Movement chaplains offer specialized support for activists
Teresa Mateus got the call from Charlottesville, Virginia, on the August 2017 day when a white supremacist drove his car into a group of counterprotesters, killing Heather Heyer and injuring dozens of others.
Organizers there asked, “Can you come?”
“They were inundated with all of this trauma,” Mateus said. “And even the providers in the community that had treated trauma for years didn’t know how to treat this kind of trauma, because it was unique and new and specific to social movements.”
Mateus, based in Louisville, Kentucky, is a licensed clinical social worker and trauma therapist by training who teaches spiritual care. And she offers such care for those involved in social movements. The work has history, and world events in recent years have given it renewed urgency.
“The lineage of healing justice going back to at least the ’80s is really the genesis for the kind of work that we’re talking about when we’re talking about doing healing work — spiritual care and social movements,” Mateus said.
Issues like racial justice, women’s rights and the environment have pushed people into the streets and their concerns onto computer screens, televisions and newspaper pages, reaching beyond those actively engaged in protests. Between Jan. 20, 2017, and Jan. 31, 2021, the Count Love project (which tracks public protests through local media coverage) reported 27,270 U.S. protests, with more than 13.6 million attendees.
These protests, and the ongoing activism that happens in less public settings, can be emotional for participants as well as those observing them or living in affected communities. Movement chaplains can help address the distress, sadness and exhaustion that may accompany activism.
“We believe the field of chaplaincy has expanded tremendously. We believe that the way we are called to provide spiritual care is different in 2023; therefore, we believe that movement chaplaincy is the most cutting-edge way of doing chaplaincy in 2023,” said the Rev. Dr. Danielle J. Buhuro, the director of movement chaplaincy for Faith Matters Network. The Nashville-based nonprofit offers resources for connection, spiritual sustainability and accompaniment for community organizers, faith leaders and activists.
“People who are involved in movement chaplaincy take seriously this notion that we are called to care not only for the spiritual, religious or faith needs of a person, but we are called to care also for the social and emotional mental health of patients,” said Buhuro, who is also the executive director of Sankofa CPE Center.
The evolution of movement chaplaincy
How is your faith community present or absent in movements for justice? Why is that?
The Rev. Jen Bailey, the founder and executive director of Faith Matters Network, wrote in an email interview that movement chaplaincy is only one manifestation of work in social movement spaces that centers healing and care.
Movement chaplains offer spiritual, emotional and relational support to people engaged in social justice movements, wherever these people may be. Their work “has its antecedents in the lineage of the Southern Freedom Movement and more contemporary efforts through the healing justice movement,” Bailey wrote.
Mateus also pointed to the “heavy history” of healing justice in the Detroit area. “It’s very important work; it was happening very grassroots,” she said, noting that although the work wasn’t situated in what are considered epicenters of power, “luckily, it’s beginning to rise to the top.”
There is breadth in how the efforts are framed. For instance, the person offering the chaplaincy can be grounded in movement culture and understand activist life and what it’s like to be an organizer, said Hilary Allen, who previously consulted on the movement chaplaincy project at FMN.
Under this definition, the approach that chaplains take is intended to be anti-oppressive, to fit within movement culture, and the person or organization receiving the care also is “grounded in movement,” she said. In this way, the presence of chaplains allows there to be spiritual care in secular spaces.
At the height of 2020’s protests — in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and the aftermath of the brutal slayings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and others — images showed seas of people demonstrating in cities across the country. Related images showed law enforcement officers dressed in riot gear, using tear gas, brandishing batons and pushing back against the crowds — even as almost 95% of U.S. demonstrations during that time connected to the Black Lives Matter movement were peaceful.
Activists continue their work amid the seemingly infinite unfolding of more tragedy, such as the January 2023 killing of Tyre Nichols by police officers in Memphis, and the subsequent release of deeply disturbing videos.
The Rev. Vahisha Hasan, who is based in Memphis as a part of the activist community, is dedicated to providing this kind of pastoral care. After Nichols was killed, his community of fellow skateboarders organized a vigil at a local skateboarding park. There, standing under the night sky surrounded by a crowd, Hasan offered the opening prayer.
