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A nonprofit works to ‘green’ the Black church

As the son of an itinerant Baptist minister, Ambrose Carroll moved with his family from city to city as his father felt called to serve new churches: Atlanta, St. Louis, Compton, Santa Ana and finally, Oakland, California.

But there was one constant in the lives of the six Carroll siblings. Summers and holidays were spent back on the family homestead in the tiny community of Holly, Louisiana.

In that African American hamlet, 30 miles south of Shreveport, Carroll’s grandfather plowed the land, grew vegetables and raised livestock. It was a hardscrabble life — the family had no running water until 1979 — but it was rooted in conserving resources and caring for the Earth.

Years later, when Carroll began his own itinerant Baptist ministry, the memory of his family’s ecological roots tugged at him.

“Even though we grew up in the inner city and experienced blight and areas of disconnect, we grew up with a certain respect and reverence for the land,” he said.

In his own ministry — he now lives in Oakland, California, and pastors The Church by the Side of the Road in Berkeley — the Rev. Ambrose Carroll has made care for the Earth his signal calling.

The Rev. Ambrose Carroll

Through his nonprofit organization Green The Church, he and his siblings, three of whom also are ministers, encourage African American congregations to commit to an environmental theology that promotes sustainable practices and helps build economic and political change.

With a small annual budget of about $150,000, the organization has helped some 1,000 churches consider taking small steps toward environmental healing, mostly through its annual summits and its continued work to build a core of advocates promoting green theology in African American congregations.

Environmental awareness has sometimes taken a back seat to other issues in Black communities, including economic and health care disparities, Carroll and others acknowledge. Those have been especially evident in the COVID-19 pandemic, which has affected African Americans in disproportionate numbers.

But pastors such as Carroll and a growing cadre of others point out that many racial disparities are rooted in environmental degradation, from exposure to lead paint and mold to an absence of nearby supermarkets — a phenomenon some have labeled “food apartheid.” National leaders such as the Rev. William J. Barber are supporters of the growing movement.

How might understanding the connection between racial disparities and environmental degradation inform your understanding of the Black Lives Matter movement?

Through its national summits (this year’s has been postponed to 2021 because of the pandemic), Green The Church is educating Black congregations about ways they can strengthen their communities by performing energy audits, installing solar panels, starting healthy food programs and lobbying for green jobs and investments in poor communities.

One way to do that is to connect to the African American experience.

“I got so tired of people saying, ‘African Americans don’t engage in nature or don’t appreciate the great outdoors,’” said Veronica Kyle, the statewide outreach director for Faith in Place, an Illinois-based interfaith organization that works on environmental stewardship and has partnered with Green The Church.

“No one ever talks about our bittersweet relationship with nature,” she said. “We have been both picking the fruit and strange fruit.”

Reconnecting African Americans with their personal and often traumatic history with the land lies at the heart of Carroll’s ministry, too. Often, he has found, those stories begin or end with the Great Migration that led some 6 million Black people to leave a life of sharecropping in the Jim Crow South for industrial jobs in the North, Midwest and West.

“Our ability to tell these stories is what I’m excited about,” said Carroll, 51. “The stories are here for us. We want to spend time building a repository of them.”

Participants in the 2015 Green The Church summit in Chicago visited a Sweet Water Foundation project, which includes a garden and renovated house.

The pain of dislocation

Like many African Americans, Carroll himself has a story rooted in the pain of dislocation.

Before being called to the ministry, Carroll’s father, Benjamin Carroll Sr., was an agriculture major at Southern University and A&M College in Baton Rouge.

The elder Carroll planted gardens wherever the family lived, enriching their meals with homegrown vegetables. He kept a freezer stocked with beef or pork he bought through local farmers to avoid the industrial meat chain.

Using Isabel Wilkerson’s “The Warmth of Other Suns” as a resource, how might your organization fruitfully discuss the “pain of dislocation” with the land during and after the Great Migration?

One day, Ambrose Carroll remembered, his father walked through the door with live chickens.

