Majora Carter: Don’t leave! We can make low-status neighborhoods better
Low-status neighborhoods need talent retention. Instead, what they get is talent extraction, says Majora Carter.
“You are led to believe you need to leave — you need to measure success by how far you get away from there,” said Carter, a real estate developer and consultant who does work in her hometown neighborhood of Hunts Point in the South Bronx.
Carter, whose own family has experienced some of the ill effects of gentrification and predatory practices, has dedicated her efforts to building up her neighborhood and others.
Her projects include a local park and a coffee shop. In 2001, she founded Sustainable South Bronx, which aims to “achieve environmental justice through economically sustainable projects informed by community needs.” She also co-founded the Southern Bronx River Watershed Alliance and has been involved in numerous environmental and green jobs initiatives.
Carter wrote the book “Reclaiming Your Community: You Don’t Have to Move Out of Your Neighborhood to Live in a Better One” — which was endorsed by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Seth Godin — and gave a 2022 TED Talk on the same theme.
She is president of the Majora Carter Group, which offers consulting services in environmental assessment, compliance and planning. She has received many awards, including a 2005 MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” that described her as “a relentless and charismatic urban strategist” and New York University’s Martin Luther King Jr. Award for Humanitarian Service.
She spoke with Faith & Leadership’s Sally Hicks about her work in the South Bronx. The following is an edited transcript.
Faith & Leadership: Talk a little bit about the neighborhoods you work in and write about. You use the term “low-status” rather than more typical descriptors, and you actually begin your book with a glossary. Why?
Majora Carter: Most folks, when they use “poor” or “underprivileged” or “underresourced,” blah, blah, blah — it implies poverty is there. “Low-status” implies something much larger and deeper is at work. There’s a high status and there’s a lower status, and inequality is simply assumed.
It’s the places where the health outcomes are lower, where the educational attainment is lower. Yes, poverty exists more frequently in those areas as well, and there’s often a lack of hope in terms of the future of the community, both for people in the neighborhood and outside it.
And it can be anywhere. Urban, rural, suburban. It can be inner cities, Native American reservations, white towns where there was some industry and it’s long gone.
What we see happening all the time is that the bright kids, the ones who are academically or artistically or even athletically inclined, are led to believe that they need to grow up and get out of those neighborhoods. That’s really the underlying thing that just everybody gets. I don’t care where they’re from.
That’s why our approach to community development is a talent retention strategy, really.
F&L: Part of this mindset is what you call the perception of “poverty as a cultural attribute.” The community can’t change — it isn’t changeable — and therefore the only solution is leaving.
MC: It’s baked in, this idea that poverty is part of the culture. So that’s what you plan for, whether you’re an elected planner, whether you’re an elected official or part of the “nonprofit industrial complex.” That is what you’re planning for.
There are several industries essentially that profit off that, and that’s what we’re trying to work against.
F&L: You use the term “nonprofit industrial complex.” What’s your critique of investment done according to traditional means?
MC: It’s a structure that was designed to take care of needs. But if we understand that and then we look at the money that’s being spent and we don’t see that the amount of money we spend is actually reducing all those social ills, then you kind of have to wonder, “Is it working?”
I’m not saying that [the nonprofit sector] doesn’t play a great role. It does. I’m just saying let’s just ask that question. Stop doing the exact same things over and over and over again.
Huge amounts of government-subsidized affordable housing [are built] for the lowest income bands. You’re not building economic diversity in any of the housing.
Health conditions happen because of the environmental abuses in the same neighborhoods, and we don’t address any of the underlying things but are managing the health conditions that are here, whether they’re diabetes, obesity, heart conditions. Then we are surprised that those numbers stay the same?
We all seem to be surprised every single year. It’s mind-boggling to me. I know I’m not the only person who sees this.
We’re managing poverty. We have plenty of systems to manage people and their poverty. It’s an incredibly paternalistic system that definitely has its roots in white supremacy that says, “You really will never be better, so we’re going to help you — not that much, but just enough.”
We keep seeing that over and over again, and yes, it does bother me very much.
F&L: What have you done in your own neighborhood, and what were you trying to accomplish with your projects?
MC: Ultimately, what I try to do is to help folks in my community, and communities like it, to not believe the narrative that our communities are places that are meant to be escaped from. We actually do have the capacity to revitalize our community from the inside out.
