Centers and Institutes

Partnering for a Healed and Whole Community

cta train and plants

Garrett-Evangelical and the Evanston NAACP work for ecological justice

In 1992, Bill Clinton invited community organizer Hazel Johnson to the White House, to recognize her 20+ years of work fighting environmental racism—trying to build a better Chicago for her and her neighbors. Despite the widespread celebration, many of the injustices she sought to fix are still harming people thirty years later—particularly Black communities throughout Chicagoland. On Saturday, April 13 from 1:00 – 3:00 p.m. CT at the Fleetwood-Jourdain Community Center, Garrett’s Center for the Church and the Black Experience and Stead Center for Ethics and Values are partnering with the Evanston branch of the NAACP to help educate the community about ongoing ecological harm and its adverse health effects. The keynote speaker will be Hazel’s daughter Cheryl Johnson, renowned activist and Executive Director of People for Community Recovery—the organization her mother founded.

When I speak with Evanston NAACP President Rev. Dr. Michael C. R. Nabors, he says environmental injustice was one of the first things he noticed when he moved to the area. “I was immediately aware of the waste management company on Church St., across from Mason Park,” he remembers, “You have this wonderful, historic place for African-Americans in Evanston and right on the other side of the street you have a waste incinerator.”

Long-term exposure to industrial pollution contributes to a wide array of illnesses, he observes. “It creates all sorts of health challenges from babies all the way to adulthood,” he says, “higher rates of asthma, skin conditions, cancer and more.” Too often, this kind of structural violence goes so unnamed in public life that suffering people suffering may be unaware of why they are hurting. “It’s not always easy to get a room filled with Black folks to talk about environmental injustice,” he says, “because they’re talking about economic and political injustice, police violence, housing inequality and so many other forms of racism.” But he believes the moment is ripe to deepen community understanding and response—and that the Church can play a central role.

Rev. Dr. Reginald Blount, Associate Professor of Formation, Leadership and Culture at Garrett and Director of the Center for the Church and the Black Experience, notes that the Black Church has always been essential in galvanizing collective action. “The move toward environmental justice is not unique,” he says, “It’s tied to how the Black Church has called for justice in so many other areas, acting as prophetic voices alongside the people and communities they serve to raise awareness and push for change.”

Moreover, both Nabors and Blount are quick to note that ecological violence isn’t just a political crisis—it’s a theological scandal, too. “When you look at issues of environmental injustice, it is always aimed at the least and the lowest, the left out, the poor, the marginal,” Dr. Nabors says, “theologically, people have decided that some groups of people are less deserving of clean air, soil and water—and it has to do with race.” This tragic reality asks us to consider the theological anthropology guiding our culture, Dr. Blount agrees. “Do we understand God as one who functions out of a hierarchy?” he asks, “Or do we know the God who created all of humanity with sacred worth?”

Facilitating these kinds of community conversations is part of the central calling for Garrett’s Stead Center for Ethics and Values. “We’re really focused on the ways people come together and talk about justice issues,” says Dr. Kate Ott, Professor of Christian Social Ethics and Director of the Stead Center, “enhancing moral communities one conversation at a time.” Dr. Ott notes that this focus on community partnerships is a distinct shift from how social ethics is often taught in seminaries. “The foundation of theological education, that we perhaps lost sight of along the way,” she says, “is that we learn in community, and we learn from community.”

Moral formation isn’t something that principally happens from something we read, but from our lived experiences. And students can learn from organizers in Evanston about how to bring a community together. “Many of our students come from all over the globe and are concerned about environmental issues,” she says, “What someone can learn from a small neighborhood in Evanston and the way that they are addressing the intersection of environmental and racial justice issues, it won’t look the same when they take it back to their congregation in India or their community in Kenya, but it’s going have similar threads, challenges and possibilities.”

This collaboration between Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary and the Evanston NAACP is the product of organic communal connection. Dr. Andrew Wymer is the Associate Professor of Preaching and Worship at Garrett, but it was his role as a concerned community member that led him to chair the NAACP branch’s Environmental & Climate Justice Committee. “Our vision is for an inclusive community rooted in liberation, free from discrimination, and without racism,” he says, “That’s still such a daunting task right here in Evanston in relationship to environmental justice, so our committee is trying to build relationships with other organizations around each event that we plan.” Dr. Nabors is effusive in his praise for Wymer’s collaborative approach to justice. “Listen, Andrew is key,” he laughs, “he has taken this bull by the horns and is working like you would not believe to create partnerships in this work.”

April’s event is the first in what will be a biannual conversation series on the topic, shifting location every six months between Garrett and hosts throughout Evanston. Organizers are hopeful that this sustained approach will keep an ongoing focus on issues affecting ecology and community health. “A long arc of justice implies the necessity for consistency,” Dr. Blount says, “And it requires strategic work. We must keep this issue in front of elected officials who have the resources to make needed change.” Ultimately, this not just a political necessity—it’s holy work. “We believe in a God who promises that the best is yet to come,” Dr. Nabors says, slipping into his cadence as a preacher, “I’m not talking about the other side of the Jordan River I’m talking about right here, right now. God works all things for good, but we have to educate ourselves and walk down the path of making things better.” Dr. Blount notes that, for those of us who follow Jesus, this work is the ministry he modeled. “Jesus was in the community,” he says, “It was in the community that Jesus identified communal needs and began to do something about it. It was in the community that he fought against the political and religious powers of that day that got in the way of persons being healthy and whole. So the question is: How are we walking in that way of Jesus?”

Interested in attending April’s Environmental Justice Conversation Series? Sign up today!