But when the Carrolls left the South, they relocated to mostly poor, urban neighborhoods. By the time Ambrose was a teen, they were living in Oakland in the shadow of the Granny Goose potato chip factory.

Apart from summers back in Holly, Louisiana, the Carrolls had become city dwellers. It took a toll on their health. In 1983, Benjamin Carroll traveled to Memphis, Tennessee, to attend a National Baptist Convention and collapsed in the pulpit of First Baptist Church. He died at 44, having suffered a stroke. In later years, his wife, Ambrose’s mother, was treated for cancer. (She has since retired in Louisiana.)

Ambrose Carroll followed his father into the ministry, earning a master of divinity from the Interdenominational Theological Center’s Morehouse School of Religion in Atlanta, as had his father. It was there in the early 1990s that Carroll first heard about creation care, the theological approach that emphasizes the restoration and conservation of the Earth and its ecosystem as a central teaching of the Christian faith. Carroll believes that creation care can also reconnect Christian communities with the healing cultures of Native Americans and with humanity more broadly.

He returned to Oakland, was ordained in an American Baptist church, served in various churches and then completed a doctorate in ministry at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio.

“I learned much about liberation theology and the battle for justice,” Carroll said. “But I always wondered, what would be the issue of our day?”

He was aware of the growing use of the term “environmental racism.” The idea began to crystalize in the 1980s in recognition of how communities of color are disproportionately affected by government or corporate rules, regulations and policies that deliberately or through neglect expose Black people to environmental hazards.

Where are the well-paying green jobs in your community, and who holds these jobs? What kinds of training are required for access to this work? Could your organization help people obtain that training?

But what brought the issue home for Carroll was a book he picked up while serving a church in Denver, Colorado. The 2008 volume is called “The Green Collar Economy,” by former Obama administration adviser and now CNN political contributor Van Jones. In it, Jones argues for solving the ecological crisis in a way that lifts people out of poverty by creating well-paying green jobs in their communities.

Jones’ clear-eyed urgency about the ecological crisis is coupled with a conviction that a new green economy should provide equal opportunity and protect workers’ civil rights.

For the first time that Carroll could see, this was an attempt to bridge the divide between affluent, mostly white people who cared about saving polar bears and rainforests with working-class Black communities whose needs were far more immediate: living wages, good schools, a lower prison population.

“The language of environmentalism always seemed like something other,” Carroll said. “The book helped me to see it was not something we had to learn externally but internally, as a part of our identity.”

In taking up the cause of environmentalism, he would try to show his flock — then in Denver — how caring for the environment was part of their story, too.

‘The Black church needs its own voice’

It was at a meeting in Washington, D.C., in 2010 that Carroll’s vision grew.

Carroll had been accepted for a fellowship with Green For All, a training program started by Jones to cultivate leaders of color who could advocate for equitable green solutions in low-income communities. (Green For All has since merged with Dream Corps, an organization that works to close prisons.)

As part of his fellowship, Carroll met in the nation’s capital with a group of people strategizing how to bring environmental awareness to their communities.

Carroll and other leaders see creation care as a matter of justice.

Someone from West Virginia talked of “greening” the coal-mining community. A Native American man talked of “greening” the reservation. That’s when Carroll decided he would found an organization called “Green The Church.”

“When I was working with Green For All, there were a lot of people of color working on environmental issues, but there were not a lot of Black church leaders,” Carroll said. “The church is seen as conservative and not forward thinking.”

What was missing was clear, he said — “the Black church needs its own voice on the issue.” And he would provide it.

The Rev. Bruce Carroll, the Rev. Emily Carroll, the Rev. Dr. Ambrose Carroll and the Rev. Benjamin Carroll, Jr. are all involved in the family nonprofit, Carroll Ministries International.

Green The Church, which was set up under the auspices of his family’s nonprofit, Carroll Ministries International, works with several state affiliate chapters to encourage church projects that strengthen the local food economy, plant community gardens, conduct energy audits and install rooftop solar panels and rainwater cisterns.

