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Black churches bring ecology down to earth.

WASHINGTON - Leaders of the nation's black churches recently ended a historic two-day summit meeting on the environment pledging to make their denominations players in the environmental policy debate.

The conference marked the first time predominantly black churches have collectively addressed environmental issues, explicitly linking them with civil rights and economic justice.

There was little talk of the ozone layer or the spotted owl but much of toxic and hazardous wastes, landfills and incinerators.

At the conclusion of the sessions, participants adopted a draft statement challenging the environmental movement "to redefine and reinterpret environmentalism to include economic and racial justice."

Participants included officials from the six predominantly black denominations present, as well as black leaders from other mainline Protestant denominations and representatives from grass-roots environmental groups. They focused on such growing problems as lead poisoning and the placement of toxic and hazardous waste dumps in black neighborhoods.

Together, the churches have a membership of some 13 million people. "We are here to make the connection between our daily survival issues and environmental justice," said Bishop Frederick James, president of the General Board of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

"We have been living next to the train tracks, trash dumps, coal plants and insect-infested swamps for many decades." James said. "We in the black community have been disproportionately affected by toxic dumping, disproportionately affected by lead paint at home, disproportionately affected by dangerous chemicals in the workplace."

The meeting was sponsored by the National Council of Churches as a project of the National Interreligious Partnership for the Environment. The partnership is a new interfaith effort at involving religious congregations in environmental issues.

"The presence of the historic black churches breathes soul into the environmental movement," said the Rev. Joan Brown Campbell, general secretary of the NCC. During the two days of meetings, on Capitol Hill and in a Washington hotel, the group heard from a variety of government officials and members of Congress. Officials included Vice President Al Gore, who strongly endorsed the summit's recurrent theme linking economic and environmental justice.

Gore urged church leaders to stand with the administration in its effort to reshape environmental policy. "Let us join hands, praise God and heal our land," he said.

Even stronger language was used by the Rev. Charles Adams, who challenged the administration to do battle with "the forces that are ripping the heavens and raping the earth."

He said the environmental crisis was fueled by the "shameful assumption that the earth is not the Lord's, but ours" to be destroyed "in the name of production, progress, prosperity and pride."

For much of the meeting, the church leaders heard from local activists such as Charlotte Keyes of Columbia, Miss., head of Jesus People Against Pollution and leader of a campaign for the cleanup of a local Superfund site, and Eric Bolling, Pensacola, Fla., who leads Citizens Against Toxic Waste.

Repeatedly, speakers sounded the theme that environmental concerns must be linked to questions of economic justice issues.

"They are kin," said the Rev. W. Franklyn Richardson, general secretary of the National Baptist Convention, of the two issues. "It is not a hard reach."

But he said environmentalism is "a new mission because it calls for new education, new interpretations - not seeing the environment in abstract terms."

Churches co-convening the summit included the African Methodist Episcopal Church; African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church; Christian Methodist Episcopal Church; National Baptist Convention of America; National Baptist Convention USA Inc.; and Progressive National Baptist Convention.
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Title Annotation:National Interreligious Partnership for the Environment conference
Author:Anderson, David E.
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Dec 17, 1993
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