Flint’s Water: An Environmental Disaster

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An environmental and health atrocity has been committed against African Americans in Flint, Michigan. The water provided by the government, one of our institutions that is tasked to protect people has instead poisoned Flint residents. The City of Flint stopped buying their piped water from Detroit, instead using the polluted Flint River as a transitional source until Lake Huron water was available. Flint’s Mayor Dayne Walling and other officials congratulated themselves for saving Flint millions. Unfortunately, African Americans had little to celebrate. Some of the gravest fall-outs of this environmental disaster is that chemicals like trihalomethane, a by-product of disinfectant, in the rivers causes rashes and pipes leached by the chemicals cause lead poisoning.

superdomenoGovernment agencies and political leaders have long passively neglected or actively abused African Americans when it comes to the environment and health. The United States has failed African Americans. And this is nothing new lest we forget the Tuskegee Syphilis experiment when from 1932 to 1972 scientists did not treat the syphilis in infected African American men in the study although treatment with penicillin was developed and readily available in 1947. The scientists watched the men slowly and painfully die from syphilis. Remember the aftermath of Katrina in 2005 when African Americans in parts of New Orleans and bordering parishes suffered for days in the Super Dome, the Conference Center, and countless other places waiting and waiting for their government to help to send help, to save them.

The challenges continue. Environmental racism is insidiously at work in Flint. Impoverished African Americans were stripped of healthy water, a necessary natural resource to be healthy, really to stay alive. Whites in power in the government transgressed African Americans in Flint. Whites used their power making adverse environment decisions to the benefit of white leadership and the detriment of African Americans in the city.

Thankfully, many have offered practical means of support including The United Methodist Church. Michigan Area’s Bishop Deborah Lieder Kiesey recently made a Flint Appeal, saying,

Flint’s pressing need for a new water infrastructure and the Flint children who face life-long cognitive and behavioral effects of lead poisoning require comprehensive and long-term solutions.  We must deal with the systemic issues of racism and poverty that have been part of this complex issue. As United Methodists in Michigan I believe we must be part of those long-term solutions; we must be among those who are first on the scene and last to leave.

The bishop’s appeal and financial contribution provides immediate support with items like filters and bottled water. The Michigan Area also understands that longterm plans are required to rectify the water crisis and assist African Americans in Flint and across the United States to be healthy, self-sustaining, and independent.

A Black Environmental Liberation Theology (BELT) is being invoked and practiced by African American churches and agencies. The Michigan Area United Methodist Church are doing the same as white allies to African Americans exposed to environmental threats and health issues in Flint. “Black liberation theology, which decries the oppression of African Americans based on biblical principles–is the foundation of BELT, a nascent theology” based on environmental justice and activism by African American Christians. (Glave, To Love the Wind and the Rain, 190) Taken a step further, white allies like the United Methodist Church draw from this theology and are part of this activism. BELT is “a cornerstone of environmental justice” that dismantles environmental racism. (Glave, To Love the Wind and the Rain, 189) A practical theology is evolving as Bishop Kiesey and others in the Michigan Area craft an environmental justice agenda for change for and with African Americans in Flint. My hope is that theology will be sustained with longterm action.

 

African Americans, Eco-Resistance, and Eco-Inequity

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Homestead Grays

African Americans, Eco-Resistance, and Eco-Inequity:

Homestead Grays and Frick Park
In the “What’s Race Got to Do With it” Series in Sojourners: Faith in Action for Social Justice.

Green spaces hold complicated meaning for many . . . Read more.

KINKS, LOCKS & TWISTS CONFERENCE: Health. Beauty. Environment

Join me at the 7th Annual Kinks, Locks & Twists Conference focusing on health, beauty, and the environment. I will present and facilitate a conversation on Earth Day, Wednesday, April 22nd at 6pm at the Hill House in Pittsburgh. The focus will be the history of African Americans and the environment. Registration is now open!

