, so we live in a place where the majority of us do not see ourselves as empowered players in the equation.

When we talk about where we live, we talk about what other folks do: “You know they put a new mall up down here?” or, “You know they moved the bank?” or, “You know they closed the Walgreens?” And then we start talking about food deserts, because for so long, we haven’t controlled our food systems.

The amount of Black farmland that has been stolen over the last hundred years, even the last fifty years, is atrocious. So conversations about how we eat, how we get our energy, how much land is being conserved in this country, when we have to live in very small places because there’s nowhere for us.

It’s hard to have conversations about land as African Americans in this country when we know that many [other people] came here in the 1900s — four or five hundred years after us — and received land from this nation.

These are things that become unspoken, that become unarticulated, so then when we begin to talk about it from the standpoint of, “Why aren’t you willing to stand up and change this?” it’s kind of dissonant, because that’s not where we live.

We don’t hold those controls. They do. So to bring us in a conversation that we have been intentionally kept out of — even though we don’t know the details, the reality of it is still epigenetically led without our DNA.

That, I think, becomes a part of it, and so we’re not talking about it through our own lens. We understand people saving whales and saving animals, and there are some things inside us that feel some kind of way about that. It is difficult to articulate, but the feeling is there’s more care and concern for other sentient beings than there is for human beings whose skin has been touched by nature’s sun. Those are the difficult nuances of this piece.

F&L: So there’s an importance to reframing the conversation from one about luxury to one about empowerment — that you get to choose, that you get to make your own food, that you get to make your own world?

AC: Yes. Which for people who have been held captive becomes a very revolutionary conversation, because we begin to talk about having as much food sovereignty as others.

I’ve got friends who saw trucks pull up in front of a restaurant early in the morning, and they saw them pull livestock out of the truck. They had pigs.

They pulled the pigs out whole and took them into the restaurant, and my friends were kind of appalled. But that’s because we’re used to getting our food at the supermarket, cut, chopped and wrapped up in plastic. But what we didn’t understand is that that community has its own food system.

It’s revolutionary to consider our food systems, because to talk about the fact that we ought to grow and control our food, we have to look at why we don’t and see how much land we’ve lost. And now, in order to have this conversation, we’ve got to talk about having back some of that land.

One reason that these things become hard to talk about is because our seniors are sons and daughters of men and women who left hundreds of acres of land in the South because they didn’t want to be lynched. When we start talking about wanting land and wanting those things, those become deep-seated wounds of reality — that really, we could be talking about things that may cost us our lives. All of that is wrapped up in these conversations of environmentalism and sustainability.

We talk about, in the Black church, that all of these conversations around empowerment and taking responsibility for the planet mean that now we have to raise questions. We have to do some historical criticism on how we came to be as we are and then ask, “What is our responsibility, and what is the cost of discipleship for attempting to take on that responsibility?”

F&L: What are some practical steps that the Black church could take in assessing how to make their own space more eco-friendly?

AC: Well, the first thing we do teach as Green The Church is really stewardship. It’s meeting with leaders and trustees. In the Black community, we may not own a lot of skyscrapers downtown, but we own a whole lot of faith buildings across the length and breadth of this country. Some of them are storefronts, and some of them are great cathedrals.

The reality is that our elders, that great generation, they bought property together. They sold chicken dinners and sweet potato pies. They had note-burning services. They paid those buildings off, and either their storefront or cathedral, they’re ours. But a lot of them need to be retrofitted so all of them can have clean air and clean water.

When churches become free members of Green The Church, we try to make sure all of them have energy audits. We want to make sure that all of your lighting, your heating systems, all of those things are up to par. Your windows, your insulation.

We give grants, small grants to congregations. We do seed funding. We’ve done it in the state of Missouri and in Illinois, where we would give a church $5,000 or $10,000 to not only do the energy audit but then to be able to make some course corrections as well. So that’s a very practical piece, and a piece that a lot of our congregations need help with.