It now wants to move beyond its annual summits and start an online “ambassador’s course,” which will train 100 church members to help form “green teams” in local congregations and develop a core of 500 allies in those churches.

Already, it has seen some Black churches take bold green initiatives.

In Baltimore, the Rev. Heber Brown III has started the Black Church Food Security Network out of his Pleasant Hope Baptist Church. It works with Black farmers to deliver their bounty to the city’s hard-hit neighborhoods.

In Chicago, Trinity United Church of Christ has retrofitted its building to make it environmentally sustainable, and in 2017 the church dedicated the site of a 27-acre “green” intergenerational community called Imani Village.

The project already includes a medical center and will eventually offer affordable housing, a healing garden and a 5-acre farm.

The Rev. Dr. Otis Moss III, Trinity’s pastor, said he believes liberation is directly connected to creation care. As a result, the church has a commitment to awarding jobs to minority contractors who will hire the formerly incarcerated and commit to green practices.

Carroll’s own church has taken steps to change the culture. The Church by the Side of the Road offers water stations for Berkeley bikers. It composts, recycles, uses silverware instead of plastic utensils and serves lean, nutrient-rich foods at its congregational meals. It is transitioning away from printing programs and bulletins and is planning to build an herb garden. Photos of the natural world hang on the church walls.

The work of “greening” can be demanding, and making the case for the environment may be especially hard in the current context, as Black communities struggle with biased and violent policing and systemic racism.

“It’s a very tough area,” said the Rev. Gerald Durley, the national board chair of Interfaith Power & Light and a longtime Baptist pastor from Atlanta. “We have so many other priorities. But Ambrose is good at showing all of this is interconnected.”

Where is environmental degradation on your list of societal evils? Might it need to move up, especially as you work for racial justice?

Recently, the Rev. William J. Barber’s Poor People’s Campaign listed “ecological devastation” as one of the top societal evils behind its demands for change (alongside racism, poverty and militarism). Barber, one of the nation’s foremost civil rights leaders, sees the threat of climate change as one of the main injustices affecting the nation’s poor.

Sharing the stories of connection and dislocation

One way to break through, Carroll is convinced, is to engage with people’s own personal stories.

“Ambrose has recognized the need to culturalize the conversation so it would have more impact in the African American community,” said Kyle, the Chicago-based activist with Faith in Place.

By “culturalize,” Kyle means to make the conversation relevant to an American Black context, a strategy that has also worked with her Migration & Me program, which encourages African Americans to share their migration stories — often out in nature.

What stories can you share that root your faith, experiences or ancestors in the land? How can you share them so that they become formative?

Moss said he also tries to make these connections.

“I share with people, ‘Your grandmother had a garden in the back. Your grandmother made quilts, which is a form of recycling. Our ancestors created gumbo, which is a creative use of things people thought could not be used,’” he said.

“When you explain those pieces, people are like, ‘Oh yes. We came from Mississippi and Arkansas. We were people connected to the land and to the soil, and coming into an urban environment disconnected us from the soil.’ We’re seeing a reemergence of people reconnected to the soil in Northern urban environments.”

Carroll doesn’t flinch from the pain of those stories. He has often spoken of how his ancestors bought their land in 1878, only to lose it during the period following Reconstruction when they became sharecroppers tilling other people’s land.

Still, his ancestors’ legacy of good stewardship, thrift and hard work was part of the inheritance they passed down to their descendants.

Carroll hopes that in time, other African Americans might see their stories as part of a longer narrative about care for the Earth.

“The more you tell the story,” Carroll said, “the more others can come alongside you.”

