When Faith and Climate Intersect

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In this week's "Faith Matters," many churches across the country are taking on the issue of climate change. But churches serving people of color haven't been so quick to take up the cause. Rev. Michael Beckwith and Rev. McCleary explain why.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, back talk. We hear what you had to tell us. But first, all year long, NPR will be exploring the issue of climate change in a special series called Climate Connections. It's an international conversation, and for some it's a religious conversation. What does faith require in the stewardship of this Earth?

In this country, Christians from the more liberal denominations have been identified with the issue, and some white Evangelical Christians have also begun to speak out. But one group has not been so visible despite the fact that they are often among the most organized and active leaders in their community - black and brown Christians.

For our weekly Faith Matters conversation, we're asking: Can you be black, brown and green? To talk about this we're pleased to be joined by two prominent African-American spiritual leaders. The Reverend Michael Beckwith of Agape International Spiritual Center in Culver City, California. He joins us here in Washington. And Pastor Mark McCleary of First Seventh-day Adventist Church in Washington, D.C. Thank you both for joining us here in the studio.

Reverend MICHAEL BECKWITH (Agape International Spiritual Center in Culver City, California): You're welcome.

Reverend MARK MCCLEARY (First Church of Seventh-day Adventists, Washington, D.C.): Thank you for having me.

Rev. BECKWITH: Absolutely, we appreciate being here.

MARTIN: Pastor, you lead a congregation of about 1,300 people, many of whom are African-American. And as I understand it, your personal opinion is that stewardship over the Earth should be a part of one's spiritual outlook, but you don't make that message a regular part of your sermons. Why is that?

Rev. MCCLEARY: Well, I tell you, I didn't know I was going to be at confession today. I just haven't. I don't know, maybe I'm just taking it for granted. I've listened to the rhetoric, pros and cons. I practice picking up trash and promoting conservation. But in sermons, in a calculated series of sermons, I haven't done that. So today I've come to kind of learn and confess and try to do better from here on out.

MARTIN: Okay, Reverend Beckwith, I hope the term mega church doesn't bother you, but it is true that you have thousands of members. And you also have what you call an Earth Spirit Program and you involve your members in environmental activism. Why did you start this initiative and how do your members respond to it?

Rev. BECKWITH: Well, first of all, I believe that it is possible to be brown, black and green, to begin to really have stewardship and to love the Mother, to love Mother Earth, from which we receive so much bounty or we would not be here. Regardless of where we have come from, we're all Earthlings.

And so there's a woman in our community and she knew my feelings around this subject, so she asked could she start a ministry around that and I supported it. So that ministry has been going on for a number of years now and we seek to get our community involved with many of the volunteer efforts that go on in the community around recycling, cleaning up the L.A. river and other programs such as that, and a lot of education around that.

I would say that I get a feeling that we're supposed to be stewards and supposed to carry a strong vision of how we can not only take care of the planet but leave a strong spiritual footprint of compassion and love and beauty and aesthetics.

MARTIN: How did you come to this interest for yourself? Did you have an epiphany?

Rev. BECKWITH: Oh, I think it's been close to me for so long now I can't remember when it wasn't a part of me. I remember one day seeing the Earth the way the astronauts have saw it, and I heard the phrase: Once we saw that picture of the Earth, we could longer say we could throw anything away; there was no such thing as away.

Whereas, we had a very small, narrow point of view people and people would just throw trash anywhere, we can just pollute the environment or we can bury it in the landfills. But the word away disappeared, I think, from our vocabulary. And ever since I heard that phrase I became much more aware that everything you do, small or large, impacts your environment and impacts the population of all life forms.

MARTIN: Pastor McCleary, what does scripture tell us about this question?

Rev. MCCLEARY: I am a believer in the Book of Genesis and that in the beginning God created the heaven and the Earth. It was in pristine fashion. And not to turn this into theological statement, sin manifests itself in disrepair and degradation of the planet. And I think today what we're seeing is the effects of capitalism gone global, and with capitalism comes waste.

And I think the Lord is not pleased with us, whether it's personal or on a corporate level. And I think there probably does need to be more statements from the pulpit, and that's one of the reason why accepted your invitation because I think it might motivate me to be more proactive and be a better spokesman in this regard.

MARTIN: If part of the message of environmentalism is in part about doing more with less, I wonder if persons who have only recently come to the idea that they can have enough, let alone more, might have a harder time accepting this message. Reverend Beckwith, what do you think?

Rev. BECKWITH: Well, I think it may not be on the top three in terms of priority of people of color. They may be dealing more with racism, more with glass ceilings, more with survival, still the last hired first fired kind of issues. But yet we still drink a lot of sodas. We still use a lot of plastic. We still use things.

Even if we're in poverty, you can walk in to a person's home - there's a television, there's a radio and there's plastic plates. And so it's just a matter of being available to education in terms of recycling, in terms using things again. And which you've already indicated, we're pretty good at that.

Mothers already know how to take nothing in turn and make something out of it, so your point is well taken. Still the education around the livingness of the planet and around recycling and around alternative fuels is not a bad education to have.

MARTIN: Now, your congregation is very diverse.

Rev. BECKWITH: It's a diverse community.

MARTIN: And I wonder, are there messages that resonate more with your members of color than with your white members. I'm just wondering if the messages sort of are received differently. Particularly, you're in Culver City, which is outside of Hollywood, and we associate it with, you know, the best, the biggest of everything. You know, how do you create a message the makes sense?

Rev. BECKWITH: Well, the message is you come into the spiritual community, you discover who and what you are, and whose and what you are as the spiritual image and likeness of God. You activate your gifts and talents, and then you find a place to be of service.

