“At Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, members and neighbors buy fruits and vegetables from a black farmers market and work in an organic garden named after botanist George Washington Carver . . . “
Many pieces of a puzzle are on the floor of my living room. More are in a large gray tub upstairs. I am looking at the pieces of what has been my interest lately: the African American church and the environment. Going back even further, I’ve long been drawn to learning and sharing about African Americans and the environment–the great love of my life–for about 23 years.
As is true in my life, I shift back and forth between peaks and valleys. A bit of a peak is coming up. In late March 2014, I head to the 12th National Black Writers Conference as a panelist on the “Saving Our Communities, Saving Ourselves” panel sponsored by The Center for Black Literature at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, New York. Thank goodness they haven’t asked for a title yet but I am leaning towards “The African American Church Never Left the Outdoors.”
The literature on the subject continues to grow though still small:
- Dianne Glave, “Black Environmental Liberation Theology,” To Love the Wind and the Rain: African Americans and Environmental History (2006).
- Dianne Glave, “Religion: Shouting in the Woods,” Rooted in the Earth: Reclaiming the African American Environmental Heritage (2010).
- Eileen M. Smith-Cavros, “Black Churchgoers, Environmental Activism, and the Preservation of Nature in Miami, Florida,” Journal of Ecological Anthropology,” vol. 10 (2006)
- Mark Stoll, “Religion and African American Environmental Activism,” To Love the Wind and the Rain: African Americans and Environmental History (2006).
I am hoping to blend scholarship with my other concern: environmental activism in and through the African American church.
And the first person who comes to mind is Veronica Kyle, Congregational Outreach at Faith in Place. She has been faithful and busy:
“Veronica joined the Faith in Place staff in August 2008 to engage in the much needed work of linking/involving African American churches to the work of Faith in Place. In addition Veronica works with other Faith in Place partners in the movement to share, coordinate and support congregations that are new to the idea of living out their faith while serving as good stewards of the environment. Veronica lived and worked for the past twelve years in the Caribbean and Southern Africa for a faith-based organization in the areas of social justice and development. She received her B.A. in Religion and Women Studies from Vermont College of Norwich University and her Masters degree in Gender Studies from University of the West Indies, 1999.” (“Our Staff,” Faith in Place)
Veronica works with one of many grassroots environmental activists in or with churches:
- St. Andrews African Methodist Episcopal Church (The Saint): based on my own experience in 2010 they have offered an environmentally themed adult vacation bible school and continue to take the lead in a farmer’s market across the street from the church in response to a food desert.
- Faith in Place: Our own Veronica Kyle works and serves there.
- National Black Church Initiative
- Green the Church
As I continue to consider this puzzle, take a look at a classic scene of African Americans having church in the woods “Beloved,” the film. Steven Spielberg, the director, was smart to use what sounds like Toni Morrison’s exact words from her novel Beloved:
The Greensburg District of the United Methodist Church (UMC) held their Helpshop on January 28, 2012 at Community Church in Irwin, Pennsylvania. The theme was “Mind, Body and Spirit” with Tanika Harris, the General Board of Global Ministries (GBGM) of the UMC, serving as the keynote speaker. At the GBGM, “she provides resources as well as training opportunities to communities and churches throughout the country that are engaged in community development and social justice through advocacy and youth/young adult empowerment.” (Helpshop brochure) The breakout sessions included “Healthy and Vital Congregations,” “Sexual Health and Wholeness,” and “Remodeling the Temple.
I was invited to facilitate a session titled, “Africans Americans, Religion, the Environment, and Health.” We discussed:
- Knowing one’s (environmental) history is good for you
- Nature is healthy
- Scripture and health
- Better health of (African) Americans by experiencing the outdoors
- Our Stories
- A healthy mind: environmental meditation with African American themes
One participant shared her memory of the fragrance of lilacs while spending time with her grandmother; the memory of those flowers evoked a spiritual connection, a connection to God. Our meditation included scripture, deep breathing, music, the sounds of the ocean, prayer, and silence.
Many thanks to those in the Greensberg District of the Western Pennsylvania Conference, UMC who organized the Helpshop: Holly Sawyer, administrative assistant and William Meekins, District Superintendent. Of special note: Community United Methodist Church did a wonderful job hosting the event. And of course, many thanks to Rev. Kathy Barnhart, Rev. Rhea Summit and Rev. Augie Twigg for their diligence and hard work.
Photo by Dianne Glave
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.
Barbara Kingsolver with Steve L. Hopp and Camille Kingsolver. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year in Food. HarperCollinsPublishers. 2007.