Questions to consider

Questions to consider

  • Ambrose Carroll and others point out that many racial disparities are rooted in environmental degradation. How might this history inform your understanding of the Black Lives Matter movement?
  • Using Isabel Wilkerson’s “The Warmth of Other Suns” as a resource, how might your organization fruitfully discuss the “pain of dislocation” with the land during and after the Great Migration?
  • Where are what Van Jones calls the “well-paying green jobs” in your community? Who holds these jobs? What kinds of training are required for access to this work? Could your organization help people obtain that training?
  • The Rev. William J. Barber’s Poor People’s Campaign lists “ecological devastation” as one of the top societal evils fueling its demands for change. Where is the environment on your list? Might it need to move up, especially as you work for racial justice?
  • Carroll teaches Black churchgoers that caring for the environment is “part of their story, too.” What stories can you or your organization share that root your faith, experiences or ancestors in the land? How can you share them so that they become formative?

The drive to Indian Valley in rural Floyd County, Virginia, a beautiful mountainous region off the Blue Ridge Parkway, is a time of preparation for some travelers making the trip on a recent late Tuesday afternoon.

In mid-April, the rolling hills are bright green. Miles of split-rail fences pass in a whoosh. Grazing cows dot the hillsides. Blooming dogwoods and flame azaleas streak the roadways.

At the top of Macks Mountain Road, a large sign appears: Wild Goose Christian Community. A brick church painted white rises in the distance. At the top of the front stairs, two white rockers sit on either side of a plain colonial-style door.

Peggy Slate arrives for the Tuesday night service at Wild Goose Christian Community, former home of Indian River Valley Presbyterian Church. 

Here, a group of mostly middle-aged people — 16 this week — gather on Tuesday evenings for a potluck followed by a conversation about the Christian faith, conducted in the round on mismatched rocking chairs.

When does church start for you? When does it end?

“I know for me, personally, when I get in the car, church starts,” said Greg Wolford, who drives an hour and 15 minutes from Roanoke, Virginia, to attend. “I start to get myself in a mindset of Wild Goose, and I stay that way until I get home.”

That Wild Goose mindset is welcoming, open and supportive of mountain culture. It’s especially appealing to Wolford, a 53-year-old computer professional who was born in the mountains but quit church more than 30 years ago.

What is your church’s mindset?

Like some others, Wolford first heard about Wild Goose from a story broadcast on a local public radio station, and he quickly became a die-hard fan.

Since it opened five years ago, the congregation (which has no formal membership) has emerged as an example of an alternative faith community focused on drawing people who don’t find traditional churches — whether old-style liturgical or big-box megachurch — appealing.

Worship begins with communion, as Wild Goose participants pass bread and wine around the circle. 

Communion from a Mason jar

Wild Goose is part of the Protestant mainline — Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) — but it doesn’t act like it. Here the service begins with communion from a Mason jar followed by Appalachian singing led by two musicians on banjo and guitar.

There are no pews in this church. Right now, there’s no pastor, either. The founding pastor moved to Baltimore last fall to be closer to family, but the congregation is hoping to find a new one to fill the vacancy.

At a time when many churches are closing and dying, Wild Goose has drawn attention far beyond the Appalachian Mountains for its inspired approach to ministry. It is one of a dozen congregations profiled in “Divergent Church: The Bright Promise of Alternative Faith Communities,” by Tim Shapiro and Kara Faris of the Center for Congregations in Indianapolis.

“We were looking to find congregations that were innovative or creative or might be attractive to people who would otherwise not want to go to a traditional church or a contemporary church,” said Faris, the center’s resource grants director.

For Wolford, the congregation is a perfect fit: “There were a lot of elements to traditional church that really turned me off,” he said.

At Wild Goose, he’s been able to nurture his spiritual yearnings and remain true to who he is. He’s on a spiritual journey, and he looks to this fellowship of mountain people to guide him through.

The Wild Goose community sings a hymn, accompanied by Malcolm Smith on banjo and Mac Traynham on guitar. 

The wild goose takes flight

It began with Appalachian music.

The Rev. Edwin Lacy grew up in the Appalachian Mountains hearing his father, a banjo player, make old-time mountain and bluegrass music. After graduating from college, he too took up the banjo and played professionally for about 15 years before going to seminary and becoming an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

In 2012, Lacy was leading a PCUSA church in Bristol, Virginia, about a two-hour drive to the west, when he heard that the Indian Valley Presbyterian Church in Floyd County had closed. Like many congregations in the Abingdon Presbytery, which stretches across 13 counties in southwestern Virginia, Indian Valley Presbyterian had dwindled in size over the years.