I also am talking in every city and jurisdiction [I can], because as we move from a dirty energy economy to a clean energy economy, a lot of cities are saying they’re going to be totally electric by this year or that year, which means that a lot of the ovens and kitchen appliances and stuff that are held in these churches have to change. Very practically speaking, those are some first steps.

Then we move from energy efficiency to also believing that every church ought to be growing food on church-owned land, in whatever state, in whatever way. We want to make sure, then, that we’re having conversations about health, which is a very vibrant conversation, because of environmental realities and things like pollution and others.

We’re finding a lot of cancer, a lot of diabetes, so we’re talking about learning how to eat well in these food deserts, teaching ourselves again how to go back to eating practices that help us to live better. Those are big conversations.

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Over the past decade, a cadre of African American pastors have stepped up their commitment to environmental stewardship. One of the leaders of this movement is the Rev. Otis Moss III, the pastor of Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ.

After succeeding the Rev. Jeremiah Wright to become senior pastor of the 8,000-member South Side megachurch in 2008, Moss began to cast a vision for protecting the environment and retooling for resilience in the wake of climate change.

It wasn’t easy. Many church members grew up in an urban environment, far removed from that of their ancestors — many of whom were sharecroppers, and before that, worked the land as enslaved persons.

But over the past 12 years, Moss has led the church to plant the George Washington Carver community vegetable garden, which also teaches youth about gardening, and to start a Black farmers market.

Kids potting plants
The church’s environmental effort is a
multigenerational project.

He helped raise millions of dollars to build a green roof — covered in vegetation to absorb rainfall and regulate temperature — that also incorporates solar power. In 2017, he dedicated the site of a 27-acre “green” intergenerational community called Imani Village.

Faith & Leadership contributor Yonat Shimron talked to Moss about the challenges of reconnecting to the Earth and its habitat. The following is an edited transcript.

Faith & Leadership: When did you first make the connection between care for the environment and your calling as a minister?

Rev. Otis Moss IIIOtis Moss III: It began in connection with my home church in Cleveland, Ohio. I was at Olivet Institutional Baptist Church, where my father pastored. My father was from Georgia, right outside LaGrange. As the son of a sharecropper, he was tied to the land and had a special affinity for the land and what we would call today holistic health.

That continued with my relationship with my wife, who is also from the South. Her family had a deep tie to the land and the lessons she learned from her grandmother. They lived on a peanut farm. Part of her ethic was, “You take care of the land; the land takes care of you.”

Coming to Chicago, we realized the great migration had created a break. People who had deep connection to the land were disoriented and living in spaces of rapid urbanization. When we took hold of a piece of property across the street from the church to create a garden, that was a catalyst for us moving in a green and sustainable direction.

F&L: What was that piece of property like?

OM: It wasn’t much of anything — just a little lot. We turned that into a community garden with a small grant from a group called Faith in Place. We received another grant to train young people to be gardeners and hired a master gardener to be their teacher.

From there, we expanded to a farmers market and built a relationship with a coalition of African American farmers in Pembroke, Illinois. Pembroke is primarily a rural African American community where the first people of African descent migrated from North Carolina, prior to emancipation, for a better life.

We built a relationship with this community where you had fourth- and fifth-generation farmers living in this area.

Women working at a Farmer's Market
Environmental efforts at Trinity UCC have improved eating habits and helped build community.

From there, we made a decision to be a sustainable church.

When we reached the point where we needed to do a church renovation, we made the decision it would be a green renovation. We would seek to hire returning citizens who were formerly incarcerated. The contractors would be from our community.

Those were the principles we used: green, dismantling mass incarceration and economic empowerment.

F&L: Was it a hard sell for the congregation? Did you have to convince the board of directors?

OM: There’s a funny story around that. I remember the first presentation I gave to the congregation. It was pretty quiet. Many times when people are quiet, people are thinking to themselves, “I’m not going to support this, because I don’t understand what the minister is talking about.” They have to take it home and sit with it.

I went to go get my hair cut later that week, and my barber told me that one of the elders came into the barbershop and was fussing about the new minister and his church.