Barbara Kingsolver says in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year in Food, “Our culture is not acquainted with the idea of food as a spiritually loaded commodity. We’re just particular about which spiritual arguments we’ll accept as valid for declining certain food. Generally unacceptable reasons: environmental destruction, energy waste, the poisoning of workers. Acceptable: it’s prohibited by a holy text.” (p. 67). I say both our land and the food produced on that land must be treated as unequivocally holy!
As I began to read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, I felt that the spirituality and holiness she describes is at odds with who does and doesn’t have accessibility to green places including farms. Certainly, the upper middle- or upper classes could pull off living off the land as an experiment.
I had another response to the book: I realized I shared some of Kingsolver’s ideological and practical concerns about American foodways. Louisiana Voices defines foodways as, “obtaining, preparing, serving food and stories and beliefs about food.” Perhaps considering some of these concerns could be a bridge to the spiritual and holy when it comes to land and produce.
Stepping back a bit, Kingsolver describes the purpose of her family’s foodways journey and book: “We wanted to live in a place that could feed us: where rain falls, crops grow, and drinking water bubbles right up out of the ground. (p. 3). She got away from a life in Tuscon where distributors ship in food from far-away places and water is running so low that in the near future it will not support the existing population. Here are the costs: fuel must be purchased to ship the food and when water is diverted to desert places like Arizona someone else has diminished access to water.
Kingsolver and her family moved from Arizona to the southern Appalachia to live off the fruits of their labor on a farm and limit their purchases to local farmers. The Kingsolver clan made it sound relatively simple: relocate and then experiment on the land for a year.
Let’s think it through. “A Year of Food” requires resources, which includes money for expenses, and comfortably owning or renting a working arable farm. Before actually arriving at a farm, the average working- to middle-class family would have to turn on the utilities in a new home–that would be the farm–which could be a challenge. One might ask: Can they afford the gas for the car to make the move? What about motels and food on the way? Can they pay the start-up for some of the utilities? Will they have to physically go and pay with cash or a money order to turn on utilities because of a poor credit rating that does not allow for easy transactions by phone, mail, or the internet? These are real questions and concerns for people living pay check to pay check. Forget actually getting to the point of owning a farm. Most people are not privileged. Kingsolver and her family already own a farm.
Class is a factor. So too is ethnicity. The farm families around her were probably predominantly white though she is not explicit concerning this point. There is a tension here for me. I grew up in Queens, New York in Rosedale, a working class neighborhood of people of African descent. Later as an adult, I lived in Lawndale, California in a working class Latino neighborhood. I’m not sure if many of the people in either ethic group would readily relate to Kingsolver’s agricultural experiment. Some who work the land to survive might see it as a working holiday. The ethnic disconnect and lack of diversity was problematic, typical of broader environmentalism, including the foodway movements.
With that said, Kingsolver gives the reader much to think about through her beautifully written prose. Many of her suggestions are achievable without going through the financial duress of relocating and purchasing a farm. Consider two ways or reconfiguring Kingsolver’s experiment for regular folks with finite resources.
- Farmers Markets: Kingsolver does rely on and support the local farmers market near her farm. You too can do the same since these markets are in many cities across the US. The other benefits are eating local organic foods, and diminishing the fuel used to transport produce. Right now I am in Tennessee and plan to visit the Memphis Farmer’s Market downtown.
- Indoor Plants and Gardens: The author had a flower garden that was part of the farm. This is not an option for many people live in apartments in cities or townhouses in the suburbs. In both types of housing, keep indoor plants, some that flower for the aesthetics. Consider growing herbs in a box on a window ledge. When I lived in Los Angeles I kept orchids, African violets, and a bonsai. Plants, particularly flowering plants, bring a bit of nature’s beauty indoors, which I find soothing spiritually. Tending, watering, re-potting, and fertilizing plants is a break from hectic modern life. Community gardens in cities are another option working side by side with others or carving out a plot of your own. There are benefits to the physical labor of turning over the soil and weeding the rows of plants. At the end of the season, you can enjoy the produce, the fruits of your labor.
So there is a bridge between Kingsolver’s experiment and incorporating nature into the daily lives of regular people.
Going a step further, I feel a connection with Kingsolver because of my own environmental concerns. I worry about the planet. I worry about the limits and our dependence on fossil fuels. I worry about how many Americans are disconnected from the land and don’t understand how plants actually get to the supermarket.
Kingsolver develops a parallel argument: when the oil runs dry, and we have to return small-scale agriculture to sustain ourselves, we will not have the skills to produce much needed food in rural settings.
Perhaps if we resolve to treat the land and our food as edible holy objects, we can save the planet for our children.