It started in my early work, when I was in the nonprofit sector for a number of years. I’ve always done project-based community development, because I’ve always felt the people needed to see and experience something different from what only screams poverty.
Again, the environment of our neighborhood literally often does say that. People know they need to leave their neighborhood in order to experience a nice park or a decent supermarket or a nice place to have a cocktail or a coffee with their friends.
What does it say about where you’re from? It says, “You don’t really need to be here if you have any sense of aspiration for yourself.” And most people do.
What I’ve tried to show is that we have wonderful things to offer people within our neighborhoods. The projects range from spearheading the development of the first waterfront park our neighborhood’s had in over 60 years. It was the only park — waterfront or not — that actually had grass and trees and the kind of places that made people feel, “Oh wait, this is a really special place to be.”
Then we did some work where we helped people have both a personal and a financial stake in the improvement of their environment. So we’ve created green-collar job training and placement systems.
F&L: Tell me about the cafe; that you’re sitting in right now while we’re talking on Zoom.
MC: In the early days, our work was more focused on consulting, but then it didn’t take us long to realize that it was really real estate development that we needed to be focused on.
We started in small multifamily [housing], and then we realized the other piece was lifestyle infrastructure. In part, we did that because it was nearly impossible for us to get the kind of financing that we needed to do larger projects. I didn’t really know much about real estate development, frankly, at the time.
But when we realized that what people were leaving the neighborhood to experience was places like cafes and coffee shops and things of that nature, we actually sort of used our own good credit. We made relationships with some of the local landowners that had businesses and got very, very reasonable rents on a couple of spaces in the commercial storefronts of their buildings.
We really wanted a cafe, because, again, we did an enormous amount of market research in the form of surveys and focus groups to understand what was it that made people feel good about being in their own neighborhood or not. Why were they leaving the neighborhood to experience something good?
So we got a lease, and we realized that most of the folks who wanted to build a cafe did not have the capacity to do it. We went to Starbucks, actually, and they were just like, “Nah. Your market is too emerging.”
That was really hard to hear, but then we ended up partnering with this awesome group called Birch Coffee, and we did a joint venture with them to open up our very first coffee shop. But it was also clear that we needed to be more about our own culture from the cafe’s perspective, and so that’s why we branched off into the Boogie Down Grind Café [in 2017] and rebranded ourselves.
It’s like an homage to hip-hop. Where I’m sitting right now, you take off the cushion and it becomes a stage, with a great big plate-glass window behind me so people can see it, for open mics or all sorts of wonderful things.
The day we were protested, we were hosting a workshop in this space for people who wanted low and 0% interest loans for either homeownership or for business development. It was kind of tragic and sad but ironic. But that’s what we did.
But those types of things — building out a space so that the community could come in and fill it and be seen in a cool place where people felt really good about how they looked — it was really fun, and we had a really nice time with it.
F&L: You mentioned a protest. You’ve gotten recognition for but also criticism of your work. Why do you think that is?
MC: Because Black girls from neighborhoods like this are not supposed to do this. I am acting way above my station, and I’m not supposed to do it.
We are just so duped into this idea that the only thing we can really be is just managed where we are, and that’s why [the detractors] behave that way.
I don’t know what they thought or what they think they’re getting out of it, but I no longer wish to continue to allow the idea that only a few companies around the country, in any city that you’re in, are the only ones. They’re almost always led by white men.
That’s why our communities are the way they are. I don’t feel that’s the only way our communities can develop — and why don’t we have that conversation?
But yeah, being a Black woman just paints another target on my head from everybody concerned.
F&L: I wanted to ask you just to clarify one thing. Several times you’ve said, “We did this. We did that.” When you refer to the “we,” are you referring to a development company?
MC: My company, yes. It’s interesting that I get that question. I really do think that it’s still hard for people to believe that I do this as a Black woman from a neighborhood like this. Of course I have a company. It’s small, but of course I have a company. I’m long on vision and short on balance sheet, but even functioning in that way, it’s still us, still doing the work of a developer.
F&L: What projects are you working on now?
MC: We’re redeveloping a commercial property, which is a former rail station. It’s a feasibility study to do an assemblage, which would be roughly 1,000 units of mixed-income housing, including homeownership, and about 400,000 to 500,000 square feet of manufacturing and commercial space.
