Columbia Theological Seminary conference offers up three speakers with varied experiences but a common goal of environmental justice
May 4, 2023
A plenary session during Columbia Theological Seminary’s Just Creation conference included panelists remembering a patch of Earth that’s special to them.
The panel, moderated by the Rev. Dr. Mark Douglas, the seminary’s professor of Christian Ethics, included:
Dr. Richard Milligan, a geographer and assistant professor at Georgia State University
The Rev. Kate Mosley, a PC(USA) pastor and Columbia Theological Seminary graduate who co-founded Soul Ventures International and is executive director of the International Enneagram Association
The Rev. Dr. Melanie Harris, professor of Black Feminist Thought and Womanist Theology and director of the Food, Health and Ecological Well-Being Program at the Wake Forest University School of Divinity and African American Studies program at Wake Forest University.
For Harris, the presence of God made the place they were in at that moment sacred space. “I’m deeply grateful for this space on the planet.”
Milligan said it’s the 180 or so square miles of the Upper South River watershed southeast of Atlanta, where 85% of the 480,000 or so residents are people of color and have experienced environmental injustice over the years.
Mosley recalled being a 4-year-old girl immersed “in a small intimate grove of pine trees” in her neighborhood. Her mother gave her a brown paper bag, which Mosley used as a sleeping bag while she “looked at the trees and appreciated the silence. I thought these trees were enormous companions of mine. … In that ordinary place I realized these are all sacred patches.”
Later the family moved to South Texas and lived among the refineries. “We had a postage stamp of a yard,” Mosley said. “In that space I became friends with kids whose parents had good jobs at those refineries. What matters is we see each other. Those faces inform the work I know.”
Milligan takes people on paddle trips along the South River, where “we look at the resilience and the beauty that are there. … You see the pristine, pure places getting resources [from grant sources] and the damaged places not getting them. It’s a deeply segregated enterprise.”
In the Black church tradition, to notice is to act, Harris said. “To be a person of faith is to act. There is no privilege to sit back and acknowledge guilt or struggle with guilt, or to call 25 committee meetings to discuss what environmental justice ought to be in the denomination. The Black church still speaks so powerfully in this moment. Of course, we are to act.”
Some people, Harris said, “are moved [to act] by the ethical argument, and others by the great grandchildren argument, while others [are motivated] by the discount they get on [an electric vehicle].” But “most people,” Harris said, “will be moved by the Spirit.”
Increasingly, geographers have enhanced the use of Geographic Information System mapping “to create this equivalence between Black lives and harm,” Milligan said. He said the National Science Foundation has approved a five-year grant that will allow him and other partners to work with two Black-led organizations to recruit and engage with Black geoscientists “to better understand and repair environmental injustices in frontline communities.”
The work that Fannie Lou Hamer and others call for includes dismantling “white supremacist modes of the sense of ownership of the Earth,” Harris said. “How can you own the song of a bird? The thought is ridiculous. It’s not just blasphemous.” Hamer “loved the white supremacist who beat her when she was arrested in the same way Black Lives Matter [advocates] loved themselves and the planet and democracy itself enough to stand 3 inches from fully armed police officers.”
“That’s God’s love,” Harris said. “We’ve got to do the work to get to love.”
Mike Ferguson, Editor, Presbyterian News Service
Today’s Focus: Just Creation conference panelists
Let us join in prayer for:
PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
Andrew Browne, Senior Vice President, Church Relations, Board of Pensions
Vernon Broyles, Volunteer, Office of the General Assembly
Let us pray
O God, your name reaches to the ends of the earth. We rejoice that we may go out and spread your word that you are our god, forever and ever. Amen.