What justice issues are people concerned with in your area, and how are faith communities part of the concern? How might they be part of the solution?
She has attended meetings with the district attorney and the Department of Justice, she said, and attended Nichols’ nationally streamed funeral.
Hasan has focused on faith, social justice and mental health as program director at Historic Clayborn Temple in Memphis (the site where activists organized for the 1968 sanitation workers strike) and as executive director for Movement in Faith, a project of the Transform Network that works, in part, to connect people and faith communities with broader justice efforts to practice transformational church and social change.
“In order to do sustainable movement work, we need to have integrated wellness. How do we do this — how do we live and not die? We don’t want the state to take our life. But we don’t want this work to take our life either,” Hasan said. “The overarching framework of my theory of change, if you will, is that we need well people who are doing well work to create well systems.”
In many ways, Hasan is typical of those carrying this work forward.
“Many of the folks who seem most drawn to movement chaplaincy,” wrote FMN’s Bailey, “are those who feel a particular call to accompany those on the frontlines of social justice issues and/or who have some training in pastoral care, mental health, etc., and are looking for ways to deploy their skills in a way that can be nourishing to movement spaces.”
Movement chaplaincy also seems to be growing more common. “We believe that the tide is turning,” said Buhuro, the chaplaincy director. “We see more people working in various forms of social justice chaplaincy than we do folks working in the hospital. … We believe the hospital chaplaincy is no longer the traditional model.”
Training for this demanding vocation is offered by groups such as Faith Matters Network and PeoplesHub. At FMN, students are offered “the opportunity to dig deep into their own traditions of healing and accompaniment while also learning practical skills for de-escalation and mental health first aid that can be of assistance to organizers and activists,” wrote executive director Bailey.
The network’s 12-week course, offered in partnership with the School of Global Citizenry, launched in 2019 and has trained more than 600 participants so far, according to Bailey.
“Students who took the 2022 course were involved in multiple capacities with local, national, and international movements for justice as well as serving as leaders in social justice work in their congregations. The course equipped students to draw from their particular denomination’s spiritual practices as a source for their approach to movement chaplaincy,” she wrote.
Participants have gone on to engage with everything from discipleship groups to social justice committees to anti-racism teams in churches from California to Maryland. Some have also continued to work independently of churches.
“Especially with the training course, we found that a lot of people were interested in movement chaplaincy as a sort of additional skill set or tool set that they’d be able to rely on,” said Allen, the former network consultant. That broad subset of trainees could include people such as social workers, emergency medical workers, attorneys and even teachers, she said.
Mateus, the social worker and teacher, said there are many stages of social movements and many stages of trauma within them.
“I believe there’s a place for chaplaincy and spiritual care at every layer,” she said.
At the time she received the call to Charlottesville, the city already had some resources and infrastructure, Mateus said. When she got to the scene about a day and a half later with a small team, she connected with Unitarian Universalist organizers who had been previous contacts, along with Black Lives Matter leadership, to find a location and hold space for people who needed support. Through word of mouth, Signal chats and other community communications, they opened the space for drop-in hours to allow people to visit.
For her work providing spiritual care, Mateus said, she has integrated creative arts, contemplative practices such as yoga or meditation, and indigenous practices from her own Latinx orientation. She said this kind of care is especially important in communities of color, because there can be a lack of therapists who understand complex identities and the nuances of social movements.
Hasan incorporated breathwork into her prayer at the Memphis vigil. “Breathwork as a form of grounding has been really pivotal for me. And I include it in prayer; I include it as practice,” she said, noting that she also integrates as much communal healing as possible.
What is one creative way that you have offered or could offer support to justice advocates in your area?
When professionals are trained in movement chaplaincy, they can provide more well-rounded care in general. Kenji Kuramitsu, who is based in Chicago, is employed full time as a clinical social worker at an LGBTQ health care center, and part time as a chaplain to a nonprofit. Though his training in chaplaincy is more traditional (he formerly served in a hospital setting), he recognizes the benefits that movement chaplaincy can provide.