That’s my dream. Literally, I want to be able to co-lead that project, and then I’ll retire. I will show that it can be done by someone who looks like me, and then I’ll walk. That is my prayer. Because I’m just too old. I’m going to be 60 in a few years, and I’m done. I’m not going to lie.
F&L: Even on Zoom, you do not look like someone who’s talking about retirement.
MC: Oh no, I am. I swear I’ve aged a lot over these past few years. I’m grateful. I know I’m blessed that I have the ability to do what I do. I’m still here, despite being smacked around as much as I’ve been. I can still smile and laugh about most of it — it makes me super, super happy — so that’s great.
F&L: If a congregation wants to do this kind of work, what would you recommend? I know you’ve worked with the Parish Collective organization.
MC: I was at the last Parish Collective [event]. I had actually been talking to a lot of them about, “What are the roles churches can play in development?”
If they do have property, how are they using it to support folks? More economically diverse communities are actually safer economically, socially. Spiritually as well.
But also really paying attention to predatory speculation. How do we support the homeowners that are already in those communities to keep them from falling victim to predators? I think churches can play a huge role in that, and so some of us are actually starting to have those conversations around it, which is great.
F&L: Do you come from a faith background?
MC: No, no. I am a Christian, definitely a follower. [But] I didn’t become a Christian until years later. I do feel like this is my ministry. And my ability to love my neighbor — I feel like this is my contribution. This is how I can give, and I love it.
In an inconspicuous corner of the campus of Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri, a gathering of leaders considers what will rise in this spot later this year. But this is no contruction site. This is a garden.
It is now a patch of bare earth, with no sign of the greens, tomatoes and other food that will sprout there. But as the Rev. Dr. Kristen Leslie points out to the group, it’s warmed by full, direct sun, even on this chilly April day.
“The okra really love that,” says Leslie, the Harold Peters Schultz Professor of Pastoral Theology and Care at Eden and co-director of the garden project.
By late summer, the gorgeous, conical okra pods will be silhouetted against the blue of the late afternoon sky, their organic architecture echoing the spires of the seminary’s main academic building.
“This was all a parking lot, so we had to bring in truckloads of soil to get started, but we add a little more each year,” Leslie says to the group, which includes the Rev. Dr. Heber Brown III, the founder of the Black Church Food Security Network; the Rev. Karen Pepmeier, co-director of the project; and a smattering of Eden alumni and students.
They’re looking at the garden of Eden — or, officially, the Eden Gleaning and Garden Project.
In 2022, through the efforts of dozens of volunteers and a handful of farmers, the project grew, gleaned and delivered over 14,000 pounds of fresh produce for distribution by feeding ministries and food banks in St. Louis.
But the four-year-old project is about more than fresh veggies. It is about the restorative work of entire systems through relationship and collective imagination.
What began as a simple garden now includes gleaning efforts with farmers two states away, as well as local community support through teaching new gardeners basic skills and providing supplies for simple container gardens.
Its latest commitment is to support a pastor in nearby Herculaneum, Missouri, who plans to turn the site of her town’s historic racially segregated schoolhouse into a center for place-based witness and healing.
Underlying all of this is a shared belief that local efforts by faith communities present a unique opportunity for relationships — to food, land and each other — to lead the way toward restorative justice in the mending of creation.
During their remarks at Eden’s annual spring convocation the previous day, Leslie and Brown, who is a national leader in creating Black food ecosystems, highlighted the connections among food security, pastoral care and grassroots efforts to offer healthy food to people in need.
“We’re not interested in creating new infrastructures,” Leslie said. “Instead, we work with preexisting organizations and build relationships. By operating through a relational network, … we can respond to the actual needs of our community and to the offerings of those with gifts to give.”
It started with an email
On Aug. 25, 2019, Pepmeier, then an Eden student, sent an email to Leslie wondering whether Leslie would be able to distribute some potatoes. One thousand pounds of potatoes were going to rot if someone didn’t claim them.
Pepmeier, who is from a rural farming community in Vincennes, Indiana, knew that Leslie worked with unhoused populations in St. Louis. She hoped to connect to a food ministry where the produce wouldn’t go to waste.
Plowing unharvested crops into the ground is common practice for many of the farmers, who grow produce for grocery chains, Pepmeier said.
