Finding Safety and Power in the Black Church

The Frontline is honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day by looking at the power of the Black church and the power of faith more generally in the climate movement. Senator-elect Raphael Warnock’s victory shows us just how strong that power remains.

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A sign reading “The King Will Live On and On” at the funeral procession of assassinated civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr in Atlanta, Georgia, April 9, 1968. (Photograph by Archive Photos/Getty Images)

Nearly 55 years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stood inside Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta and preached his gospel on the American dream. The words he said then still resonate today. If there’s anything the last few weeks have shown us, it’s how achievable that American dream is for oppressed people in this country—as well as how quickly those filled with hate can snatch it away.

 

For the last 15 years, Rev. Raphael Warnock has been giving sermons out of those same four walls Dr. King did those many decades ago. His victory to represent Georgia in the Senate shows promise for that American dream for which Dr. King died fighting. The violent attack on the Capitol that quickly followed Warnock’s win so clearly underlined the enduring relevance of Dr. King’s words that summer of 1965.

 

History is the long story of the fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges without strong resistance, and they seldom do it voluntarily. And so if the American dream is to be a reality, we must work to make it a reality and realize the urgency of the moment. And we must say now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to get rid of segregation and discrimination. Now is the time to make Georgia a better state. Now is the time to make the United States a better nation. We must live with that, and we must believe that.

 

Now is indeed the time. The climate crisis demands it.

 

Welcome to The Frontline, where we’re getting a little spiritual. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate editor of Atmos. In honor of today’s holiday, I’m shining a light on Senator-elect Warnock, his work to keep Dr. King’s dream alive, and the power of faith in the environmental sector.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Georgia has witnessed Dr. King’s historic “I Have A Dream” speech come to life with its latest string of victories. A Black pastor and a Jewish man—Warnock and Senator-elect Jon Ossoff—being duly elected to the Senate is a “prime example” of living out that dream, says Whitney Brown, the communications director for Georgia Interfaith Power and Light, who works in this unique space where faith and the environment meet.

“When Rev. Warnock was talking about environmental justice and how it’s gotta be key in the next year, in the next five years, in the next 20 years—people listened.”

Whitney Brown
Georgia Interfaith Power and Light

Thanks to their wins, the U.S. may finally begin to prioritize the climate crisis through effective legislation. However, their wins came on the backs of Black voters in Georgia and the Black women who organized on the ground to get them registered and to the polls. We can’t ignore the powerful role faith and hope played in Black voters who saw something special in Warnock.

 

“Because the Black church is such a powerful space for teaching and learning and educating and expanding our understanding and beliefs, it’s been really powerful to see a person of faith stand up and say, ‘Look this is an important issue,’” says Brown. “When Rev. Warnock was talking about environmental justice and how it’s gotta be key in the next year, in the next five years, in the next 20 years—people listened.”

 

There’s been an effort on behalf of the religious community in recent years to take on the climate crisis as a message it’s preaching. Think of the Vatican, for example. Pope Francis’ Laudato si’ encyclical letter in 2015 was historic and set a new tone for religion worldwide. More recently, the Dalai Lama met youth climate activist Greta Thunberg, exclaiming the hope he felt hearing her speak. Just last year, he coauthored a book on the climate crisis, “Our Only Home.”

 

The Black church has been at the forefront of much of this work toward liberation and stewardship. When the first high-profile environmental justice fight took place in Warren County, North Carolina, back in 1982, the United Church of Christ was leading marches and mobilizing hundreds of protests. The church published “Toxic Wastes and Race,” one of the first national reports to examine environmental racism.

 

So it’s no coincidence that pastors like Dr. King and Senator-elect Warnock are able to walk from the pulpit to the public square with such ease, connecting with the religious and secular alike. Their words linger. Listeners can absorb them and, in return, feel a sense of hope despite the ecological or societal collapse these leaders speak against.

 

“It helps that many of the world’s religions are 2,000-plus years old,” Brown says, when I ask how Warnock helps keep Dr. King’s work alive. “Religion has staying power… The long-lasting nature of religion has made this messaging long-lasting.”

 

The EcoWomanist Institute, which works to center Black women in the eco-spirituality space, did heavy campaigning in rural parts of Georgia for the Senate races. As a 501(c)(3), organizers weren’t preoccupied with any candidate. Instead, they focused on empowering Black rural voters—particularly women—to take advantage of their rights as U.S. citizens and do what their ancestors fought so hard to make possible for them.

 

The institute didn’t explicitly center spirituality in its messaging, but it did center historical Black women rooted in faith. The institute rolled out digital ads, TV ads, and radio ads featuring Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Baker, and Rosa Parks.

 

“The reasons it was easy to bring faith into the messages was because those three women that I lifted up, there was an innate perseverance, faith, hope, and love based into the work that they did for the beloved community,” says Valerie Rawls, the cofounder of the EcoWomanist Institute. “All three of those women were willing to lay down their lives for community.”

 

Faith, hope, and love are at the heart of environmental justice—you don’t need to be religious to feel that. For many Black communities, however, the church has long been a place of safety and power. Before they had the church, they had nature, says Rawls.

 

“We’ve always had a unique relationship with nature,” she says. “It was that place where you would literally steal away—steal away for that peace and tranquility in the midst of the chaos and the turmoil that goes on in this un-United States of America.”

 

When Dr. King spoke at Ebenezer Baptist Church some 55 years ago, he used “schizophrenic personality” to describe America and its struggles with democracy. Today, political leaders and their followers still struggle with reality, comforting themselves with conspiracies and lies. These false truths keep climate denial and white supremacy alive. Our collective inability to discern fact from fiction keeps us divided.

 

The eco-faith and eco-spirituality world shows promise in connecting with Black voters who may otherwise feel uninspired by the political rhetoric candidates throw their way. It’s a powerful tool grassroots advocates would be incomplete without. But no tool is more powerful than love, especially when pitted against the monster that is hate.

 

As Dr. King said during that “American Dream” sermon:

 

Oh yes, love is the way. Love is the only absolute. More and more I see this. I’ve seen too much hate to want to hate myself; hate is too great a burden to bear. I’ve seen it on the faces of too many sheriffs of the South—I’ve seen hate. In the faces and even the walk of too many Klansmen of the South, I’ve seen hate. Hate distorts the personality. Hate does something to the soul that causes one to lose his objectivity. The man who hates can’t think straight; the man who hates can’t reason right; the man who hates can’t see right; the man who hates can’t walk right. And I know now that Jesus is right, that love is the way. And this is why John said, “God is love,” so that he who hates does not know God, but he who loves at that moment has the key that opens the door to the meaning of ultimate reality. So this morning there is so much that we have to offer to the world. 

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