Despite natural disasters like Moore, black pastors tread lightly on climate change
As survivors of the Moore, Oklahoma tornadoes assess their damage and begin the process of recovery and rebuilding, church leaders from across the country are considering ways in which they can help. But some are asking whether beyond aid, churches should be confronting what many scientists believe are the root causes of natural disasters.
In Oklahoma, local churches locally are collecting donations, sending volunteers, even organizing blood drives. And nationally, denominations like the United Methodist Church (UMC), Southern Baptist Church (SBC) and the United Church of Christ (UCC) are finding ways to help churches and residents in the area.
The response from churches is no different from responses following past natural disasters, suggests Calvin Butts, pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York and president of the State University of New York College at Old Westbury, whose church has in the past raised funds for churches in Louisiana following Hurricane Katrina, as well as in Alabama following natural disasters there and Far Rockaway, NY following Hurricane Sandy.
“As an individual church, we have also responded to some of the international incidences and disasters that have taken place as Baptists in the American Baptist Church,” he said.
While Moore attempts to recover, conversations have once again begun regarding climate change and their link to the influx of natural disasters across the globe.
Climate’s impact on black communities
Some suggest climate change is an issue and natural disasters like in Moore are evidence of that, while others – stereotypically labeled as more evangelical (read: conservative) politicians, church and community leaders – suggest something totally different.
It’s an age-old debate in religious, political and scientific arenas. One camp has argued that global warming and climate change is very real as a result of the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and the melting of snowcaps. However, on the other hand, other groups are skeptical. They argue the rise in temperatures is normal, and the rise of devastating hurricanes like Katrina and Sandy as well as the deadly tsunamis is Japan are a coincidence.
Where are African American church leaders and pastors in this conversation? The question is a necessary one. Most preachers – especially black preachers – believe God gives humanity dominion over the earth, “its inhabitants and all creation” in the book of Genesis.
Butts is hesitant to speculate, but said he doesn’t think many black preachers and pastors are part of the climate change conversation.
“I do know that some are. I do here and I am sure of others in parts of the country,” he said. “I preached a sermon about a love for nature base on God’s command in Genesis. But in terms of an organized effort – I am not aware. I do know that people have been talking about these kinds of things for a long time.”
Referencing the work of the UCC historically through their social justice initiatives, Butts points out that there was talk about environmentalism because blacks were often exposed to rancid environments.
“In places in the south as well as the north, toxic dumping grounds for chemical waste, were often [located] in areas adjacent to black communities – bus depots, sewage plants on the Hudson River adjacent to Harlem,” he said. “So that concern to the environment has been around for awhile.”
Tyson-Lord J. Gray, a PhD candidate at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN is completing his dissertation on this very topic. In his research he has found that historically, most black communities’ engagement in issues is very localized. In most instances, the concern is “how are our communities impacted,” he told TheGrio.
“Recently there has been a more global perspective by some black churches. I would not want to make that appear to be any type of movement or wave,” he said. “At the same time I would not want to overlook or negate the efforts of leaders like the Rev. Dr. Gerald Durley of Providence Missionary Baptist Church in Atlanta.”
Durley, who retired last year, screened the documentary An Inconvenient Truth and led conversations and discussions with members of the congregation on the topic.
“So we do see more black churches exhibiting a greater consciousness around climate change and global warming,” Gray said.
However, he wants to be careful to not link the tornadoes in Moore to climate change and global warming.
“There is no direct link between tornadoes and climate change,” he said. “We can make these arguments a little better when talking about rising temperatures and how they lead to greater degrees of hurricanes.”
When looking at the pattern of more and more category 4 and 5 hurricanes, these links can be made. Tornadoes, on the other hand, are very erratic. The research on their cause is not the best and Oklahoma is simply ground zero for tornadoes.
Something is happening
Butts is clear of one thing, something is afoot.
“Scientists are telling us something is happening to the climate in this nation and in this world,” he said. “However, there are some going around saying there is no global warming.”
He is of the belief things are not getting any better and that if black church leaders are not having the discussion, they should.
“Al Gore has a book, The Future: Six Drivers to Global Change. He talks about our relationship to the environment. It is something that we should be paying deep attention to,” he said. “Does not matter where in the country we live. It is something that people of Africa descent ought to think about.”
He will continue to have the discussion with his congregation. As a matter-of-fact, this coming Sunday he plans to preach a sermon on the topic from Psalm 46.
Moving forward, black church leaders have to re-consider their strategy, said Gray.
“The black pastor is no longer the only voice in the black community. We have to realize we live in a different age – a social media age,” he said. “The black church is extremely important to the community, but we have leaders in so many other places and arenas. How do we disseminate this information and make it interesting?”
The strategy, the modes of dissemination and consciousness will have to vary and be diverse, according to Gray.
Butts believes the heads of our denominational gatherings should take advantage of the very smart people around us.
“We have a spiritual perspective and that needs to be informed by the science of today. We are not the enemies of the science of today,” he said. “And the science of today is more complimentary to the power of God than it is an opposition to the reality of God in the world.”