We had been talking about doing a green roof. The person in the barbershop was quite upset with me for wanting to put a putting green on top of the church.

When he heard “a green roof,” he only associated it with a putting green on top of the church. He didn’t have any concept of what a green roof was.

Because of that encounter, I went back to the board of directors and said, “We made a huge mistake. We have not educated the congregation appropriately. They have no idea what we’re talking about.”

From there, we instituted an education program with small groups, sharing, “What does green mean?

“Your grandmother was green because she had a quilt that recycled pieces of cloth. Your grandmother made gumbo, which is essentially a culinary form of recycling. Your grandmother grew food behind the house and you never went without.”

Once we did that and the elders had the language and vocabulary, it was easy to make the next step. They became the ambassadors for it: “We must go green. This is our responsibility and our heritage.”

F&L: Do you now encourage other churches?

OM: We do. I’ve been asked multiple times to give presentations about our work. Our community development corporation became evangelistic for green design, sustainable design and partnering with organizations that put to work people who are returning from prison.

We were part of the renovation for our local library, several blocks down the street, the Carter G. Woodson Regional Library. It’s a repository for African American literature in the Midwest.

The building was falling apart. We wanted a green renovation using people from the mass incarceration system and contractors from our community.

We were able to negotiate with the city — it was about 10 different organizations that got together — and we were able to receive $10 million from the state for a full-service renovation that was green.

It’s the crown jewel of our community. It’s a beautiful structure now that was built and organized by community partnership.

Then we purchased 27 acres down the street and we built a medical facility. We’re planning housing, along with an urban farm and workforce development with people coming out of mass incarceration, and a fitness facility. And the entire design, from the ground up, is a green design.

It’s in partnership with the Nature Conservancy, and we’re putting together what’s called a healing garden, which will be a beta test for prescribing nature over traditional chemical medication.

It’s a new way of looking at revitalizing and building communities in areas that have traditionally had no investment or have been divested over the years.

F&L: African American churches are dealing with so much right now — police brutality, health disparities, unemployment. Have you seen this issue gain much traction?

OM: The challenge in America and in the West in general is that we compartmentalize issues. Environment is over here; mass incarceration is over there.

But we approach it all as intertwined.

If you live in [some sections of] Chicago, you live in a food desert. You have corner stores. The reason you have corner stores is because no one has invested there or these areas have been redlined due to government policies.

These corner stores do not serve healthy food. They serve highly processed food. That then becomes the diet for children in that area.

Then they’re diagnosed by a public school system with attention deficit disorder or some other type of challenge that needs to be fixed by medication. It’s directly connected to how children are perceived in our community.

We do a lot of work helping people see the connections between a food desert and mass incarceration and economic disparity and the way police are deployed to occupy rather than being community partners.

All of it is interconnected with systematic racism. And helping people see the connection, they then understand, “Oh, creation and the land is also connected to my transformation and liberation.”

F&L: Have you seen congregants make changes in their lives?

OM: We use our farmers for the food that’s prepared at the church so you know where it’s coming from. We push this idea that you should know your farmer. When you invest with a farmer, you know his or her entire family.

You have this community that’s created where people are witnessing children learning about farming and building a relationship with a person who’s raising the food.

A change in eating can also change a community, economically and socially. There is now data that shows that community gardens reduce violence in impoverished neighborhoods. It’s a pretty simple reason: community gardens create community.

They have people working in the gardens who get to know each other. They become quasi block clubs and watch clubs. People become interested in each other and their challenges and celebrate their victories together, all because we put our hands in the same soil.

F&L: How do you tie it in to the Christian message?

OM: The exodus story is near and dear to people of African descent. We see ourselves in the exodus story. Moses tells Pharaoh to “let my people go” — not “that we may build an ark,” but “so we may go to a land where we may worship God,” where we may have this relationship we used to have prior to the enslavement moment.

We share that narrative that we are displaced, that we have been disoriented from the land. Exodus is about reorientation and the Jewish people becoming landed people from a landless people. We share that same narrative.