During the earlier days of the COVID-19 pandemic, he said, he volunteered as a chaplain to support front-line workers.
“Folks who were themselves ministry, spiritual care, congregational leaders or other kind of providers were feeling as exhausted, as terrified, as uncertain as the communities of people they were serving,” Kuramitsu said.
“Movement chaplaincy has the potential to provide access to spiritual care to populations that haven’t traditionally been served by chaplains,” he said.
Sustaining the work and connecting with communities
Movement chaplaincy can be a way to both reach people beyond church walls and offer those who would not ordinarily attend divinity school a way to care spiritually for others.
“As we know, some people, for whatever reason, it’s their life circumstance, are never going to quite get close enough to those faith communities to be able to access those resources,” Allen said. “Movement chaplaincy may be something that a person could get from a pastor, but they may never step foot inside a church.”
For faith leaders who want to participate in this chaplaincy or help sustain it, Mateus said, understanding the fluidity of these practices can be helpful. Many of those in movements may not come from the Abrahamic traditions, she said.
To help bridge the gap, Mateus said, clergy could go beyond the old model of staying within their own houses of worship.
“You have to be where people are,” she said. “Particularly with social movements, if people aren’t seeing you at meetings, if you’re not at least showing up and saying, ‘I care about what you’re invested in,’ you can’t show up in the moment of crisis and people believe that it’s authentic or that they can trust you. There’s a lot of necessary mistrust in social movements,” Mateus said.
Building relationships with community organizers, asking what kinds of resources they need and being present in necessary ways can build trust, so that when help is needed, organizers can reach out, Mateus said.
Faith leaders also should consider being open to other points of view. “Listen to the organizers and let yourself be led by those who are most proximate to the challenges because they often have the best insight into the solutions that are needed,” Bailey wrote, noting that faith leaders can look for these contacts by searching online for local organizations doing “movement chaplaincy” or “healing justice” work.
Buhuro, who works as a chaplain to chaplains, said she offers support via one-on-one talks, meetups, monthly and quarterly events, and even physical care packages, with items like gift cards, T-shirts and candy. She also spoke to the importance of doing creative, on-the-ground work, pointing to chaplains who spearhead food banks and serve in funeral homes.
“Our movement chaplains work hand in hand with community members to address unemployment, poverty, violence and other forms of oppression in that community. We’re not just wanting to show up when it’s time to provide care to activists on the front line during a rally, a march or a demonstration, but we want to provide long-term, systemic change by journeying with people in the community over a period of time,” Buhuro said, noting that chaplains also can carry out this work by advocating for resources with legislators and clergy.
When chaplains learn to offer these more creative kinds of care, the results can be powerful.
“Movement chaplaincy can serve the spiritual and holistic needs of social justice organizations and their leaders not only in peak movement moments — such as the climax of a campaign, election, or major actions and street demonstrations — but in the in-between times,” the Rev. Margaret Ernst, the director of learning and integration at FMN, wrote in an email.
How can you build relationships and foster trust with secular activists and advocates?
“Movement chaplains can help meet those needs through supporting groups and organizers to celebrate victories, grieve losses, work through conflict, attend to trauma, and facilitate nourishing community care,” Ernst wrote. “Movement chaplaincy should help those who are [on] the front lines of justice struggles to know that they do not have to carry their burdens alone.”
As individuals, faith leaders also can consider stepping out in other ways. “God is bigger than our individual safe communities, our individual churches, our individual institutions. So if God has placed a purposing in you, … then go find the place to be rooted. Do not wither and die where you are,” Hasan said, noting that this growth does not require severing relationships with the people who have been spiritually formative.
“For the collective, for faith communities, I say we need to wrestle more,” she said. “The same wrestle that Black churches had during the civil rights [movement] is not a dissimilar wrestle as today. It is a lie that all Black churches were excited about what MLK was doing and how he was showing up. There were people who absolutely were like, ‘Be quieter; don’t do this; don’t make waves.’ Because what he was doing was dangerous.”