Black Churches and a New Generation of Protest: New York Times Opinion Page 

Black Churches and a New Generation of Protest: New York Times Opinion Page

Saving People and the Environment

Dianne D. Glave

Dianne D. Glave, the pastor of Crafton United Methodist Church in Pittsburgh, Pa., is the author of “Rooted in the Earth: Reclaiming the African American Environmental Heritage” and a co-editor, with Mark Stoll, of “To Love the Wind and the Rain: African Americans and Environmental History.”

Chicago’s Center for Neighborhood Technology

A few weeks ago I went on a tour of the Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT) in Chicago. CNT Energy, the focus of the tour, is “a creative think-and-do tank that combines rigorous research with effective solutions. Our organization concentrates on helping consumers and communities obtain the information and services they need to control energy costs and become more energy efficient. We use our cutting edge localized programs and research in the areas of dynamic electricity pricing, building performance, and regional energy planning.” (About Us) The CNT building is a LEED Platinum Building Renovation with 5 out of 5 LEED points for Innovation and Design.

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My hope is to have 30% water use reduction and 90% of my space lighted with sunlight during the day in my own home much like CNT. Wishes can become reality.

CNT is doing tremendous things and I’m so glad I witnessed innovation in an energy efficient building first-hand.

Photos by Dianne Glave

Film The Tree of Life: Spiritual and Cosmic Paintings in Motion

Terence Malik’s The Tree of Life sweeps the film-goer into the universe and the life of Jack O’Brien, the character at the center of the film, along with his family. The cyclical and arcing non-linear narratives of universe and daily human life overlap one another with metaphors galore. The film is a complex masterpiece; it is a series of paintings on celluloid.

The film’s title, The Tree of Life, is significant as it points to everlasting life in the Garden of Eden in the book of Genesis. The counterpoint to this tree is the tree of knowledge of good and evil. God instructs Adam and Eve to stay away from the tree of knowledge. As is human, both were tempted to eat from the tree knowledge, and God cursed them with death rather than everlasting life on earth. Good and evil are central to Jack and his family lives, a dot really in biblical stories of the Garden of Eden and the origins of the universe and life.

The film opens with passages from Job 38:4, 8 which frames the film:  “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding . . . Or who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb?”

If you missed these first words in the film, then you missed critical themes of the origins of life–foundation of the earth, water–H20 as life-giving and -altering, revelation–a door as transition and change, and the womb–birth as part of the meaning of human life irrevocably tied to death.

Malik’s overarching themes of religion, based in part on the Bible’s book of Job as a signpost, are origins of all kinds including the universe and Jack’s birth are traced throughout the film, well is actually the film.

The seemingly simple lives of the O’Brien’s are embedded in the Big Bang and religion. Jack’s birth is paralleled with the first spark that becomes the universe transitioning to simple and later complex forms of life-anemone to dinosaur–on earth.  Jack and Mrs. O’Brien, his mother, narrate the entire film with whispered phrases filled with cosmological and theological meaning set against the backdrop of an expanding universe and evolution:

  • Death of one of the middle O’Brien children at 19: “He’s in God’s hands now.”
  • As the universe becomes . . . : “Who are we to you? Answer me.”
  • In the midst of crashing water and moving clouds: “We cry to you . . . Hear us.”
  • A meteor hits the earth slamming earth into an ice age: “You spoke to me through her . . .I loved you, believed in you. When did you first touch my heart?”
  • A boy drowns in a swimming pool: “Was he bad? Will you die too? You’re not that old yet, Mom. Where were you? You let a boy die. You let anything happen. Why should I be good if you aren’t?”

