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From the Bishop: Environmental racism exists in our own backyard

Posted: February 26 2020 at 11:18 AM
Author: Bishop Sally Dyck


April 22, 2020 marks the 50th anniversary of the first Earth Day. Earth Day Sunday can be celebrated April 19, 26, or another day convenient for your church. Creation Justice Ministries offers Christian education materials to equip faith communities to protect, restore, and more rightly share God's creation. Resources and accompanying webbased materials are available to download free at

A friend of mine from the World Council of Churches recently went on a Pilgrimage for Peace and Justice to Fiji. Usually, these pilgrimages are to places where there is great conflict and extreme distress so I initially wondered what need would there be for such a pilgrimage to paradise. But the people of Fiji, especially the indigenous people of Fiji, are suffering due to the rising waters that climate change has wrought on this island paradise. They wonder what life will be like for them in a few decades. Will they become climate migrants?

As I listened to my friend, I was reminded that environmental racism impacts many poor, vulnerable, and/or indigenous communities around the world. One of Northern Illinois Annual Conference’s strategic goals is to eliminate racism and to live into the reality that racism is incompatible with Christian teaching. One area of racism that exists in our world, nation, and communities is that of environmental racism.

With Earth Day coming up, I would encourage churches to think about the ways racism impacts the environment. First, let’s look at the definition of environmental racism. Our Book of Resolutions (2016, pp. 55-61) says in part: In the United States, the extraction, production, storage, treatment, and disposal processes of hazardous materials and wastes are too often zoned within close proximity to where people of color live…(and who) are usually the least able—politically and economically—to affect the political institutions that make the decisions that allow this to happen. People of color also disproportionately suffer from the lack of public health protections in the current economy…(p. 55, BOR).

Environmental racism is in the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the ground that contains toxins upon which some communities built schools and public housing. But it may not be in your neighborhood! There is an unequal distribution of climate change’s impact across the world and in communities that experience the effects from disposal of hazardous wastes. The U.N. has called it a “climate apartheid.” In essence, wealthier nations, communities or corporations contribute the most waste and provide the least support for its disposal, often not even “seeing” or knowing about such problems. Where is environmental racism affecting your community or near you?

One example in the Northern Illinois Conference area where environmental racism has made an impact is the rural community of Wedron in LaSalle County. Underground petroleum storage tanks from a gas station that closed after a fire leaked fuel into and contaminated the water table of this small community. Residents rely on private wells for drinking water since there is no municipal water service.

An urban example is Altgeld Gardens, long described as the “toxic doughnut” on Chicago’s Southside. Public housing was built on a landfill in the 1940s for African American veterans returning from the war. More than half of the residents live below the poverty level. The community is surrounded by landfills, factories, and sewage treatment plants. For more than 40 years it has suffered from the pollution of air, water and ground, due to such contaminants as mercury, ammonia gas, lead, DDT, PCBs, heavy metals and xylene. The residents of Altgeld Gardens suffer disproportionately from major health problems, especially asthma, brain tumors and lead poisoning in children, leading to a cascade of other problems like absenteeism and behavior problems. The community has some of the city’s highest rates for cancer, including lung, prostate, and bladder cancers.

Massive federal budget cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency over the last few years and its deregulation of about 100 policies have failed to protect or restore communities like Wedron and Altgeld Gardens.

I have a poster in my office that says: “What if ecology was part of theology?” I believe that ecology is part of theology, and I wrote a book with my niece about it titled “A Hopeful Earth.” Throughout the scriptures, we read that when we are faithful to God, the earth responds with abundance and fruitfulness, but when we aren’t faithful, the earth suffers (Psalm 107, for instance).

When we fail to protect and restore communities that have been the target of environmental racism, we are not being faithful to God. What does faithfulness look like in terms of caring for the earth? It means doing the things that we as individuals can do (recycling, less consumption, eating less meat, etc.) but ultimately we must impact national policies.

Frankly, as we approach elections—local and national—people suffering from environmental racism need us to vote for those candidates who will make a difference in the most vulnerable communities.

You know it’s bad when paradise is groaning (cf. Romans 8:22). Even if environmental racism isn’t impacting you or your neighborhood, love your neighbor and do right by them! Bring back paradise!

~Bishop Sally Dyck

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