But the stakes remain high. “There needs to be some transformational work that’s happening, and the church needs to see itself in movement,” Hasan said. “And, God bless, the movement absolutely needs to see the church. What it will require is some vulnerability and some deference.”
How are you present in the day-to-day activities of your community beyond church walls?
Questions to consider
- How is your faith community present or absent in movements for justice? Why is that?
- What justice issues are people concerned with in your area, and how are faith communities part of the concern? How might they be part of the solution?
- What is one creative way that you have offered or could offer support to justice advocates in your area?
- How can you build relationships and foster trust with secular activists and advocates?
- How are you present in the day-to-day activities of your community beyond church walls?
In February 2020, I attended Super Bowl LIV amid early chatter about a virus in China. I was not alarmed when I developed a fever, lost my ability to taste and became bedridden days after my return to New York. However, just weeks later, I found myself on the phone with a member of our church who is a doctor of infectious diseases. That conversation informed our church’s decision to cancel in-person worship services, two weeks prior to New York state’s required lockdown.
New York’s Black church leaders expressed a mixed response to the lockdown. Some saw then-Governor Cuomo’s order to cancel in-person worship as going too far. They regarded this restriction as an opportunity to stand against an evil attempt to silence the church by continuing in-person worship. Others, including Hope City Church, where I serve as senior pastor, used the order as an opportunity to expand our reach.
I never saw the order as a mandate against being in the church. Instead, I saw the pandemic as an opportunity to be faithful to my calling. Paul speaks to this in the book of Ephesians, in which he outlines what I regard as the pastor’s job description — to “equip the saints for the work of ministry” (Ephesians 4:12 NRSV).
He also explains in 2 Timothy 3:17 (NKJV) that our goal is “that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.” According to Paul, Scripture is to be used in preparation for preaching and ministry work. I believe that this “good work” is ministering to the needs of our community.
A decade ago, Eddie Glaude argued that the Black church is dead and offered reasons to explain the demise of its centrality to Black life in America. However, I was birthed in and profess homage to the Black church that is not restricted to a physical place but speaks to a collective experience that has moved through American history. This Black church, conceived in our African origin, delivered by the midwife of Jim Crow and matured during the civil rights era, now continues to grow through the Black Lives Matter movement. This Black church, in the spirit of Delores Williams, “is invisible” yet becomes visible through its impactful work.
As I reflect on the work of the Black church over the past three years, I would argue that the proof of life for the Black church is the thousands of lives that its work saved during the pandemic.
In addition to moving our worship services online in March 2020, my church went to work by implementing a three-phased initiative we called Alleviate, Educate, Activate (A.E.A.).
The community we serve in East New York (ENY) Brooklyn was caught off guard by the magnitude of deaths it experienced because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Like other underserved communities, ENY residents face high living costs, increased crime rates, co-morbidities and decreased access to resources. ENY’s high population density (nearly 30,000 people per square mile), coupled with residents’ distrust of the government, exacerbated the spread of the virus and misinformation. A lockdown for our community meant no work and no way for residents to feed their families or pay their bills, which increased financial stress. So the church went to work.
Alleviate. To alleviate the financial stress in our community, I made a decision to model Christ and not the church. We made decisions by first asking, “What did Jesus do?” and then doing that. Our finance team created a system that invited anyone who needed financial assistance to text “HELP” to the church. Eligibility for this program was based solely on need rather than church membership or being a Christian. But this did not go far enough in relieving the pain that our people were experiencing. We went further and started working to address the distrust and misinformation in our community.
Educate. We used sermons to speak to the needs of our community members by providing present-day application of God’s word. Instead of using Scripture to explain the pandemic, our sermons illuminated God’s desire for how the church should work to address the community’s needs during the pandemic.
In addition, we hosted virtual open forums with local pastors and health experts. These events allowed the community to voice their concerns in guided discussions that dispelled myths about theology, the Black church, and the COVID-19 virus, tests and vaccines.
