Presbyterian youth embrace environmental justice and activism

Environmental Ministry sees growing interest in justice in this generation

by Rick Jones | Presbyterian News Service
Teenagers attending the recent Youth Triennium crowded into a classroom to discuss environmental and racial justice issues. (Photo by Jennifer Evans)

Teenagers attending the recent Youth Triennium crowded into a classroom to discuss environmental and racial justice issues. (Photo by Jennifer Evans)

LOUISVILLE – If this summer’s Presbyterian Youth Triennium is any indication, more young people are showing an overwhelming interest in critical topics that intersect faith and social justice, such as environmental racism. The summer gathering at Purdue University drew nearly 5,000 young people for a week of worship, fellowship and a chance to learn and engage on issues of great importance to the church as a whole. For many of the presenters on key advocacy issues, the turnout and interaction was more than they expected.

“When we were thinking about societal issues that young people have been energized about and involved with in the past few years, we felt environmental activism and racial justice would generate a great deal of interest,” said Rebecca Barnes, associate with Environmental Ministries in the Presbyterian Hunger Program. “We’ve seen that in the church and society as a whole.”

Barnes says it’s a concept the church has been talking about for a long time.

“We have policy from 1995 that talks specifically about race and the environment and how hazardous waste facilities are almost always located in communities of color,” she said. “Zoning laws usually put this type of industry in low income neighborhoods which also may be heavily African American or other communities of color.”

Barnes and co-presenter Jennifer Evans were scheduled to present in a classroom built to hold 20-30 people comfortably. But youth kept pouring in even if it meant being uncomfortable. “When you’re looking at a topic like environmental racism, it’s okay to be uncomfortable, both physically and emotionally,” said Barnes.

Both Barnes and Evans brainstormed with the group on what they knew about environmental racism or environmental injustice and found that many were not sure.

“Most of the youth in attendance were there to learn and were very engaged and excited,” said Barnes. “There were a lot of options at Triennium that morning and yet they chose this. We were very impressed with their attentiveness and dedication.”

The group looked at case studies covering such topics as Native American battles over uranium in the southwest to African Americans dealing with pollution from nearby bus depots. Barnes believes those in attendance came away with a better understanding of environmental and social justice and are prepared to talk about it.

“I think they came away with the knowledge and have a few examples of what environmental injustice looks like and the impact on communities of color,” said Barnes. “When the class was over, a number of the youth stayed, sharing their stories and opinions.”

Barnes says she’s hopeful that young Presbyterians will take up these issues and make significant changes on how to care for the earth.

“We still don’t know what that activism will look like. Will they attend conferences, create non profits or member-based networks? Is there something else that will happen?” Barnes asked. “With social media and community organization, I think there is a passion and commitment, but I’m not sure how that will take shape.”

Barnes says she would like to continue the conversation with young Presbyterians especially in light of the recent General Assembly’s focus on environmental and racial justice. “It’s a good time in the church to think about how these are interconnected. Especially with Presbyterians standing in solidarity with the Lummi Nation in the Pacific Northwest over issues of coal transport—solidarity that started over a year ago and even more recently with the Standing Rock Sioux over the placement of an oil pipeline in North Dakota. We hope this conversation continues.”

For more information on environmental justice, contact Rebecca.Barnes@pcusa.org.


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