Yesterday (Tuesday), the Presbytery took a small but significant step towards becoming more fully the inside-out, upside-down people of God in our region. At a special meeting called for this purpose, we concurred with an overture to the upcoming meeting of the General Assembly directing our church to respond to environmental racism.
It is a small step because our action did not require much from us. The overture, which originated in the Presbytery of Monmouth (central New Jersey) consists of only three requests, that the church:
- Take action to respond to environmental racism in all its forms.
- Listen to the perspectives and voices of people most impacted by environmental racism.
- In accordance with the Gospel, position the church's approach to environmental problems to include responses to the voices most directly impacted by environmental racism.
These are just words. They alone won't change the lives affected by poisoned tap water, or by exposure to lead and asbestos in crumbling buildings, or by historic policies that made it impossible to buy homes in communities away from toxic waste or other industrial hazards.
They aren't even our own words. They are words proclaimed by another group in our church - a group with a different set of problems and concerns than ours. They are good words, but we are only adopting them, instead of raising them ourselves from our own experiences of solidarity with our own impacted church members and neighbors.
But it is nevertheless a significant step, because for the first time in many, many years, our presbytery is bearing a formal, public witness regarding one of the most significant issues in our region. It is a significant step because we who in so many ways have turned our backs toward those who disproportionately have suffered from our public policies have now turned our faces toward them and moved in their direction.
A term coined only in 1981, "environmental racism" describes "the disproportionate burden of environmental problems that people of color take on. People of color are more likely to live in areas more exposed to pollutants in the air, ground, and water. Environmental catastrophes, such as floods, hurricanes, and earthquakes, disproportionately impact people of color, as these communities are more likely to live in substandard housing and within floodplains. And people of color generally have fewer resources to escape environmental disasters." (from the rationale of the overture)
While the overture directs its focus on issues with the Port of New Jersey, the most significant example of environmental racism this century has taken place in our own bounds - the Flint Water Crisis. By concurring with this overture, our voice will be heard by the Assembly as it considers this overture; which means that the voices of the affected residents of Flint will also be heard.
Will our concurrence change the lives of the affected residents of Flint? Not likely; but it can start to change
us. We can start to learn more about how to love our neighbors; how to "do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God." It can lead us to a more humble and compassionate posture as individuals and communities of faith. It might even help us to recognize our own complicity, not only in environmental racism, but in the hundreds of ways we contribute to racism and racial injustice - one of which has been by our silence. Until now.
Environmental racism isn't the only issue worthy of our attention, but it is one that most of us can recognize and agree demands a response in our time and place. The great reformer Martin Luther said 500 years ago, "If you preach the Gospel in all aspects with the exception of the issues which deal specifically with your time you are not preaching the Gospel at all."
It is a small step, but a significant one. So let's keep walking.