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July 26, 2022

Ambrose Carroll: Talking about the environment in the Black church is empowerment

The Rev. Ambrose Carroll. Photo courtesy of Green The Church

Rather than a conversation for other people, talking about the environment can be a key component for the Black church in seeking justice, says the founder of Green The Church.

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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Faith & Leadership

This was first published in Faith & Leadership, the online learning resource for Christian leaders and their institutions from Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.

The Thriving in Ministry Coordination Program is a service of Leadership Education, which designs educational offerings, develops intellectual resources and facilitates networks of institutions.