Chicago’s South Side gets more media coverage for its gun violence than for its gardens, but Trinity United Church of Christ is telling a different story. Trinity, a massive 8,500 member, five-generation, predominantly African-American church led by a visionary pastor, has joined the green church revolution in the heart of the South Side.
Their witness is a timely one. As the perils of climate change come to an ever-more furious boil, how the church responds is as much a matter of leadership as it is morality. Leadership, because it takes a mammoth effort to mobilize such a large community toward anything, and morality because the stakes are dangerously high.
Enter Rev. Dr. Otis Moss, III, the pastor of Trinity. Rev. Moss has helped lead the rising tide of Black churches speaking out for the environment. Under Moss’ leadership, Trinity has planted the George Washington Carver community vegetable garden (which teaches young people about gardening and science), started a Black farmer’s market in a food desert, swapped out toxic cleaning chemicals for non-toxic ones, and mobilized millions of dollars to build a green roof (a roof covered in vegetation that absorbs rainfall and regulates temperature and accommodates solar power).
Our planet is groaning for prophetic churches that can live resurrection truth in the midst of a warming climate. It’s why I was particularly eager to speak to Rev. Moss. Most of us may not be part of a church with thousands of people, but we do live on the same planet, and so we must all act.
I hoped to find out how we might be a part of this moral call to lift up our communities with an environmental response. Here are three key insights that came from my conversation with Pastor Moss to get the rest of us started:
Start with understanding your own experience.
Embedded in each person’s story are all of the elements needed to develop a care for the earth. It’s just a matter, as Jesus said, to have the “eyes to see.” Spend time outside? Care about health? Want global stability (or security) and peace? Want to fight racism? Eat food? All of these can be trail markers to discover a care for the earth, even if the term “environmentalist” is too loaded.
For Moss, his family’s experience in the rural South made the cause personal.
“The kernel for all of this [greening the church] really came from my childhood and witnessing my parents speak about their experience of the South, growing up, witnessing my mother and father being very conscious about food and food justice,” he said. “Then I went to Morehouse College, and I was part of a community of men and women who were very concerned about these issues.”
This concern wasn’t just for distant polar bears; this was for his community, for his family (indeed, Moss’ wife is a food justice advocate and has played a tremendous role in this effort), and for the future of Trinity. He leads not from the “concept” of good environmental ideas; rather, these efforts are a matter of personal identity and fundamental values.
Expect push back.
Moss stepped into a long lineage of beloved leadership at Trinity, and he pushed for greening the church while he was (relative to Trinity’s 56-year history) the new kid on the block. Launching this initiative was not easy.
“I received very typical church push back. I was the new pastor with the new idea, so people said, ‘We don’t know you, therefore if you make a suggestion we push back.’”
The first step was making sure that everyone was talking about the same thing. “Environmentalist,” “green,” and “sustainability” all are loaded words, and they resonated differently with Trinity’s elder members in particular.
“When I made the announcement to renovate Trinity’s roof to be a green roof, I went to the barber to hear what people were saying, because barbers hear a lot from the community,” Moss said. “He told me that one of the older members said, ‘That new young pastor wants to put green on top of the church!’”
To clarify vocabulary, Moss created small groups—especially with the seniors. Once he could sit down with ten people at a time to share the vision, the community came alive. Suddenly, elders were telling stories of their mother’s herbal remedy, or grandparents growing organic food on the land before “organic” was even a concept. The seniors—some of whom were previously opponents of the project—became evangelists for a green church.
From there, it was a matter of bringing in as many trusted voices to speak to as many groups of people that were in the church: inviting a local actress to speak to the youth; bringing in a medical professional to convince the congregation. Moss is a prolific preacher, but he counteracted resistance to this project not by speaking more, but by listening and bringing in a chorus of voices to do the “preaching” for him.
Talk about Jesus and be the church.
While plenty of secular non-profits plant gardens and green roofs, the church uniquely offers to the healing of the planet a narrative (and power) of the Gospel and the tenacity of Gospel-people.
“The church has a unique location of being a village,” said Moss. “I know of no other institution that has the ability to bless a baby, care for an elder, fund a scholarship for a teenager, work with a couple on the verge of divorce, organize a neighborhood after a shooting, visit people in jail, advocate against mass incarceration, have a farmers market, employ people who come out of prison, and help people understand how all of that is related to what [theologian Paul] Tillich calls ’the ultimate concern,’ the love of Christ.”
Grounded in the liberating love of Jesus, the church can move powerfully into environmental spaces offering a completely unique witness.
Each of our communities faces an overburdened Creation. We have a difficult road ahead. Despite all of this weight, Moss’ last words of advice ring true for anyone getting desiring to defend God’s Creation: “I would suggest that whatever you start, do it with a deep sense of prayer and with laughter.”
About the Author:
Tyler Sit is pastor of New City Church, a community based in South Minneapolis that focuses on environmental justice. Both Moss and Sit are Fellows at the Forum for Theological Exploration (FTE).
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