In these operations, migrant workers harvest the crops once during a growing season, then move on to other areas of the country. Farmers lack the workers or the money for additional harvests, even though the plants keep producing enough for two or three, she said.
“All that produce is just left in the field to be tilled into the ground at the end of the season,” Pepmeier said.
Leslie had no difficulty finding food ministries that were thrilled to offer the potatoes. A seed was planted: How could Leslie and Pepmeier find ways to get more fresh produce to those who need it most?
They began a two-pronged approach in 2020. First they began conversations with farmers and restaurants to glean produce and perishables such as eggs and bread. By summer 2020, they made their first trip to Indiana to glean corn and potatoes.
They also planted a vegetable garden on Eden’s campus. Located next to the maintenance sheds, the garden site had only a thin layer of topsoil on top of a former parking lot. Leslie credits Pepmeier’s gardening experience and wisdom with their growing success.
“The first year, we planted what we wanted, gifting it to local food ministries I knew of through my work with unhoused folks,” Leslie said. “The second year, we asked the food ministries directly, ‘What would you like us to grow for you?’”
Produce is donated to preexisting ministries, such as the robust feeding ministry through Centennial Christian Church, where vegetables from the project make their way into free, balanced meals for the community.
How do organizations in your community partner with each other to provide fresh food for those who need it?
The Gleaning and Garden Project makes fresh produce more readily available to the over 18% of St. Louis residents who, according to the USDA, live in a food desert, with no easy access to grocery stores.
As Leslie and Pepmeier were attempting to cultivate an oasis, the national conversation around food insecurity offered new language that clarified the scope of their work.
Food justice activist Karen Washington coined the term “food apartheid” — reflecting the racial, geographical, religious and economic aspects of food systems — to replace the term “food desert.”
And Brown’s work with the Black Church Food Security Network helped illuminate the racial dimension of food insecurity across the country, including in St. Louis.
According to a 2019 report by the Interdisciplinary Environmental Clinic at Washington University School of Law, Black residents of St. Louis are more than twice as likely as white residents to have limited access to healthy food, a fact that the report authors cite as an act of environmental racism.
“Pastoral care takes place in the public arena,” Leslie said. “When we engage in community and with the land, we engage directly with unjust systems. When we garden and glean, we interrupt those systems. That is healing work. Transformative work.”
‘Let’s think bigger …’
As the project evolved, Leslie and Pepmeier began to see how transformative it could be.
They continued to focus on the relationships and connections that came from gleaning and gardening in community. “We were doing good work, but Kristen said, ‘Let’s think bigger!’” Pepmeier said.
What is the role of faith communities in providing fresh food for those who need it?
It was around this time that Leslie asked the Rev. Gabrielle Kennedy whether the project could partner with Faith HEALS, an organization dedicated to improving the health and well-being of African Americans in St. Louis.
The idea: distribute produce to people coming to pop-up COVID testing sites Kennedy coordinated in the early months of the pandemic.
An Eden graduate, Kennedy also was serving as pastor at Buren Chapel AME in Herculaneum, Missouri, a town about a half-hour drive south of the seminary on the Mississippi River.
As Kennedy saw firsthand the ways that organizations and churches could partner with communities around food, health and wellness, she felt something click.
“This could be it,” she remembers thinking when she toured the Eden garden and gleaned with other volunteers.
Under her leadership, Buren Chapel joined the Black Church Food Security Network and built three raised garden beds on a long strip of mown grass leading up to Buren Chapel’s tidy sanctuary — soon to be expanded to 10 beds.
The garden would sustain the congregation through the lockdown days of the pandemic.
“That garden has kept our church alive,” Kennedy said. “It was something we could do safely when we couldn’t gather indoors. It gave us something to look forward to, to rally around, and everyone in our community could get involved.”
Through the garden, the church has fostered partnerships with local schools, people in Herculaneum and the Cooperative Extension of Lincoln University, an HBCU in Mid-Missouri.
But Kennedy’s vision is much larger. In 2022, she helped launch the Buren-Douglass Healing Center. As their first task, they acquired the historic Douglass Schoolhouse and adjoining property. The school, named after Frederick Douglass, was founded in 1912 as the school for Black students, which it served in two locations until desegregation in 1957.