Finally, we made health professionals available at our church to answer questions and promote COVID-19 testing and vaccinations. It became common for community members to return with friends and family to walk them through the testing or vaccination experience after speaking with us.
Activate. We repurposed our physical spaces to combat distrust by activating community members to serve our community. We converted our sanctuary into a vaccination and testing clinic that saw thousands of people. We also provided free mental health services to address trauma in our community.
Faced with increased food insecurity, we transformed a building purchased months before the pandemic into a food distribution center. We designed a text-based contactless system that enabled us to keep our volunteers and our most vulnerable community members safe as we met food needs. In the summer of 2020, we fed over 100,000 people.
Black people no longer top the list of those dying from COVID-19, a reality that I believe churches like mine helped make possible. The Black church is not dead, and the lives saved as a result of our work during the pandemic serve as the pulsating proof of our impactful existence.
This Black church, conceived in our African origin, delivered by the midwife of Jim Crow and matured during the civil rights era, now continues to grow through the Black Lives Matter movement.
Christianity is not the white man’s religion. A tradition of Christian faith and practice emerged from the underside of America, from enslaved Africans in the antebellum South. There were no steeples, stoles, or stained glass. This tradition had no such luxuries. The Christianity of enslaved Africans was not a religion of privilege and position. It was a religion of freedom and revolution. Deep in the wilderness of the plantation slavocracy, enslaved Africans would escape to practice a communal spirituality that challenged them to love their bodies and their heritage, and to refuse any conditions that said otherwise. Welcome to the hush harbors, the invisible gathering places where enslaved Africans met to praise the God of the oppressed, pay attention to one another’s needs, and plot the abolition of slaveholding Christianity and the plantation economy. Hush harbors are a place to turn to refashion for our times a Christian community shaped by risky love.
The Terror of the Plantation Economy
The environment of chattel slavery was no walk in the park. Cultural artifacts like the film Birth of a Nation depict Africans as happy with being slaves. Such propaganda numbed and concealed what really took place in the plantation economy. Africans in America were legally and politically considered not fully human. They had no rights that white people were expected to respect and uphold. Any deference given to Black people was out of respect for them as the property of a white master. Black people were legally denied access to the kinds of privileges that uplifted and bettered white people, like government programs, economic self-determination, and voting. Without the honor of human dignity and any rights to ensure their well-being, as property of the plantation economy, enslaved Africans were treated for how they could meet white pleasures. Rape, forced “breeding,” mutilation through beatings, and lynching were only some of the violent bodily tactics white people used to punish and control enslaved Africans. Even the mundane parts of enslaved Africans’ lives were not respected. Enslaved Africans were forbidden to gather or assemble together except under the supervision of white folks. They had curfews to prevent their escape at night. Their leisure was policed to control as much of their time for work on the plantation and to ensure the leisure of the white master and his family. Even the term plantation does not do justice to the racialized economic exploitation Black people faced. Author Nikole Hannah-Jones in her book 1619 calls these Southern sites of oppression “labor camps.” The terror of the plantation economy was a totalizing vision. Every part of the lives of enslaved Africans was expected to be under the gaze of white supremacist, patriarchal capitalism.
Theology and Worship on the Plantation
What enables a race of people to exploit the labor of another race? To see them as their property? To colonize the land of Natives and the consciousness of Africans? What must a people believe about themselves to enact terror on another people and on the planet? “Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything … , with reverence for the Lord” (Col. 3:22). These words summarize the theology of slaveholding Christianity. And from these few words emerged an entire culture and history of violent desecration of land and peoples. Enslaved Africans had regular opportunities to worship on the plantation in racially integrated churches led by white folks. These integrated plantation churches operated by a separate and unequal rule: Black people and white people sat in the same sanctuaries, but everything else about the worship experience was separated by race, from using different restrooms to separate seating, prayer and Communion rituals, and burial grounds and baptismal waters. Enslaved Africans could also attend segregated gatherings led by Black preachers under the supervision of a white minister and white religious customs. Worship in both of these plantation churches accommodated the terror of the plantation economy and slaveholding Christianity.
