May 5-7, 2011

More information coming soon…

The alarm clock went off at 7:00am. I snoozed the alarm several times before giving into the fact that I had to get up early on a Saturday morning. This is not usually my cup of tea… I like to sleep in late and take in brunch at one of the local eateries before running errands. However, this particular Saturday was different. The South Atlanta community had been preparing for weeks for the big clean up! For me, this Saturday morning would have in store a different plan than what I have grown accustomed. A plan that involved fellowship with my neighbors, pampering mother earth, and performing tasks that would serve a better cause, than my normal self-indulgent Saturday routine. This past Saturday, I felt united with my neighbors, those near as well as those that came from afar.

When I arrived to the Gateway Center, I was completely amazed by the enthusiasm and positive energy. There was a presence in the air mixed with the servitude of the people getting ready to spruce up the neighborhood. This feeling was a great substitute for my Saturday morning mimosa.

For the day, my job was to, of course, roll up my sleeves to aid in the clean up efforts, as well as, document through the lens of the camera. I wanted to make sure that I caught the moment in its most natural state. Being a “novice” photographer, I was quite confident that my photos would not be National Geographic quality, but I was going to work my hardest to come close.

The neighborhood was bustling with volunteers picking up trash, hauling tires, and planting shrubbery. Everyone worked diligently to restore South Atlanta to its greatness. I had the pleasure of riding through the neighborhood and collecting all of the discarded tires. How did I, of all people, end up on the tire committee? However, this job was probably the best job for me. It allowed me to drive through the neighborhood and see the beauty and potential of the community. South Atlanta is indeed one of Atlanta’s hidden treasures.

It was a hard day’s work: taking pictures of my neighbors, feeling the presence and energy of something bigger than myself, and appreciating the fact that I had the opportunity to have an impact within my neighborhood. It’s really simple… one day at a time… one street at a time… working together for the common good of the South Atlanta community.

Leroy Barber has dedicated more than 20 years to eradicating poverty, confronting homelessness, restoring local neighborhoods, healing racism, and living what Dr. King called “the beloved community.” He pastors a church in inner-city Atlanta, and he is the President of Mission Year, a national urban initiative introducing 18-29 year olds to missional and communal living in city centers for one year of their lives. He is married to Donna, and they have three children, Jessica, Joshua and Joel.

This post originally appeared in Creation Care Magazine.

I live in an unjust American landscape. The people in my church live in one of Atlanta’s urban sacrifice zones. If you sat down to list the social ills that are unequally visited upon my neighborhood, you might be able to name a few of the most prominent. Drug crime, addiction, prostitution, failing schools, broken homes, broken windows, lack of jobs, no public library, adult illiteracy, and homelessness would probably come to your mind.

Environmental injustices likely wouldn’t appear on your list. When visitors to inner-city Atlanta think about environmental disparities compared to their own neighborhoods, they usually think first about litter. Litter is an environmental problem, and it’s a sign of social disruption and lack of pride in place. But litter doesn’t kill anyone.

Within blocks of our church is a toxic waste facility, a trash transfer station, chemical plants, and other facilities that release carcinogens and heavy metals like lead into the air. On almost any environmental index, our area ranks in the worst ten percent of the United States.

The city’s huge impoundment lot for towed vehicles occupies the land that would be our neighborhood hub. The collective leaking oil seeping into the unpaved earth beneath these cars pollutes our groundwater and runs off into our streams. The city and county have permitted large freight operations and trucking operations to locate in our neighborhood, bringing with them reckless traffic and concentrated toxic diesel emissions.

Pedestrian fatalities afflict African Americans at a rate two and half times that in the white population in Atlanta, largely because the state Department of Transportation doesn’t design roads to accommodate walkers (or cyclists). Hispanic Atlantans are in an even worse plight: concentrated in newer developments but still reliant on walking, they are killed by cars at rates six times higher than whites. These can’t be considered accidents—they are predictable results of the way we build our cities. Asthma from air pollution affects large and increasing numbers of kids in my inner-city neighborhood. Nationwide, poor African American children are twice as likely to have asthma as poor white children, and blacks are three times more likely than whites to be killed by asthma. When Atlantans opted for public transportation and telecommuting to reduce traffic congestion for two weeks during the 1996 Olympics, emergency room visits and hospitalizations due to asthma fell by half!

Our neighborhood is one of the worst in the US for lead paint in houses. Nationwide, over 20 percent of black kids in older homes suffer from lead poisoning, compared to just over 5 percent of white kids in older homes. But black kids are also far more likely to live in an older, dilapidated home! In some parts of the country 1 in 3 inner-city children suffers from lead poisoning, which leads to lifelong problems like reduced IQ, slowed body growth, hearing problems, behavioral problems and kidney damage.

Antiquated sewer systems mean that high rainfall events bring floods of wastewater, toilet paper, tampons and condoms through many of our inner city parks and streets. Dilapidated houses and apartments are havens for rats and roaches (which are themselves triggers for asthma). Landlords, when they decide to treat for these pests, use whatever cheap chemicals they can lay their hands on—often agricultural chemicals not meant to be sprayed indoors. If you thought harder, you’d realize that greenspace and parks, sidewalks and bike lanes, banks and grocery stores, restaurants and retail are also distributed unequally.

The Bible says we’re meant to take a lesson from our environment about what God is like. Romans 1 says God’s eternal power and divine nature should be apparent from the creation. If kids in my neighborhood were asked to look at metro Atlanta and describe what God is like, I don’t think they’d get a vision of Jehovah-Jireh, the God who provides. If all they had to go on was general revelation, their picture of God would be horribly skewed. They would see God’s creation as a place that is more threatening to black and Latino families than to whites. Confronted with environmental threats so obviously distributed along ethnic and class lines, they might begin to imagine a racist God.

I must admit that until recently, caring for the environment in whatever form was not on my list of priorities a Christian. In fact I was quite clueless to any environmental issues up until about 7 years ago. It was then that I started to connect what I knew about structural injustice with these environmental issues. As a black pastor I am part of a history in which pastors not only built the spiritual lives of their congregations by teaching, preaching, and living out Christian beliefs, but they also stood for justice against forces that threatened the well-being of their congregations and communities.

These environmental inequities aren’t given to us from the hand of an unjust God. They are the results of human sin, a tolerance for injustice unwilling to see or act on the side effects of how we build our cities. I feel I am obligated as a pastor and leader of color to look at this issue and take it as seriously as I do my preaching on Sunday mornings. As we work together to build Dr. King’s Beloved Community, we have to think about the words of Jesus in the Lord’s prayer, “Thy kingdom come thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” I don’t believe heaven is a place where people of color have less, so my job is to work that justice throughout this earth.