From the Soil to the Soul

By Michael A. Smith

from Currents Fall 2014

In light of the disturbing statistics surrounding climate change, theologians, social justice activists, and people of faith must carefully consider the degree to which the environmental movement has historically marginalized the most vulnerable populations. While we are learning more and more about the tragic environmental consequences of lifestyles built on affluence, convenience, and disposability, what we often fail to see is the catastrophic impact of environmental degradation upon the disenfranchised and the dispossessed, including children, women, people of color, and the poor.

 This summer, I led a two-week intensive course at the GTU’s American Baptist Seminary of the West entitled From the Soil to the Soul: Faith and Environmental Justice. The course grew out of my own efforts to elevate eco-theology and bring attention to the issues of ecological injustice and environmental racism. Each night, for two weeks, students from several GTU member schools gathered to discuss how the justice demands of the gospel can shape our understanding of environmental issues and our relationship to the land. We examined the complex interconnections between issues like global warming, pollution, habitat loss, and food insecurity, and considered how faith communities might become part of the solution.

As pastor of a historically African American congregation, I am aware that many in the Black church view ecology and environmental justice as concerns of the Caucasian middle-class that feel far removed from other, more immediate challenges facing our communities. Yet I’m also aware of how humanity’s distorted relationship with the earth has particular impact on communities of color. Our church is located in a neighborhood in South Berkeley that is considered a “food desert”—a place where many people do not have access to healthy, affordable, and nutritious food, especially if they do not own a car.

Our congregation decided to address the issues of environmental justice and food security through the creation of our Soil to Soul Urban Garden Ministry. This led us to develop an organic garden on our church property, enabling us to provide cheap and healthy fruit and vegetables to the members of our church and the wider community, while also helping individuals reestablish a more life-giving connection to the earth. 

Like the Civil Rights Movement, the environmental justice movement began among poor and working-class African-Americans from the South, although it became a multi-cultural movement early on. But environmental stewardship can sometimes feel like a fleeting concept in impoverished communities where the legacy of migrant farming, slavery, sharecropping, and displacement has distorted people’s relationship with the land. As we consider the environmental issues facing low-income communities, the impacts of race and class often rear their ugly heads. Whether we are discussing the displacement of Native Americans, deforestation in Malaysia, illegal dumping in the Niger River, or the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, history bears witness to the fact that the disregarded, the disenfranchised, and the dispossessed live on the front lines of vulnerability and risk as it relates to the plight of the environment.

I became immersed in the environmental justice movement about 20 years ago when I served as a supervisor at the East Bay Conservation Corps in Oakland. At the time, I managed contracts with several major land management agencies in the East Bay Area. Although these agencies employed inner-city youth through the conservation corps to deal with environmental restoration practices, these issues often seemed far removed from the neighborhoods of West and East Oakland where most of the young people lived. Furthermore, it often appeared that some staff members of these environmental agencies were more concerned with the protection of plants and animals than they were about the teenagers who came to work with them. Ironically, our young people were often asked to speak about the importance of protecting our local parks and waterways, but the officials who invited them to speak seemed unconcerned that none of these parks were located in the areas where these youth lived and that the water and air quality of the inner-city was often far more toxic than surrounding suburban areas.

As I read more on the subject of environmental stewardship, I found that very little available material was written by people of color; these individuals seemed to be marginalized by the mainstream environmental movement. Similarly, the environmental workshops and conferences I attended almost never included speakers or workshop leaders who were persons of color. Ironically, these workshops often addressed urban environmental issues in poor communities. Yet the voices of the poor and disenfranchised seemed to go unheard. I discovered there was indeed a huge difference between environmental stewardship and environmental justice.

Although politicians, activists, and even theologians throw around fashionable ideas about green living, most people do not understand the depth and the breadth of the environmental justice movement as well as the disproportionate impact that environmental devastation has on poor communities of color. In a chapter of Race, Place, and Environmental Justice After Hurricane Katrina, environmental justice pioneer Robert Bullard observed that low-income communities of color were hit hardest by Katrina: “Pre-storm vulnerabilities limited participation of thousands of Gulf Coast low-income communities of color in the after-storm reconstruction, rebuilding, and recovery.” Bullard lamented how “days of hurt and loss” gave way to “years of grief, dislocation, and displacement.” New Orleans is only one of countless communities where such problems loom.

In light of these monumental struggles, I sometimes ask myself if one church’s effort to create a garden of hope in its community really makes any difference. But Tracy Freeman, an ABSW student who also serves as our congregation’s Soil to the Soul Garden Coordinator, regularly reminds me that we are making change, albeit slow and on a micro level. Tracy helps me remember that when we convert a blighted lot into an organic garden, when we help one family eat healthier, when we motivate one young person to become involved in environmental justice, we are being successful. Each of these gestures is like tossing a pebble into a pond: Who knows where the ripples might lead?


Rev. Michael A. Smith is a graduate of American Baptist Seminary of the West (MDiv/MCL, 2010), and pastor of McGee Avenue Baptist Church in Berkeley. He is currently pursuing his PhD in the School of Public Service at Capella University.