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Black church leaders stress issues of environmental injustice, stewardship

The Gwynn Oak United Methodist Church hosted a group of African-American faith leaders from around the country who got together to talk about expanding the role of churches as centers for environmental resilience. (Barbara Haddock Taylor/Baltimore Sun video)

Pastors from across the state gathered Tuesday in Baltimore to discuss ways predominantly black churches can use the pulpit and the power of faith communities to discuss climate change, energy efficiency and other environmental issues.

"The message doesn't resonate too quickly with the African-American community," said the Rev. Kip Banks, an Upper Marlboro resident and senior pastor of East Washington Heights Baptist Church in Washington.

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"We focus on the election, we focus on poverty, we focus on Black Lives Matter," Banks said. "Equally important is the environment."

Banks joined more than 100 other church leaders at Gwynn Oak United Methodist Church for the Green the Church Summit, a two-day discussion about how to help churches invest in becoming more environmentally friendly and promote an attitude of biblical stewardship of the Earth.

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Perhaps more importantly, they also talked about how to elevate issues of environmental injustice to the same level as concerns about broader social ills such as violence and drugs.

Discussions included how to make the case with parishioners for "green" church facilities, pressing state legislators for stronger laws protecting God's creation and preaching a "green Gospel" in black churches.

Some at the conference wanted help with conservation projects. The Rev. Dellyne Hinton, who leads Gwynn Oak United Methodist, for instance, sought advice on how to motivate her congregation to get a solar panel and rain garden project at the church from the drawing board to reality.

She and others consulted with representatives of energy companies on ways to curb energy consumption and to finance projects.

Others came to the event for help tackling more thorny issues of environmental justice.

Ethel Shepard-Powell lives in Prince George's County near a planned power plant that earlier this year drew a civil rights complaint from advocacy group Earthjustice and a coalition of community groups. The Brandywine project would be the fourth power facility to produce carbon emissions in the southern part of the predominantly black county, something opponents argue amounts to environmental racism.

Shepard-Powell drove to Baltimore on Tuesday in the hopes of brainstorming a new strategy to fight the project. She is helping to lead community efforts as president of the Partnership for Renewal in Central and Southern Maryland, or PRISCM, a faith-based advocacy group.

"I kind of have lost hope," she said. "It's an uphill climb."

Panelists encouraged her to bring community groups together and continue to fight.

"Injustice when it comes to black and brown people is not an accident," said the Rev. Marvin Silver, associate conference minister for the Central Atlantic Conference of the United Church of Christ. "We must not lose focus that this issue is long term, and there are multiple strategies to win."

Silver stressed the importance of black churches using political power to challenge elected officials and raise up their own leaders to run for office.

Several representatives of the Sierra Club's Maryland chapter attended to help connect the church leaders with the larger movement for environmental policy and justice.

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"State politics is not always about what the people want; it's about who shows up and who is the loudest," said Josh Tulkin, the group's state director. "There's really important voices here that are underrepresented in Annapolis political discussions."

The summit has been held twice before, organized by advocacy group Green for All in Oakland, Calif., and Chicago.

Interfaith Power & Light, a regional organization that helps congregations of all types to conserve energy and address climate change, brought the event to Baltimore.

Organizers said Baltimore is known for inspiring discussion about racism across the country after the rioting last year sparked by the death of Freddie Gray, but few connect with issues many see as environmental injustice. They noted Gray had experienced lead poisoning, a long-standing problem that most affects urban families who rent their homes.

Hilton said she wants church leaders to do a better job communicating such links.

"Somehow environmental justice is an elitist concept when the reality of environmental justice impacts us every day," she said. "This is not somebody else's cause, but it's our own self-care."

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