As my daughters begin school this week, I find myself in a state of agonized worry. It is not about how both will fare as a result of switching schools. It is not about whether they will make friends or have nice teachers. It is about the health of their lungs and the quality of their future on this planet. To understand my concern, consider a drawing by two 5-year-olds, a recent scientific study, and a policy nightmare.
Last year my daughter brought home from kindergarten a drawing with six lines of indecipherable text beneath it. I could grasp what the picture depicted. In the center was a blue car with smoke swirling from the back. In so many words, my daughter explained that she and her best friend had drawn a picture about the harm of car pollution.
Here I should explain something about myself and my relationship with my daughter. As someone who was once a pastor for eight years, I have long made an intentional effort to not inundate my daughters with my views of the world out of fear that they will become proverbial Preacher’s Kids (PKs) who rebel against everything I espouse. When I shifted from being a church pastor to having a specialized ministry focused on the environment, I was again careful not to “preach” ad nauseam about the environment with my daughters around. The last thing I wanted was to provoke an adverse reaction and raise zealous polluters.
Yet, for the past year, my now six-year-old daughter has consistently amazed me by bringing home her own environmental concerns and even scolding me once for putting produce in a plastic bag at the grocery store. Without my preaching about the environment, she gets it, and she has become a bit of a preacher herself.
This brings me to a recent study that investigates the harms children face in simply walking to school. Researchers deployed thermal imaging techniques to find that children are exposed to 30 percent more pollution than adults when walking next to a busy road because their shorter height puts them in closer proximity to exhaust fumes.
Children who are driven to school fare even worse. A car is a virtual toxic-box-on-wheels that exposes children to twice the amount of pollution as their peers on the sidewalk. In considering the import of this research, keep in mind that the developing lungs of children are particularly vulnerable to pollution.
While five-year-olds intuitively understand the dangers faced, adults in the present administration are working hard to dismantle policies that protect the health of children. The administration wants to freeze the Clean Car Standards designed to curb harmful emissions.
Carmakers like Ford have been part of the problem. Despite agreeing to support the Clean Car Standards in 2011, Ford jumped at the opportunity to reverse course by lobbying the current administration. For this reason, people of faith around the country are taking a moral stand by petitioning Ford to stop lobbying for detrimental policies and start advocating for a safer, healthier planet. Our children recognize the dangers, and it’s time for adults to accept their responsibility in addressing them.
You can find ways to talk to people about risks to children’s health in ecoAmerica’s June talking points: Caring for our Climate and our Children.
The Rev. Dr. Brooks Berndt is the Minister for Environmental Justice for the United Church of Christ. He writes a column called “For the Love of Children” that recently launched with The Letter Manifesto: Children and Climate.
The United Church of Christ is a proud partner of Blessed Tomorrow, a coalition of faith leaders committed to serve as faithful stewards of creation. Founded by ecoAmerica, Blessed Tomorrow offers tools, resources, and communications to demonstrate visible climate leadership, inspiring and empowering faith leaders to speak about, act on and advocate for climate solutions. Learn more about our partnership and the resources available to you here.
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As anyone who has ever watched a genealogy television show such as Finding Your Roots knows, our ancestry may not always be what we initially assume it to be. We grew up hearing that we possess this or that ethnic heritage, but until we have done a DNA test or done some earnest research, our assumptions can often be wrong with surprising results. A similar argument can be made when it comes to our spiritual DNA. I suspect that many people are largely unaware that their faith traditions have any “green” or “environmental” strands. The word “environmental” may conjure up images of grungy activists hugging trees in a country decidedly different from the land of one’s presumed ancestral roots. Yet, such assumptions are often false.
Take my own denomination for instance. As much as I would wish that it were not the case, many in my denomination are likely unaware that the United Church of Christ played a central role in launching the environmental justice movement. Laity like Dollie Burwell as well as leaders of the UCC’s Commission for Racial Justice such as the Rev. Benjamin Chavis, Jr. and the Rev. Leon White were at the forefront of a six week civil disobedience campaign against the delivery of toxic waste to a predominantly black community in Warren County, North Carolina. Ultimately, this campaign was to the environmental justice movement what the Birmingham bus boycott was to the civil rights movement. It sparked a movement.
Chavis would go on to coin the phrase “environmental racism” and play a leadership role in a couple of major events. The first occurred when the Commission for Racial Justice issued a landmark 1987 report that detailed the environmental racism of toxic waste sites throughout the country. The second occurred in 1991 when the commission organized the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit, which led to a historic and widely circulated document called the Principles of Environmental Justice. To this day, such reports and documents are regularly cited as integral to the origins of the environmental justice movement.
For some in my denomination, this history may seem entirely unrelated to the history of their local church, but I would beg to differ. First of all, there is a biblical origin to our green spiritual roots that is as old as Genesis. We are to be stewards or caretakers of creation. Moreover, as the environmental justice movement pointed out, when we harm the environment, we inevitably harm our neighbors, especially those among the most marginalized and oppressed. Any Christian who takes love of one’s neighbor seriously has to take environmental justice seriously.
My general belief is that all humans are initially hardwired to care for others and to care for all of creation. It is part of the spiritual DNA with which we are born. For a variety of reasons, however, some of us become disconnected from that caring impulse. The great potential of our many faith traditions today is that they can help us reconnect to this impulse. They can awaken us to the best of our loving selves.
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