Environmental justice and COVID-19 come together in CPJ Day webinar

Three panelists discuss the impact of environmental injustice and pandemic on vulnerable communities

by Rich Copley | Presbyterian News Service

The 2020 Compassion, Peace & Justice Training Day was held via Zoom conference. Leading the discussion were (clockwise from top, left) Catherine Gordon, the Rev. Edwin González-Castillo, Emma Lockridge, Andrew Kang Bartlett, the Rev. Fern Cloud, Estrella D. Santiago Pérez, and (center) Sue Rheem.

LEXINGTON, Kentucky — Environmental justice organizer Emma Lockridge started off her Compassion, Peace & Justice Training Day talk telling viewers how COVID-19 looks in her South Detroit neighborhood.

“When I look at Facebook, it feels like a rolling obituary,” Lockridge said. “Right now, on my telephone, I have rolling a funeral of a very prominent church mother here, who contracted COVID along with her husband. He survived, and now they are at her funeral today.”

She said the church they went to has lost more than 30 people to the disease.

“COVID is intensely personal in my life,” she continued. “My neighbor up the street, who was 50 years old, died last week. My neighbor three blocks away, who went to elementary school with me, died last week. COVID. My state representative who lives here, thank God, recovered.”

And the list continued with people at various stages of dealing with the disease that has been declared a global pandemic.

The pandemic forced the cancellation of scheduled Compassion, Peace & Justice (CPJ) Training Day, organized by the PC(USA) Office of Public Witness (OPW) each year at Washington, D.C.’s New York Avenue Presbyterian Church. But on Friday, when the event was scheduled to take place, more than 160 people logged in for the noon webinar offered in its stead.

Lockridge, who had been scheduled to appear at the in-person event, was joined by the Rev. Fern Cloud of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Dakota Tribe on the Lake Traverse Reservation in northeastern South Dakota, and Estrella D. Santiago Pérez, Environmental Affairs Manager for the Corporación del Proyecto ENLACE del Caño Martín Peña in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The panel discussion was moderated by the Rev. Edwin González-Castillo of Presbyterian Disaster Assistance and Sue Rheem of the Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations, with assistance from Catherine Gordon of OPW and Andrew Kang Bartlett of the Presbyterian Hunger Program.

Environmental justice was the stated topic of the event. But just like almost everything else these days, the coronavirus pandemic couldn’t help but become part of the conversation, which moderators and panelists pointed out was appropriate.

“Even as we struggle to imagine a world in the aftermath of coronavirus, we see the interconnectedness of the coronavirus pandemic and climate change that are disproportionately impacting economically disadvantaged communities, particularly communities of color that are bearing the brunt of this devastating loss,” Rheem said, opening the webinar.

“As native people, we suffer from many disparities,” Cloud said, noting that the economic impact of closed businesses such as casinos was hitting her community particularly hard. Noting health impacts such as widespread diabetes, she added, “Being a Native American in this country has always been just a matter of survival for us. We have very few activists who bring up our concerns, because most of us just live in a day-to-day survival mode.”

Pérez was the last to introduce herself and work, saying, “It is good to know that people, even though they are struggling, are organizing and fighting for their rights.”

Pérez had the most formal work to introduce, talking about her organization that helps keep people in an economically disadvantaged portion of San Juan in their homes while simultaneously improving the community and protecting against the impact of natural disasters such as Hurricane Maria in 2017. She observed that in just the last three years, the island territory had faced a historic hurricane, earthquakes and now the COVID-19 pandemic.

“These communities are continuously exposed to flooding, anytime it rains,” Pérez said. She added that the flood waters are contaminated, “which impacts the health of our 26,000 residents,” as does the presence of industry and a nearby airport.

In the question-and-answer session, Lockridge talked about a campaign against “sacrifice zones,” such as hers in Detroit and Pérez’s community in San Juan. Those are communities, usually of color, exposed to pollution by industry or other entities.

Looking past the pandemic, Pérez said, “We don’t want to go back to ‘normal,’ because normal for us was harsh and punishing.”

The discussion, participants noted, was taking place the same week as Earth Day, and with vastly reduced emissions from transportation around the world and other impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, people were getting to look at the world and people’s relationship to it in a different way.

“Every day is Earth Day for us as native people,” Cloud said. “It’s tragic that this country is such a capitalistic country that puts so much in materialism. The populations have halted a little bit, slowed down in their materialistic lifestyle, which is a good thing. We can just take a step back and let nature reclaim the air and the land, and the natural environment has the time to breathe and collect itself somewhat.

“So this is just a picture of what we’re going through as human beings. We’re stepping back and taking the time to really see what is important to us,” Cloud said. “Native people, on the whole, we’re social, we’re connected. Kinship is very important to us. So we’re looking out and seeing something that we’ve always lived by: the importance of family, and acknowledging that there is a higher power, a creator, and that he knows, he’s in control.

“Creation is in control.”

Click here to see the CPJ Training Day webinar in its entirety.

The Compassion, Peace & Justice ministries of the Presbyterian Mission Agency are Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, the Presbyterian Hunger Program, the Presbyterian Committee on the Self-Development of People, Mission Responsibility Through Investment, the Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations, the Office of Public Witness, the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program, the Office of Racial & Intercultural Justice, the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy and the Mental Health Ministry.


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