We teach that the world doesn't have anything for you. There's nothing that this world can give you that's going to bring you joy or happiness and peace, and all of those qualities come from you giving your gifts, you being of service, you being an instrument of compassion and love and beauty, and being an artist of the soul.

So whether they're white, black, brown, whatever the case may be, I'm teaching them that there's nothing out here in the world that's going to bring them sustainable happiness. That's going to come from giving their gifts. So we don't teach them a consumer materialistic way of being in the world. We kind of speak against that, even though we're in the belly of the beast, so to speak. We're in Hollywood, but we're seeking to transform Hollywood.

MARTIN: Pastor McCleary, what about you? Reverend Beckwith said that very often the environment isn't among the top priorities of his members of color. What about you? What are their top priorities?

Rev. MCCLEARY: Oh, I'm in D.C., in the city. And my congregation is 90-plus percent black - Afro-Caribbean, African, Afro-American - so we don't have a diversity. And I'm not privy to what the other side may think. My people are concerned about day-to-day things. You know, how to get to work, how to keep a roof over their head, the things that a lot of people are in D.C. and in great metropolitan areas.

I like one of things that Rev. Beckwith mentioned, and that is the need for education. I think when you gave me this invitation it heightened in me a sense that I had a whole lot of things to do but maybe this is one area that I might need to pick up a little bit. And certainly I'm not going to tell my people we need to go down to a oil refinery and that. But maybe on a personal management level we can do something in our home, in our church, our neighborhood, adopt a highway - our past fathers have done that - clean up the block, just manage where we are, our space. And maybe it can magnetized and go a little larger.

MARTIN: But do you see any connection between that and the concerns, the very present concerns that your members have now?

Rev. MCCLEARY: I think that the priority that people have is just trying to maintain. How am I going to get to work? How am I going to take care of my family? How am I going to keep a roof over my head? How am I going to fulfill my own personal satisfaction.?

Environment, I think, has not been a high priority, at least not vocally. I think it should be more. Where that should be and what place it should be on the totem pole of interest, I can't say.

MARTIN: Pastor, if I were a member of your congregation and I were to say, you know, I'm just doing my best to try to keep food on the table and get to work every day. And, you know, I get this little raggedy piece of car, and really my goal is to get a better car, a more reliable car, so I can get to work on time. And now you want me to worry about picking up trash? Please. What would you say? I'm sure the people would be much more respectful than that.

Rev. MCCLEARY: No, no, well, if - now, I'm going to be kind here today because I'm on public radio and I want to present a good persona.

MARTIN: You're doing fine.

Rev. MCCLEARY: But my people know that I'm from the - I say I'm from the city where they show no pity. I don't hold any punches. If you drop the paper, then you ought to pick it up. If you run across some paper that somebody else dropped, this is our place here. This is not where I would want to invite somebody and just see papers strewn. So there's my responsibility. We use the term stewardship in spirituality, stewardship means that there's an owner somewhere. God is my owner in my mind, and he's given me the privilege and the responsibility to take care of this environment.

MARTIN: How do you hear that, Reverend Beckwith?

Rev. BECKWITH: Well, I think, you know, when you're doing research around this issue you see that most of the landfills and most of the things that pollute and really hurt our kids are in our neighborhoods. And so, as a people, we need to know about the environment because we're being hurt most by it because the landfills are built in our neighborhoods. These cellular phone…

MARTIN: Towers.

Rev. BECKWITH: …transponders are built in our neighborhood. There's so much dump that's dumped in our neighborhood that a lot of our kids are suffering from extra pollution that other people aren't suffering from. So we need to have that kind of education so that we can say, you know what? The environment is important. We don't want our kids growing up with tuberculosis. We don't want our kids being exposed to cancer-causing agents, whether they be products, whether it be landfills, things of that particular nature. So, yes, the survival issues are important. Mobility is important. Having a job is extremely important. But if you're going to catch cancer…

Rev. MCCLEARY: Right.

Rev. BECKWITH: …based on the fact that there's a landfill in your backyard and you don't even know that it's emitting a tremendous amount of debris and amount of destructive material, you're not going to have the job for long anyway because you're going to be in the hospital. So all of these things work together.

MARTIN: Reverend Beckwith, where do you think this conversation is going in black and brown communities?

Rev. BECKWITH: You know, I teach that everything is interrelated, just look at the Katrina issue. And scientists were telling us months before that happened that there was going to be a hurricane there because a hurricane is the way the Earth sweats. The Earth sweats because it's trying to keep the equator cool. The equator is hot because we are using emissions from oil. And so our soldiers over in Iraq securing oil for our country is allowing global warming to take place so that now we have a Katrina. So everything is interrelated.

So when you talk about black and brown people, you're talking about war. You're talking about a lack of creativity where a new source of energy is concerned. So it's difficult to really separate them out. I mean, today we're doing it in terms of the environment. So I would say all of these issues are interrelated. You have the environment. You have the misuse of power. You have corporations running the show. And so as black and as brown people we have to look at all these issues because they are interrelated. They're not separate issues.

MARTIN: Thank you so much. Pastor Mark McCleary is pastor of First Seventh-Day Adventist Church in Washington, D.C. He joined us here in the Washington studio.

Rev. MCCLEARY: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: And we thank you for that. And Reverend Michael Beckwith of the Agape International Spiritual Center in Culver City, California. We were also very fortunate to have him here with us in Washington, D.C. Thank you for coming.

Rev. BECKWITH: Thank you.

Rev. MCCLEARY: Thank you.

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