When we move to the New Testament, Jesus is a country preacher, a rural preacher. Paul’s urban; Jesus is a landed preacher.

The parables are told from the perspective of someone who knows about the land. That’s why you have a parable of seed falling upon the land or the parable of the prodigal son, of someone who has been hired out to care for pigs.

They are rural stories, stories that connect people to the land.

The Bible is rich in imagery that connects us to the land. There’s a list of 100 scriptures beloved by people of African descent. Many of the most beloved are those that are landed.

For example, the Twenty-Third Psalm speaks in rural language. The Isaiah text of “they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles” (Isaiah 40:31 KJV) speaks, again, out of this landedness. The Amos text of justice rolling down like waters (Amos 5:24).

The creation metaphors, the rural metaphors speak to a community that still has a deep memory of being in the South migrating to the North, but it still rings so true to us.

On a hot, humid summer afternoon in Atlanta, children at Camp Beech Grove are enjoying their daily hike down to the creek. Here, in the nature preserve of Central Congregational United Church of Christ (CUCC), they find relief from the sizzling sun, surrounded by a canopy of trees — many of them beech, the camp’s namesake. In these woods, a butterfly goes by, a frog makes a splash, and children learn about the native plants that surround them.

Today, the children can enjoy all that nature has to offer here. But that hasn’t always been the case.

For five years, the 450-member congregation at CUCC has been working to restore the 8 acres of woods surrounding the church. A certified wildlife habitat by the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), the woods offer a magnificent view through the floor-to-ceiling windows of the church’s sanctuary. It was there that Ron Smith, gazing out those windows, had a vision.

“These woods were a mess,” said Smith, who initiated the project. “Nobody went out there. They were overgrown, and they weren’t inviting. And I thought to myself, ‘I want to change that.’”

Smith with children in the garden
Ron Smith works with kids planting a garden.

Smith set out to reverse decades of neglect and to rehabilitate the surrounding woods, where he says he can be closer to the Creator.

“God is speaking in nature, and we’re losing something when we don’t make nature a part of the community or when we don’t show respect for it. He created all of this. All life is sacred, and all of nature is sacred,” Smith said.

Active with the church since 2010, the year he retired from his 60-hour-a-week corporate job as a CPA, Smith knew that creating a sustainable wildlife habitat would also provide ecological benefits, including the preservation of native species and better air and water quality. What he didn’t know is that his vision would ultimately bring an awareness of and connection with the surrounding community, providing an urban oasis and a place for the church’s neighbors to be closer to God.

It started with a trail

Smith had learned to love the outdoors at a young age. He grew up in a farming area of Pennsylvania, and his mother had vegetable gardens and an infectious love of nature. From these influences, Smith said, he knew he would be a gardener when he retired. He first tackled the overgrown yard of a home he and his wife purchased in nearby Decatur before setting his sights on the distressed woods at CUCC.

“The times I accompanied my wife, Martha, to church, I would notice the magnificent trees that were dying from the oppression of invasive species,” said Smith, who is a member of the Georgia Native Plant Society. “The woods needed care, and I knew they offered a place of sanctuary for me.”

In spring 2011, Smith told his wife he wanted to work in the CUCC woods. He joined the congregation’s Garden Team, which meets once a month to work on the church grounds. As Smith worked, he realized that a path through the woods would not only invite people in but also provide the access needed to remove and replace unwanted plants.

In what ways would this be a useful attitude in your church or institution?

With no church budget, Smith personally purchased the first equipment and plants and began clearing a path to the creek, thinking, “If I build a trail, people will come.” And he was right.

Since then, much has happened to the neglected wooded area. Nature trails have been created. Trash and debris have been removed from the creek. Invasive plants — aggressive species that grow outside their natural range and crowd out the native plants — have been removed and replaced with species indigenous to the area. Meadows and gardens have been established.

