Environmental Defense Fund vice president opens Just Creation conference with insights into a beloved psalm

Heather McTeer Toney says caring for Creation is ‘going to take a little bit of science, a lot of money and a whole lot of faith’

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Heather McTeer Toney

LOUISVILLE — Heather McTeer Toney, Vice President for Community Engagement with the Environmental Defense Fund, opened the Just Creation conference at Columbia Theological Seminary Thursday by diving into Psalm 24:1-2, a favorite passage among those advocating for and working at Creation care: “The Earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world and those who live in it, for [God] has founded it on the seas and established it on the rivers.”

However, Toney said, many Bible translations render that last word “floods” rather than “rivers.” The difference got Toney to reminisce over being the first Black mayor of Greenville, Mississippi, an office she won at age 27. “I knew what a flood was. You get a whole lot of rain and your street floods first. Your sewer backs up first. That’s what comes to mind for a lot of communities of color when they read ‘flood’ in the Bible,” Toney said during her keynote address at Decatur Presbyterian Church in Decatur, Georgia. Systemic racism “puts communities of color at a disadvantage.”

A river is different. “In Mississippi, you don’t play by the river. You respect the river,” she said. “It’s the life source of agriculture. It enriches the soil so the farmland can be rejuvenated. The river is powerful and beautiful. When we see it in the Bible, we have to equate some of these differences based on our cultural experiences. We do that when we get to know communities and spaces.”

Watch her address here. She’s introduced by Columbia Theological Seminary President the Rev. Dr. Victor Aloyo during the 32nd minute.

Not only is understanding the need for environmental justice crucial, “it’s at the core” of her Christian faith, Toney said. “What encumbers one of us encumbers us all.”

As Matthew’s gospel points out, God sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. “The trees don’t decide who to protect [from the sun and the rain] and who not to protect,” Toney said. “We must all collectively look at God’s ability to care for us as part of our requirement to take care of God’s Creation. It’s your job. It’s the thing you’re supposed to do.”

“We’re going to screw it up sometimes,” she said. But “God must have had some faith in humanity to give us care and oversight over Creation.”

As human beings, “it’s easy for us to look at another place,” point out its shortcomings, “and say what they should do. It’s harder to do that closer to home,” Toney said. The East Palestine, Ohio community has received plenty of media attention and sympathy following last month’s toxic train derailment, which affected a mostly white community. But scant attention has been paid to train derailments affecting majority Black communities, Toney noted.

“Just like in East Palestine, the trusted sources for communities is not always the government,” she said. “People ask their pastor. They call their aunt’s cousin and say, ‘Girl, what’s going on at your house? Are they telling you to leave?’ We are the trusted sources for people,” she told conference-goers. “It’s necessary to wade into these tough environmental spaces.”

“It’s hard to deal with controversial issues, the things that don’t sit in the spaces we sit in every day,” Toney said, mentioning specifically the water crises in Flint, Michigan, and Jackson, Mississippi. “Is it a river or a flood? What might be a river for you is a flood for somebody else. Our responsibility is to care for God’s Creation. It means we have to spend time with one another in different places, messing up sometimes and be OK with messing up.”

If we don’t know the very thing we’re supposed to care for, “it’s because we haven’t spent time with it,” she said. “How am I supposed to care for something I didn’t see? We have to get into the community. It’s our responsibility to do that and do that in a way of love and hope, which changes the narrative so our work with climate becomes synonymous with faith and Creation.”

“Who’s better suited for that than people of faith?” she asked. “It’s going to take a little bit of science, a lot of money and a whole lot of faith.”


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