Conference presents black Catholic perspective on climate change

This article appears in the Francis: The Environment Encyclical feature series. View the full series.

Chicago — Since the release of the papal encyclical on the environment, the conversation about how the church responds to the negative effects of climate change has become more and more prevalent.

The issue reverberates stronger in poorer neighborhoods, whose residents will likely feel first -- and hardest -- the effects of climate change: whether exacerbated asthma attacks due to poor air quality, or higher health risks from more frequent summer heat waves. In Chicago, that often means those suffering are disproportionately people of color.

To that end, the Black Catholic Initiative and the Chicago archdiocese held on Nov. 2 a joint conference on climate change in the black church, the first of its kind organized and run by black Catholics.

The conference was convened by Sylvia Hood Washington, an environmental epidemiologist and a leader in Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project, with the help of Fr. David Jones, pastor of St. Benedict the African East Parish, which hosted the event.

Presenters from the secular and religious worlds offered remarks and held workshops on how to better combat the problems facing the black community brought about by climate change. Specifically, they examined impacts on asthma, violence, health care and the care of the elderly and young. The conference closed with the start of a 24-hour prayer vigil for an end to all forms of violence.

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Speakers included Howard Learner, president and executive director of the Environmental Law & Policy Center, a Midwest-based advocacy organization; Jack Darin, director of the Illinois chapter of the Sierra Club; Susan Hedman, regional administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; and Kenneth Page, environmental justice officer of the Illinois EPA.

Holding the conference on All Souls Day allowed a way to commemorate those who died during the 1995 Chicago heat wave (estimates of more than 700), as well as from Hurricane Katrina a decade later -- events, Washington said, made worse by climate change.

For Washington, a common theme ran throughout the conference: The U.S. communities on the frontlines of climate change, as in the cases of the Chicago heat wave and Hurricane Katrina, are primarily black.

“Chicago is ground zero for death of black people and poor people and socially marginalized people for climate change,” she said. “We lost people across all races but disproportionately -- poor and black and elderly.”  

A 1997 Chicago Department of Public Health study examining heat-related deaths from the ’95 heat wave found the death rate for black Chicago residents per 100,000 was 1.5 times that for whites. “For every age interval but the youngest, non-Hispanic Blacks had higher rates than non-Hispanic Whites, with the rate ratio being near 2 for people 85 years of age and older,” the study concluded.

In the wake of these realities, informing the community becomes paramount. Page with the state EPA said the strategy differs from community to community, and include evening forums to discuss local environmental justice issues. Recent forums were held in the Little Village and Pilsen neighborhoods to seek their input. Knowledge, Page says, is power.

The aim is to inform early, said Page, “so that communities have the opportunity to do research. If they want to be involved they … can have the power to make decisions.”

For Washington, this was precisely the point of the conference, with a Catholic twist.

“What I wanted as a black Catholic, and as an engaged, long-term environmental justice scholar was for black Catholics to become trained about climate issues and climate justice,” she said, viewing the Catholic take on the environment even more important in the wake of the encyclical, “Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home.”

“Our faith and our social teaching make us embrace the right to life from cradle to grave”, she said. “And no issue is more poignant in bringing home that point than the destruction of the quality and actual type and form of life for all beings, particularly human beings.”

This dual perspective, both black and Catholic, is something Washington says is often not taken into account. Ten years ago, in conjunction with the U.S. bishops’ conference and the Knights of Peter Claver, she produced the film “Struggles for Environmental Justice and Health: An African American and Catholic Perspective,” which details environmental issues plaguing the African American community.

Washington was struck that Laudato Si’ takes much the same approach. Her film, like Laudato Si’, used as a guide St. Francis of Assisi’s Canticle of the Sun, in which he gives praise to all facets of the environment. For the environmental justice advocates at this conference, this encyclical was a long time coming. Washington said people were “annoyed and angry” when they realized the similarities between the film (released 10 years ago) and the recent encyclical.

“I hope that someone can get a copy to Pope Francis,” Washington said.

For Washington, this delay makes it feel like the church is just catching up. In her eyes, the Chicago archdiocese is not doing enough, either. She viewed the conference as “a great start” but feels it is time for the archdioceses to do more.

“The approach becomes holistic,” she said. “You can talk about green buildings, but you have to talk about saving lives.”

Her hopes for the archdiocese, coupled with her perception of a lack of black Catholic representation at environmental justice panels, made the conference timely.

“[It was a] very historic moment on so many different levels. It was the first climate justice conference organized by African Americans in Chicago for African Americans,” Washington stressed.

She added the conference was good for the community, in that it worked in conversation with the message of Laudato Si’ and looked at environmental justice from a “right to life perspective,” where “the integrity of the human body” is the reason and rationale for taking better care of our planet.

Page and Learner also spoke highly of the conference. Learner in particular thanked the archdiocese and Washington for advancing and supporting the Black Catholic Initiative Climate Conference.

“Solving our climate change problems is the moral, business, economic, policy, technological and political challenge of our generation,” he said.

“I thought it was a great conference, and with the archdiocese of Chicago putting that on with the Black Catholic Initiative, I think it was good for the community,” Page added.

The Black Catholic Initiative has begun to make plans for a follow-up conference for 2016, also on All Souls Day. 

[Jack Nuelle is a freelance reporter based in Chicago.]

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