Over time, more people from the congregation have showed up to help: working, bringing plants or donating money. Local businesses and nonprofits have joined the effort, too. In 2012, Trees Atlanta donated 40 trees, while Hands On Atlanta sent 30 volunteers to help plant, clear ivy and mulch trails. Members of the Native Plant Society have also donated trees and shrubs, helped Smith identify appropriate grasses for the creek area and assisted with transporting the plants. The Garden Team and its supporters continue to invest their time and money to support the forest restoration and gardens as well.

And this past spring, reinforcements were brought in — 12 sheep stayed for two months, eating the English ivy that overran the grounds. This literal flock was a big hit with the metaphorical one.

“The congregation fell in love with the sheep,” said the Rev. Ginnie Ferrell, the associate minister for children and youth at CUCC. “We can be so separated from creation that sheep … give us warm fuzzies.”

Sheep in the forest, eating ivy
Sheep love to eat ivy, which is an invasive species that needed to be removed.

It’s bridging this separation from nature that inspires Smith and Ferrell to continue their efforts and watch the project evolve.

“Love is the greatest gift any of us can give,” Smith said. “It is an act of love to care for God’s creation. Humans do not and cannot exist in isolation from plants, animals, water, air or soil. Our earth is in peril. What greater mission could there be than to take care of all creation?”

Drawing from the congregation’s beginnings

At this liberal, progressive, mission-oriented church, Ferrell says, there’s a history of people wanting to worship in a natural setting.

When the CUCC congregation moved from downtown Atlanta in the late 1960s to what was then considered the suburbs, it chose to build the church in the middle of an 8-acre forest. Today, that property is surrounded by an urban landscape. It’s just minutes from downtown, located on a major four-lane road.

The congregation continued to enjoy the leafy view from the sanctuary, but over time, the land — like many urban forests — became overgrown. Every urban woods, forest and preserve fights invasive plants, Smith said; the deterioration is slow and organic.

The church started to take notice and reverse this decline shortly after Ferrell joined CUCC in 2008.

What natural resources could your institution protect, nurture, share or explore in order to cultivate a sense of wonder about God’s creation?

Wanting to create manageable volunteer opportunities to help with care for the church’s gardens, Ferrell established the Garden Team.

The team divided the land into 35 sections. Members were asked to adopt a section, which they tended on their own time. This worked well, and the team took steps to have the forest designated as an NWF wildlife preserve. This is significant, Smith said, because the certification is a badge telling people the land has intentionally been set aside to be cared for in order to provide refuge for wildlife.

Summer camp group exploring nature
Children examine life under a log.

Now, on any given day, members of the church and surrounding community can be found walking the nature trail, which starts at a memorial garden just outside the sanctuary. At the creek, 700 feet down the path, they’ve built a fort for children out of the remnants of Chinese privet, an invasive plant that was removed from the forest.

Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts spend time in the woods, now referred to as the nature preserve, to plant, work on trails and visit the award-winning pollinator garden, which is designed to attract insects that feed on and pollinate surrounding plants. Children, from the on-site preschool and the summer camp, are out in the woods almost every day of the year.

This, according to Ferrell, is how it should be. Worship and outreach are amplified to include the earth, she said.

“When we walk out into a forest or step into a creek, we are reminded that we are a part of the natural world,” Ferrell said. “Our time watching a bee sleep on a flower or a goldfinch sitting on the tiniest stem brings us in touch with the gifts of our Creator. The forest helps us to remember the incredible gift of life, all life, on this planet.

“If people realize from an early age that they are a part of nature, will they grow up to live more sustainably and to invent things that are more compatible with the natural world?”

Campers walking in the forest
Children at Camp Beech Grove take a nature walk near the restored creek.

According to Richard Louv, the author of “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder” and co-founder of the Children & Nature Network, the answer is yes.

“Smart religious leaders of all faiths, and many nonbelievers as well, intuitively understand that all spiritual life begins with a sense of wonder, and that sense is usually formed early in childhood, often in natural settings. Most religious traditions and, especially, indigenous cultures offer ways to discover the divine in the natural world. In these cultures and faith-based communities, individuals, families and religious organizations can play an important role in helping children and adults know the world and beyond through nature,” Louv said.