“I have congregation members who were the last kindergarten class to attend there before the schools were desegregated, so its history really means something to us,” Kennedy said. “We don’t want that forgotten.”
Another part of the community’s story is one of ecological degradation.
For more than 100 years, the town was the site of one of the largest lead smelting operations in the country. The Doe Run Company’s Herculaneum smelter closed in 2013 in compliance with an agreement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Herculaneum underwent a mandated remediation, which included razing houses and removing topsoil contaminated with lead dust. Because the pollution most affected historically Black-owned and Black-occupied properties in town, the remediation also deeply disrupted the Black community.
Kennedy wants the new center to be a place that is “ecologically grounded, honors natural resources, and invites people to come and spend time.”
“We want to honor the history of the land and the people who lived here, to tell the stories of harm,” Kennedy said, “but also to offer the community an experience of a place that is being healed.”
Kennedy said she sees her work in creation care as a reversal of historical and institutional stresses placed on Black Americans. And doing so in community offers Kennedy glimpses of grace.
“There are few examples of God’s love as pure and straightforward as watching a garden grow, as watching the provision of food in real time,” she said. “And justice is woven into it all when a person can see how they participated in some aspect of bringing their own food into being. There is a deep dignity there.”
How does your local congregation steward the land it owns? Does it support land stewardship in the surrounding community?
Connections and community
As a community organizer, Kennedy ensured that the seeds of the Buren-Douglass Healing Center were rooted in local resources.
“We want to build this place through connections and community,” she said. “People think the work we’re doing is about building a garden, but the real work is about building trust.”
Kennedy reached out to the Eden Gleaning and Garden Project to serve as a hub for generative conversations about resource sharing, visions for the center and future endeavors.
Leslie sees the project’s role as a supporting one.
“I can’t step in as an expert,” she said; community members are the experts of their own contexts. “But I can share what we’ve done and foster conversations where folks can share dreams, connections and resources while building relationships.”
In the fall of 2022, the project hosted a meal and space for Kennedy and seven other Black women to gather at the garden at the seminary.
“We’re moving at the speed of trust,” Leslie said. “But already, there’s so much energy and excitement around the healing potential of connecting to others and to the land in liberative ways.”
Kennedy agreed, confident that new partnerships will continue to emerge.
“Really, anyone is welcome at the table. There are so many doorways into this work, which tells me that it’s not just about one kind of people’s liberation; it’s about collective liberation,” she said.
How does growing food heal us and our relationship with the land?
Less tangible harvests
While Kennedy prepares the soil in Herculaneum, Leslie and Pepmeier have continued to lead gleaning trips, workshops and a community course on the project through Eden.
Participants read the gleaning codes of Deuteronomy and Leviticus alongside the history of United States land policy, such as the Homestead Act of 1862 and the swift 1865 overturn of the “40 acres and a mule” promise to former slaves.
Reflecting on the less tangible harvests of the project, Pepmeier noted the instantaneous yet deep-rooted connections that have emerged among volunteers who were strangers prior to meeting in the fields.
“I can even see a change in the farmers,” Pepmeier said. She got a call in 2022 from a farmer she had known for years, she said. She’d gleaned his fields earlier that season.
But now he wanted to help in another way. He had paid his workers to harvest a field for a second time, knowing that the crops would be donated, not sold to market.
“He self-initiated a food distribution. That never would have happened before,” she said.
It’s one example of how the Eden Gleaning and Garden Project has become a kind of farm-to-table fellowship, where good, nourishing meals are blessed by many on their way to the plate.
“A garden is a resource,” said Pat Pendleton, of Centennial Christian Church. “But is a garden just resource for produce? Or is it also for connection? Healing? Relationship?”
How does growing and gleaning food bring us closer to understanding God’s justice?
Questions to consider
- How do organizations in your community partner with each other to provide fresh food for those who need it?
- What is the role of faith communities in that work?
- How does your local congregation steward the land it owns? Does it support land stewardship in the surrounding community?
- How does growing food heal us and our relationship with the land?
- How does growing and gleaning food bring us closer to understanding God’s justice?
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?
At 8:00 on a Sunday morning, I usually worship in the suburban Chicago church where I am pastor, wearing a stole and sensible flats. But this Sunday, I am leading a group of 10 on a hike in a Chicago forest preserve, wearing a bright blue Osprey daypack and hiking shoes.
