African Spirituality Formed a Backdrop to the African American Environmental Experience

By Valerie Rawls
I am the granddaughter of a preaching Mississippi sharecropper, who was the son of enslaved and emancipated parents. My grandfather straddled two cultures–one African with limited to no ties to Africa, and the other American.  Sharecroppers, like Africans believed in the interconnectedness of the human, spiritual, and environmental realms and believed that harming or caring for one affected the other. My grandfather taught my father to always respect and care for Creation.  My father maintained his respect for nature while navigating the evolving cultural and social construct of the great migration to the North.  My father often told stories about how beautiful nature was in the South, but they were overshadowed by the brutality that took place in nature.  Those stories influence my passion to care for Creation, and power my civic engagement in the environmental justice movement.
While the conservation movement was emerging during the nineteenth century, and Blacks were struggling for advancement, the two movements existed in separate spheres but were bound together in ways that produced negative consequences for African Americans.  Legislative and legal victories that linked human rights and nature’s rights in the twenty-first century were not victories for African Americans. Waste, pollution, landfills, and incinerators where located in inner cities, in ghettos, and American Indian reservations and often targeted the communities of people of color.  This became particularly apparent in 1987 when the United Church of Christ released its report on “Toxic Waste and Race in the United States.” In 2018, GIPL engaged the granddaughter of the sharecropper to lead the African American Clergy Creation Care and Environmental Justice Pilot. This year long pilot is a cohort of seven (7) clergy leaders from diverse denominations, who are committed to increasing the theological creation stewardship and ecological intelligence of their congregants though education, engagement and advocacy.  The environmental justices movement includes justice for people of color, justice for nature, and justice for humanity. From preaching while picking cotton, to preaching to change environmental policy, that’s the backdrop of the African American environmental experience.
Valerie Rawls is GIPL’s Consultant for Community Strategies & Outreach. She is excited to support the mission of GIPL and help to create equitable, co-collaborating, and sustainable strategies for GIPL’s work to reach all communities. Valerie is the lead on the African American Clergy Creation Care and Environmental Justice Pilot Project.