The theology of the plantation said that God works through white men to bring the world into order and submission. Most white plantation owners used Christianity, especially the words of Paul, to make Africans docile and numb to their plight, to believe it was God’s will for them to be slaves. Other white plantation owners forbade the enslaved to be taught Christianity because they were worried biblical themes would incite revolution. How can Christianity hold within it these two contradictory possibilities? Race was the theological myth used by wealthy, white, male plantation owners to uphold the chattel slavery economy with a whitewashed, domesticated, heretical Christianity. Only a small percentage of wealthy, white, male plantation owners were actually at the top of the caste. When the owner was not around to be in charge of the plantation economy, wealthy white women were in control. When the owner’s wife was not there, either a poor white man or woman or an enslaved Black man was in charge. Black women and children were always at the bottom. All Black lives were disposable. Race is a powerful myth because the racial caste system has never been consistent. Myths are only as true as people give credence to them and as they function to maintain the status quo. From the beginning of the chattel experiment, poor and working-class white people have shared more in common with Black and Native people than with the white elite. The power of the slavocracy system was that it operated at the intersection of white supremacy, white patriarchy, racialized capitalism, and the theological heresy of slaveholding Christianity.
Hush Harbors and the Plantation
Even if only temporarily, enslaved Africans escaped the plantation economy and slaveholding Christianity by organizing hush harbors. Drawing especially from documented slave narratives, hush harbors have been a treasure trove of study for religion scholars and theologians. The literature on hush harbors has centered two rich debates. First, there is the debate of erasure versus retention of African cultures or Africanisms. Much of the early literature about the period of slavery in the US claimed that the psychic and bodily trauma of the Middle Passage — of Africans being violently forced from their homelands in Africa by European settler-terrorists on ships under the most inhumane of conditions — stripped the first generation of enslaved Africans of much if not all of their memories of their African cultures and customs. Certainly, this cultural knowledge was not passed down to successive generations, the argument went. This psychological and cultural violence was strategic in making African peoples more susceptible to being chattel for white plantation owners. Other scholars contended that hush harbors provided evidence to oppose the erasure thesis. Hush harbors depicted a rich continuity of Africanisms — music, language, religion, stories, and more — that enslaved Africans disguised for their own safety when under white surveillance. Because of the need to disguise Africanisms, the unaware observer could not readily see how enslaved Africans did in fact retain a variety of African customs and practices.
The second debate is over the nature of the Christianity that enslaved Africans practiced. Did enslaved Africans practice the Christianity of the slaveholder, which accommodated their own oppression? Christianity was an empire religion that accommodated the status quo. For enslaved Africans, to accept Christianity was to accept their plight on earth as they awaited their true freedom in the afterlife. Again, by peering into hush harbors, this thesis has been contested. Through the testimonies of enslaved Africans themselves, scholars discovered that Africans in the Americas not only practiced an otherworldly Christian religion that accommodated their oppression; hush harbors that enslaved Africans organized were sites of protest against the dominant Christianity of the slaveholder. In hush harbors, enslaved Africans made plans for permanent escape to the northern parts of the US. Additionally, enslaved Africans carried a hush harbor mindset of freedom with them onto the plantation to both cope with daily terror and plot for abolition without being caught by white plantation owners. This mystical hush harbor was as much a site of interior protest as the material hush harbor was a site of physical protest. These protest actions and mindsets were rooted in particular Christian beliefs that enslaved Africans initially discovered from slaveholding Christianity and then reinterpreted toward revolutionary ends.
These debates have unearthed a rich legacy of the genius of enslaved Africans’ beliefs and practices. In recent times, however, Black prophetic leaders have grappled with the importance of hush harbors not only for their historical relevance but also as a site of contemporary reflection on a more radical model of church and activism.
From “Buried Seeds,” by Alexia Salvatierra and Brandon Wrencher, ©2022. Used by permission of Baker Academic.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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?