There is also an expanding body of scientific evidence linking experience in the natural world to better physical and mental health and enhanced cognitive abilities, Louv said. How can we tap into this for ourselves and our children? The answer, according to Louv, is to rethink nature within cities. And CUCC is doing just that.

Authentic mission

When Smith looked out the sanctuary windows that Sunday in 2011, his desire was to heal the earth. But this mission has also helped the congregation cultivate relationships in the community, largely through the preschool and the summer camp.

“Camp Beech Grove and the preschool would not be here today without the trail,” Ferrell said. “They are both nature-oriented, and without this land, we couldn’t have done it.”

Kids playing in a creek
Children at the creek in 2014, before the invasive plants were cleared and replaced.

Since 2012, the church has hosted Turning Sun School, a place-based preschool that emphasizes the local community and natural environment as an extension of the classroom. The children have fun with activities such as the fall lantern walk, a nighttime family hike along the trail, illuminated by lanterns they have made, and the spring fairy breakfast, for which they create their own fairy houses.

“Having the nature preserve outside our windows and within our reach has been such a great resource to our school,” said Alicia Karpick, the school director. “Children need to be able to play and experience nature with all their senses. If we want children to be environmental stewards, we need to give [them] the freedom and space to love and understand nature.”

Ferrell echoes this sentiment, which is why she, along with the CUCC Board of Christian Education, created Camp Beech Grove, a summer camp offering six one-week sessions focused on learning about the outdoor world and the sacredness of creation. For years, Ferrell and the board discussed this idea, hoping to create a way for children and families of the community to be connected to the church, and after five years of rehabilitating the nature preserve, Ferrell knew they could offer something great.

“Stepping into a cool and shaded forest, we feel like we are walking into a mysterious and healing space where we are cradled by the trees and the land,” Ferrell said. “That is what we hope children will feel as they walk through the forest at church, or anywhere in nature — that they are held by God’s gift of the whole earth.”

The camp, held in June and July, had 61 campers this first year. The church offered 45 scholarships to children in a nearby neighborhood. Campers began each morning with a sacred story before a daily hands-on nature lesson. This type of learning was especially beneficial to 6-year-old Gabe Narducci, who attended all six weeks of Camp Beech Grove.

Storytelling group sits on the floor; view of the forest can be seen through the windows behind them
Storytime at Camp Beech Grove in the indoor church space.

“He is an outdoors kid, so we knew this camp would be perfect for him,” said Donna Narducci, Gabe’s grandmother, who found out about the camp from a community email list. “The things he learned on the nature walks were really interesting, and he would come home and tell us about a bird or bug or something growing there. It really allowed us to engage with him and find out more about how much he learned and retained.”

And Camp Beech Grove is just a first step. As the project continues to evolve, Smith has plans for more trails and gardens, including a community vegetable garden, where neighbors can participate in growing their own produce.

“The preserve keeps us alert to the hope of nature’s ability to heal and to our need as humans to heal and restore the earth in all the ways we can,” Ferrell said. “As humans, it is more clear every day how much we have impacted all life and the very ground on which we live. The whole church is called to remember this sacred planet, our home. If we want to have a healthy planet for future generations, then the whole human community needs to learn to live sustainably.”

Questions to consider

Questions to consider

  • Ron Smith began his work on a path through the woods surrounding his church by thinking, “If I build a trail, people will come.” In what ways would this be a useful attitude in your church or institution?
  • Why did this nature preserve project attract the attention and resources of the wider Atlanta community? What project are you excited enough about to share with your community?
  • Smith and the Rev. Ginnie Ferrell note that the woods foster a sense of wonder. What natural resources could your institution protect, nurture, share or explore in order to cultivate a sense of wonder about God’s creation?
  • What resources — natural or made by people — are abundant in your setting or organization? How might you use them to cultivate a thriving community?