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Finding the We: God’s Grace can Transform Environmental Racism

“It has been 1,606 days since Flint has had clean water,” declared Flint Rising director Nayyirah Shiriff after introducing herself to me and a group of about 30 other “Healing Waters” retreat participants in the last days of summer 2018 at the Colombiere retreat center in Clarkston, Michigan. Nayyirah’s statement brought a silent wave of grief over the room.

Nayyirah’s statement brought a silent wave of grief over the room.

Meanwhile, we also learned, the city of Detroit had shut off household water access for thousands of its own residents simply due to their inability to pay water bills on time, and the Detroit public schools found lead in their water at the beginning of the school year.

We let the irony sink in: in one of the most freshwater-rich places in the world, everyday people are being denied access to clean, safe, affordable water. Most of them are people of color.

In one of the most freshwater-rich places in the world, everyday people are being denied access to clean, safe, affordable water.

Across Michigan, people have lost their democratic rights to “emergency managers” appointed by the governor under Michigan’s Public Act 436. The vast majority of people impacted by this policy are people of color. Among other austerity measures, emergency managers have imposed harsh water policies against peoples’ will.

Flint’s emergency manager chose the short-term cost-saving measure of switching Flint’s water source from Detroit city water to the corrosive Flint River. He did this with little regard for the health and very lives of the people he was supposed to serve. Furthermore, people with commercial interests in Detroit are using household water shutoffs to try to push out long-time residents who are unable to pay. These water shutoffs are contributing to public health problems due to lack of basic sanitation for thousands of people.

More than half the people on this “Healing Waters” retreat were from Flint or Detroit. These retreat participants have been working for years on the front lines of coping with water crises in their communities. A combination of church leaders and community activists, there was a tangible weariness in the room, combined with a sense of steadfast determination. The rest of the retreatants were people from various Christian communities seeking to build long-term alliances for water justice. Some came with a desire to counteract environmental racism and to defend water. Many began their time at the retreat unclear on how their respective communities could help from afar.

There was a tangible weariness in the room, combined with a sense of steadfast determination.

Mama Lila Cabbil, member of the “Healing Waters” retreat planning team, Director Emeritus of the Rosa Parks Foundation, and leader in the Peoples’ Water Board, challenged each of us to “find the we” in the interconnected stories of the water crises of Flint and Detroit.

It did not take long to recognize that some of the fundamental problems leading to the water crises in Flint and Detroit are more universal than we readily see. In mainstream U.S. culture, we view water as a “resource.” Rather than a gift from God which is necessary for all of creation to flourish, or a living relative with which we share kinship in God’s creation, most of us view water as a commodity. However, we don’t just do this to water: we do it to people, and to entire communities.

Most of us view water as a commodity.

Dr. Ben Chavis, known to many as one of the fathers of the environmental justice movement, defined environmental racism as “racial discrimination in environmental policy-making and enforcement of regulations and laws, the deliberate targeting of communities of color for toxic waste facilities, the official sanctioning of the presence of life-threatening poisons and pollutants for communities of color, and the history of excluding people of color from leadership of the environmental movement” (Chavis, Benjamin F., Jr., 1994).

Environmental racism happens in nearly every community. In your own community, look no further than the locations of bus depots, landfills, superfund sites, and coal plants to find that, more often than not, they are located in communities of color. In a study commissioned by Dr. Chavis in 1987, Toxic Waste and Race, this was empirically proven, and unfortunately when the study was repeated 20 years later, the results persisted. To “find the we” in the water crises of Michigan, we need to reflect on how and why environmental racism manifests.

Look no further than the locations of bus depots, landfills, superfund sites, and coal plants.

Commodification of God’s creation and people in the United States and Canada has deep roots in the Doctrine of Discovery, heretical teachings pushed forward through Christian institutions to justify theft, slavery, and genocide in the colonial era by putting white Europeans at the top of a Church-sanctioned racial hierarchy.

Today, those of us born and raised in the United States too often unconsciously perpetuate the culture of racism and greed on which our country was established. This injures everyone’s spirit: oppressors, oppressed, and bystanders. The Christian Reformed Church is one of many denominations that has taken the symbolic action of repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery. The concrete actions required to undo its horrific legacy in our hearts, minds, and society require us to follow our faith into a very counter-cultural lifestyle. It takes conscious decisions every day, and only by the grace of God can we change. 

How can you “find the we” so that we can work together for environmental justice? Here are some suggestions:

  1. Listen. Tune in to hear perspectives and advice from people in your own community who are working to protect God’s creation. Particularly listen for ways they frame matters of healthy soil, responsible chemical use, safe water, or clean air as also being concerns about public health, democratic processes, and racial equity.
  2. Research and learn. Investigate more about issues in the place where you live. Creation Justice Ministries’ Christian education resource on “Sense of Place” includes tips on how to learn about current and former Indigenous neighbors as well as your watershed.
  3. Ask key questions before taking action. For example:
    • Where and how is any community being harmed?
    • Who has the decision-making power, and who is being left out?
    • Who financially benefits, and who is paying?
    • What is my role as a thoughtful Christian in defending the life and dignity of my neighbors?
  4. Raise awareness. Too often, environmental racism is a silent epidemic. Find opportunities to raise this issue with friends and family, as well as in public community forums.
  5. Engage civically. Vote, and encourage others to vote, for candidates who talk explicitly about addressing environmental racism. Regularly contact candidates and policy makers regarding your concern about environmental racism issues in your community.
This is the last post in our Thinking Downstream series. Thanks for following along!

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