The last words intertwine with recurring themes of good versus evil–consider the Garden of Eden once again–central to Jack as he grows up. He’s born as raw material like the universe. Jack grows into evil; does the universe move along the same path? He vents his frustration when another brother, ultimately the middle child, is born. Jack’s anger expands and pulses like the universe as he bristles under the control and abuse by his father, and becomes his father full of anger and resentment. Both son and father’s ethics are skewed as Jack breaks a neighbor’s window and his father tells his children you have to look out for yourself. Is the universe, is God free of these ethical dilemmas? It seems Malik asks these and other question through the images and words in the film As is true of life in which we ask the big questions of who is God and how did the cosmos come into being, questions often remain unanswered.

Middle-aged Jack contemplates his life, the painful death of his brother, his damaged relationship with his father and mother, the meaning of the universe and life; it is all revelatory and cosmic. The towering trees and skyscrapers (spiraling urban trees)–reaching up to God vertically for comfort and answers; the water–a source of life, the skies–celestial heavens where God prevails are all part of a visual symphony that brings Jack around full circle from birth to death to after-life. His life parallels the universe which ignites with the Big Bang and closes with a supernova leading to a black hole, perhaps where the universe first begins again.

Another layer of the many narratives is religion paralleling in many ways the expansion of the universe, evolution, and human life. Jack’s experience is salvific. He is born unaware of sin, clay to be molded into good or evil. Ultimately, his father’s oppression turns in on Jack reinforcing evil. Jack does bad things like breaking into a neighbor’s, a woman’s, house stealing her underwear. He feels guilt even as a boy growing into adolescence. At the end of the film, Jack revisits his life through memories walking through a door, representing transition, to meet his family as if re-experiencing childhood. The family forgives the father with loving gestures. The 19-year-old son who died also appears as a child signifying reconciliation of past hurts. Perhaps Jack has died and is in heaven on the beach, experiencing a reinvention, redemption, happy times with his childhood family, much different from reality of his childhood.

At the end of the film, Malik shifts to scenes of a dying universe that parallels Jack’s experience of salvation–original sin, grace, repentance, justification, regeneration, sanctification, and perfection–coming around full circle. Interestingly, the last scene mirrors the second scene of the origins of the universe as flame-like. I saw the bosom of a woman in the flame at the end of the film. Perhaps the woman was Jack’s mother, reflecting grace through her gentleness and kindness toward her children. Malik closes the film with by returning to the beginning echoing words from earlier in the film by Mrs. O’Brien: “No one who loves the way of grace ever comes to a bad end.” 

Like a Picasso, a cubist painter, The Tree of Life is what you make of it. And it changes with every frame and every viewing. The universe. Evolution. Humanity. Salvation.

African Americans, California, and Place

An article titled “Black Population Drops to 3.9% in San Francisco” in the February 4, 2011 in the San Francisco Bay View National Black Newspaper, got me thinking.

The percentage of African Americans in California was never very high even when I lived in Los Angeles more than a decade ago. My sense was you were either very poor or extremely rich. A handful of us lived somewhere in the middle. Where you lived and the type housing you lived in was and is defined by your socio-economic status.  Not so nice neighborhoods were more concrete than grass and trees. Nice neighborhoods had more access to recreational amenities like local and state parks, and even the ocean. This dichotomy was true for African Americans living in that sprawling city I once called home.

Director Michael Mann made even the gritty poorer neighborhoods look good soaked by electric lights, stars, and the moon in the story of a white hit-man played by Tom Cruise and a cabdriver portrayed by Jaime Foxx:

Based on the article, I considered  African Americans in urban/suburban place/environments. For example, people across ethnic lines yearn(ed) for suburban McMansions, as noted in the article, where African Americans have been increasingly migrating from San Francisco to places like Antioch to sprawl out on larger tracts of land. In another example, gentrification has long redefined cities including those in California for impoverished blacks. Historically, they have been forced out of the only places they have known, their cities of concrete, asphalt, a few struggling trees, and some patches of crabgrass. Upper middle-class people often come in and replaced the former occupants of  public housing.

Socio-economic status does define where you live, the meaning of place, and what your urban and suburban environment look like. I am constantly reminded by this issue of social justice when it comes to these landscapes and African American people.