We’ve done introductions, named our intentions and are heading off toward the first stop, where I will guide them in a contemplative practice I’ve found in a book. I feel utterly ridiculous and absolutely delighted.
It is an event for my Meetup group, “Re-Creation: Hour-long retreats in the outdoors.” Meetup, a social networking site, gives people the opportunity to connect in real life around activities they enjoy — like hiking and contemplation. My group invites participants to spend time in nature and connect with other spiritually minded people and practices, and with the Holy.
For Re-Creation, I planned some events on Saturdays and some on Sundays, even though it meant I would miss worship on three Sundays in the summer. As I’m the lead pastor, this felt like a big deal. But it was good for the congregation to know how important I thought it was for us to actively seek out people who would not normally come to church. Just unlocking the doors on Sunday morning wasn’t bringing masses of newcomers.
The group roster swelled to 100. Then 200. We’re now up to more than 400 members. Not nearly that many people sign up for the events themselves. Usually four to six Meetup people come, and three to four people from my church. And there are always those who RSVP and then don’t show, just like church.
My congregation received my announcement about the Meetup roster with an audible gasp. We’d confused shrinking worship attendance with a lack of interest in God. The people who attend the Meetup also meditate, see reiki practitioners and go on silent retreats.
They want to connect with other spiritually minded people. They want community. They want experiences of the holy. These are all things the church should be good at, but we exert a lot of effort not offering them.
We spin our wheels getting people to serve on committees and bring treats to coffee hour. No wonder people trade church for coffee shops and weekends on the lake. People are spiritually hungry, and we ask them to cook for potluck suppers.
After introductions, I lead us just a short way down the trail and then pause at an opening in the trees. I read a Mary Oliver poem and then teach a form of centering prayer. We continue on the hike. The group divides into two clusters. The people who joined via the app get to know each other, while the five people from my church talk like old friends. How do they ever expect us to grow if they don’t talk to strangers? I think.
We continue until about the midway point of the trail, where I introduce them to “lectio divina in nature,” in which the natural surroundings are the text, instead of Scripture. I hand out a description of the steps on a laminated sheet complete with the church logo and website. “They are less likely to toss the laminated paper,” I had explained to my secretary. “The logo reminds them about the cool church that organized the Meetup.”
I had told my church that success was simply meeting people we otherwise would not have met. I lied. Secretly, I thought this Meetup would clear a path from the forest preserve to our sanctuary.
We finish the hike in contemplative silence. At the end, I teach an embodied prayer.
Hands raised. “Christ above me.” (Participants are invited to use whatever word for the Holy fits for them.)
Hands out to the sides. “Christ beside me.”
Hands to the chest. “Christ inside me.”
Hands out in front, to receive and to offer. “Amen.”
We share with each other our worries, so that we won’t have to carry them alone, and those things for which we are thankful, so that we can celebrate with others. As we say goodbye, people hug. Community is formed.
As a college student, I spent time in a conservative evangelical campus community. We wanted people to follow Jesus so that he could save them from hell. Those of us in the mainline church don’t worry so much about the unchurched getting saved. We worry more about saving our churches.
We get anxious about numbers, and we shrink evangelism to church growth, measuring success by butts in pews and dollars in plates. We want people to come to church to replace the ones who have died or moved or left angry or just burned out. We want to reinvigorate the congregation with “new blood,” forgetting that blood transfusions are for the benefit of the recipient, not the donor.
As I drive home, I reflect on the morning. When our walk started, I thought my delight was because I was ditching church for a walk in the woods. But my delight was deeper than a day off. I often feel more like the executive director of a religiously affiliated institution than a pastor of a congregation of disciples. Leading this pack of strangers was the most I’d felt like a real pastor in a long time.
I wasn’t skipping church. I’d been to church. I see the point of the day for the first time: it wasn’t to invite people to church but to participate in church with them.
I remember a holy moment. During the lectio divina, I’d hiked ahead of the group to the gathering point on the trail. Dense fog had hushed the distant sounds of traffic and cloaked the woods and prairie in mystery.
I slowed my pace. Breathing. Noticing. A deer stepped out of the woods onto the trail about 50 feet in front of me. We stood, eyes locked for several seconds. Both of us beholding, and beheld.