Lacy knew about the church, having lived in the county — a renowned center of Appalachian music — 20 years earlier. (The town of Floyd, 19 miles away, swells from 400 people to 4,000 on Friday evenings, when music lovers converge to listen, play and dance to Appalachian music.)

And Lacy had an idea. Instead of closing the church and selling the building, how about trying something different in that remote mountain spot?

Lacy wanted to take advantage of the area’s musical heritage to draw in a newer generation of mountain people: artisans, crafters, musicians and Florida snowbirds who had been buying up homes in the region.

Soon, he approached the presbytery with a plan to form an alternative congregation. It happened to coincide with a denominational initiative called “1001 New Worshiping Communities,” a PCUSA project to start as many congregations in 10 years to meet the needs of a changing culture.

The presbytery agreed, and by 2013, Lacy and a retired contractor began ripping out the carpet and the pews in the old Indian Valley church and installing decorative wooden beams on the ceiling and a gas fireplace.

“We wanted to make sure it didn’t feel like a traditional church when you walked in,” Lacy said. “We knew we were reaching out to people who had decided for various reasons not to be part of a traditional church.”

Lacy didn’t want to hold services on Sunday mornings or Wednesday evenings, so as not to compete with other churches. He also wanted to avoid Friday evenings, when people might be heading out of town. That left Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. He chose Tuesdays.

Music would be central to this alternative community. So he reached out to Mac Traynham, one of the best Appalachian musicians in the area and a master builder of old-time banjos. Traynham, it turned out, used to attend Indian Valley Presbyterian years ago when his children were young.

Lacy also came up with a novel name for the community: Wild Goose. He figured since the majority of people who settled Southern Appalachia were Scots-Irish, they might appreciate the Celtic symbol for the Holy Spirit. And there was another reason the name worked: creating such a community can seem, at times, like a proverbial wild goose chase.

So far, however, the goose chase has been a success. Though part of the PCUSA, Wild Goose is not officially a “church” but rather a mission, or “worshipping community.”

At the top of Macks Mountain Road, the Wild Goose Christian Community sign is a welcome sight for those journeying to the Tuesday night service. 

Whatever its official status, Wild Goose Christian Community has been exciting to watch, said the Rev. Tony Palubicki, the pastor of Big Stone Gap Presbyterian Church in Big Stone Gap, Virginia.

“In an area where things can get pretty static, it’s interesting to see the Holy Spirit working in new, wonderful ways,” said Palubicki, who serves on the Abingdon Presbytery’s church development committee.

History of Christian renewal

Renewing Christian community in rural Appalachia has a long history.

Back in the 1930s and ’40s, Floyd County and the surrounding region, like much of Southern Appalachia, was isolated and poor, with high rates of alcoholism and violence. The Rev. Bob Childress, a Presbyterian minister who grew up in the county’s Buffalo Mountain community, took it upon himself to reform the region’s culture and educate its young. Traveling tens of thousands of miles a year as a circuit preacher, ministering to families and leading as many as 14 services a week, he helped establish a dozen schools and churches, including the Indian Valley church.

Today, many of those same churches are facing different headwinds: a nationwide decline in church attendance and the flight of many residents to more urban areas with better jobs and greater opportunities.

“I don’t go to church on Sundays,” said Susan Slate, 32, one of Wild Goose’s youngest and most active participants. “I find a lot of them to be pretty inauthentic. It’s hard to sit through a sermon. I’d rather be talked with than talked to.”

Does your church talk “with” or “to”? How does that shape worship?

Today, only half the churches in the Abingdon Presbytery are served full time by ordained ministers. In some cases, one minister will serve several churches. In others, a lay pastor will be appointed to direct the local congregation.

