African American churches have been on the frontlines of the most important social movements of the last century. The movements begin at the pulpit, with preachers stirring their congregation to action via Sunday sermons that link spirituality and faith to a greater calling.
“The bible has a call for stewardship and a call to action—there’s a hook around sustainability,” says Julian McQueen, Green for All’s director of education and outreach.
Green for All’s Green the Church is commonly referred to as a movement, with founders McQueen and Rev. Ambrose Carroll saying it is bigger than just a program – it is a force on climate action.
“I come from a very social justice church atmosphere,” Carroll says. “For us, climate change is the civil rights issue of our day.”
When McQueen joined Green for All in 2008 on the organization’s 28th day of existence, he felt a calling to engage local community leaders and youth in protecting the environment. Now, serving as Green for All’s director of education and outreach, he has found success by creating Green for All’s All Fellowship program, which helps fellows develop skills to build community-generated solutions and organize in their cities. He’s also spearheaded the organization’s College Ambassadors Program, which supports the leadership development of students at historically black colleges and universities.
It was at Green for All some years later that he teamed up with Rev. Carroll, formerly a fellow, to pinpoint how they could move the African American church to engage in the climate fight.
In November 2014, the early stages of what is now known as Green the Church was born to grow sustainability programs and practices across the United States. To goal was to create a massive coalition of 1,000 faith partners across the country to share the need for conservation and preservation while seeking climate justice for disproportionately impacted communities.
“As we went to friends, brothers and sisters in the clergy and in the congregations, they wanted to show that this global issue was our issue,” says McQueen.
Carroll, a native of Oakland, California, is passionate about serving inner city communities and had been looking for a way to draw from his faith to spotlight global warming’s effects. He is working to engage with communities around how to reduce their carbon footprint and activate other tools to prevent environmental damage.
Green the Church is close to having 400 churches in 28 states represented as of June 2016. It’s focusing its efforts on states engaged in work around both the Clean Power Plan, which sets a national limit on carbon pollution produced from power plants, and the “Polluters Pay Fund,” a campaign push by Green for All to make polluters pay to clean up their own toxic messes.
Gaining momentum to grow the houses of worship involved in the climate movement is not easy, but it is having a domino effect.
“It was so powerful,” says McQueen. “The call went out by word of mouth and made its way through the networks of churches and the response has been real.”
The national Green the Church program is a partnership between the grassroots organization’s parent, Green for All, in addition to churches and the U.S. Green Building Council. While not all churches and congregation properties have the resources to be LEED-certified, the council is sharing strategies on how to make places of worship, church centers and related facilities more sustainable.
Heading into its second year this fall, Green the Church is ramping up its engagement efforts so that churches have partners and allies within the state to support each other. The support and dissemination of information is all encompassing, with guidance and educational tools on how communities can take action on environmental issues.
“This is about building power,” Carroll says. “Our communities have bared the brunt of climate change and pollution enough. We want to see more churches green their facilities and share the word of sustainability. Decrease carbon emissions, raise green economy opportunities and flex the power of the African American church.”
In August 2015, Green the Church hosted its first three-day summit in Chicago at Trinity United Church of Christ, which is also President Obama’s home church. This summer, Green the Church is hosting faith-based trainings with clergy and leadership across the country. Among the topics is a candid discussion of how communities of color can best align and develop strategies to influence environmental solutions.
The group will descend upon the Baltimore, Maryland, region October 25 to 27 to host a summit with an expected 1,000 church leaders. The primary target for training has been church leadership—starting with pastor level leadership to reach the congregation from the top down.
“We want to make a real splash in the political fights by leading with moral calls to action to make polluters pay and invest in the communities most impacted by climate change,” says Carroll. “That’s my biggest hope—a push toward systemic change.”
In addition to being active in the Green the Church movement, Carroll is pushing back on a proposed coal terminal in Oakland. Carroll believes there is a need for organizations of all sizes from grassroots to grasstops (for example, large NGOs) to work together and go beyond the labels of environmentalist, conservationist and others to define their commitment to saving the planet.
“Are people thinking they’re environmentalists? No, they’re thinking of protecting their kids from a toxic site,” Carroll says. “We try to categorize and get everything to fit in these finite places, but it’s our job to talk about climate change and connect the dots to social justice.”
Both McQueen and Carroll are thought partners, armed with faith and passion for service to their communities with the hope of continuing to bridge a gap between the faith and environmental communities who want to create change.
They and the thousands they have signed on to the journey are guided by a moral imperative to protect the earth, but they do not define their relationship with the earth in the same ways as others.
“There’s a biblical text that talks about Elijah, and at one point in his ministry he was by himself. Elijah says, ‘It’s I and I alone and no one else is left.’ And God says, ‘You are not alone.’”
“That’s how we feel about doing this work,” says Carroll. “It’s about bringing people out of isolation.”