Photos by Dianne Glave Except the Book Cover
Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia. Penguin Press, 2006.
But it is my understanding that the health of the planet is affected by the health of every individual on it. As long as even two souls are locked in conflict, the whole world is contaminated by it. Similarly, if even one or two souls can be free from discord, this will increase the general health of the whole world, the way a few healthy cells in a body can increase the general health of the body.
A Prayer to God by Elizabeth Gilbert (pp. 32-33)
Thinking back to my trip to Italy as I read Eat, Pray, Love: African American brother and sister on a journey. My travels to Rome to Florence, and finally Milan with train rides connecting the three cities flooded my mind and spirit with endearing images and sacred moments, some of which you can see in my photos taken in 2004.
Elizabeth’s–I will use her first name throughout my reflection because she takes the reader on such a personal intimate journey–non-fiction book is a travelogue. The book is much like 19th century travelogues or journals I remember reading by Europeans traveling through and living in the American South. I am thinking specifically of the actress Fanny Kemble’s journals that decried the atrocities of enslavement in the sea islands off Georgia.
Elizabeth travels and journals in reverse leaving the US, to see parts of the world beyond the borders of her home in New York. In traveling, Eat, Pray, Love becomes an exploration in geography and spiritual mapping by God that helps Elizabeth towards spiritual, mental, and physical wholeness and fulfillment. The journey takes her to Italy, India, and Indonesia. I was drawn to the first leg of her journey as I remember my own trip to Italy.
Spiritually and geographically, Elizabeth describes herself culturally as a Christian. She insists “that Christ is not the only path to God.” (p. 14) The path and by extension the many paths are a spiritual metaphor that extends from literally traversing across terrain, part of geography. She begins to trace and even reconfigure her spiritual map: “When you’re traveling in India–especially through holy sites and Ashrams–you see a lot of people wearing beads around their necks.” (p. 1)
Elizabeth takes us with her to Italy where she falls in “supplication” to the floor in prayer in English and Italian thanking the universe and God. You see she is grateful to be alone in her hotel room without a paramour, a young lover in tow. (p. 9) Perhaps she offered a prayer of thanks because three years earlier she left a marriage and the possibility of a child. This might sound strange to some. Yet she left her marriage–her husband was emotionally remote–choosing to be alone without a husband or child. returning to the young Italian man she left behind in a restaurant, she decided to be alone. But really she wasn’t alone. She sought God and found him, found her.
During her time in Italy, Elizabeth also battles depression and loneliness. She eats and eats and eats, a panacea at least in part to what ails her body and soul. She puts on weight; yet when she glimpses herself in the mirror she sees a friend in better mental, spiritual, and physical health. This is thanks to the people called Italians and the geography, the country called Italy.
Elizabeth is flawed just like the rest of us, making mistakes and experiencing revelations along the way. I recommend reading this book though you may not share her beliefs or understand her choices. By the close of the book, you could be looking at your own reflection. I did as I remembered wandering the streets of Milan alone without a map, fearless and happy with what little Italian I knew. I spent a short time with people who treated me with love even when I couldn’t count change. Yes, Elizabeth does without a map in Rome!
Follow Elizabeth from beginning to end, from sorrow to sorrow, from revelation to revelation, reading beyond my take of her time in Italy, and beginning fresh with India and Indonesia through health, spirituality and geography.
Photos by Dianne Glave Except the Book Cover
Daphne, my mother, all 120 lbs of her, laid down sod and chopped down trees when we lived in our second house in Queens, New York during the 1980s. She was very serious about getting the trees down because she was tired of raking and bagging the leaves in the fall.
Two stories . . .
My mother would start by killing the tree by hacking away at the trunk with an axe. She started on one of many tree projects and our next door neighbor came running. She’ had crossed the property line–there was no fence–and was attempting to bring down our neighbor’s tree.
Some months later, she worked on a tree in the backyard. Whack. Whack. Whack. The tree started falling towards our HOUSE. The same neighbor came running out. With ropes he leveraged the tree from falling on the house.
I know everyone is saying poor trees. Looking back, I’m thinking the same thing. But remember it was her yard and it was the 1980s.
Consider some context for my mother’s own suburban world and experience. African Americans worked in logging and turpentining in the South so there is a parallel concerning labor/work and perceptions of trees as natural resources. To learn more about African Americans and the turpentine industry during the first half of the twentieth century, go to: http://www.cfmemory.org/Learn/Stories/StoryView.php?s=19.
I have no idea what became of the wood from the trees my mother chopped and sawed but looking back I hope the wood was used in someone’s fireplace. Utility trumps waste?!