Under Lacy’s leadership, Wild Goose grew to a healthy size, especially in the summer months, when it would draw up to 50 people. Last fall, though, Lacy moved to Baltimore to be closer to his children and grandchildren. Tuesday evenings now draw around 15 to 20 people in the winter months, 30 to 40 in the summer. Most if not all of the regulars drive an average of 30 minutes to attend.

Worshippers gather in a circle, hold hands and pray as the service comes to a close.

But Wild Goose has a dedicated following. And those people are not about to give up.

What is the appeal of Wild Goose Christian Community? What does it provide that your church doesn’t?

“It’s my intention to do whatever I can to support that group and make it successful,” Wolford said. “If I have to climb up on the roof to clean the gutters or show up with a group to tear up the flooring, I’m gonna do what needs to be done.”

The community is now looking for a new leader and is working with the presbytery to find a pastor who could serve Wild Goose and two other, more traditional PCUSA churches in the area.

That leader will have to have an appreciation for Appalachian music. The community has monthly concerts and square dances in the church and would like to see those continue.

“It’s about enjoying the music and Appalachian traditions that bring people together, like songs and tunes for dancing,” said Traynham, the music leader. “Some churches look down on that stuff. [Lacy] wanted to try to encourage people to have a great time and get to know each other, become friends and support each other — foster community spirit, I guess you could say.”

Though some participants attend other churches on Sundays, others consider Wild Goose their one and only church. The emphasis on local culture is especially appealing to many of those who don’t attend church anywhere else.

Appalachia has a distinct local culture. How well does your church reflect its cultural context?

“At Wild Goose, [people] understood the music, they understood the food, they understood the interior space — quilts and rocking chairs,” said Faris, the author of the book on alternative church. “It felt like home to folks who didn’t feel at home in other churches.”

Unplugging from the world

On a recent Tuesday night, folks began streaming into the church basement after 6 p.m., bearing Crock-Pots and covered dishes: mac and cheese, pulled pork, mushroom lasagna, potato soup.

Before the Tuesday service, Wild Goose participants make their way through a potluck of comfort food. 

One person volunteered a short blessing and then lines formed around a long table. After heaping comfort food onto paper plates, participants sat down at round tables to eat and talk.

One woman relayed stories about her recent bicycle trip to Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand. Another talked about a new church with the name Wild Goose that had just formed in Bonsack, a town north of Roanoke.

The Indian Valley area is so isolated that cellphone signals are especially weak, and at the Tuesday gatherings, nobody pulls out a phone. For Slate, who drives an hour from Blacksburg where she works as a residency coordinator at a hospital, that’s a relief.

“It’s nice to unplug and not get texts or phone calls or anything,” she said.

By 7:45, participants headed upstairs to take their seats in rocking chairs. Guydell Slate, Susan’s father, an elder in the Presbyterian Church, served communion, pouring wine into a Mason jar and passing around a long Italian roll for people to break off pieces and dip into the wine, while Traynham played a solo on the fiddle.

After singing “Keep on the Sunny Side” and “A Beautiful Life,” the group, led by Charlie Martin, discussed four verses from Luke 9 in which Jesus sends out his disciples to proclaim his message: “He told them: ‘Take nothing for the journey — no staff, no bag, no bread, no money, no extra shirt. Whatever house you enter, stay there until you leave that town’” (Luke 9:3-4 NIV).

The discussion touched on changing expectations of hospitality, attitudes toward missionaries who knock on people’s doors and learning to accept rejection.

After 30 minutes, the discussion wound down and the banjo and guitar players picked up their instruments for another round of songs. Finally, people stood up, held hands in a circle and bid each other peace and goodbye.

Outside, the sun had long ago set. As engines revved and tires crunched across the gravel drive, the worshippers began their descent down the mountain with the stars to guide them home.

Questions to consider

Questions to consider

  • When does church start for you? When does it end?
  • What is your church’s mindset?
  • What is the appeal of Wild Goose Christian Community? What does it provide that your church doesn’t?
  • What does it mean to be talked with rather than to? How does that shape worship at your church?
  • Appalachia is an area that still has a distinct local culture. What is the cultural context for your church? How does that shape its ministry?