Coming on the heels of this year’s Transdisciplinary Theological Colloquium, entitled “Common Good(s): Economy, Ecology and Political Theology,” the student group TERRA (Transforming Environmental and Religious Resources into Action) organized a day-long Eco-Justice Tour and Conference to explore these themes via an action research pedagogical approach. It was a smashing success! The event drew in diverse members of the Drew community, including faculty, staff, and students of the GDR as well as undergraduates and members of the local community. The transformations experienced by participants demonstrated the power of collaboration between scholars of religion and their clergy counterparts.
The morning began with a plenary session entitled “Political Patterns,” which reviewed the sociological and ethical dimensions of ecological injustice. Theology and Philosophy doctoral student Shelley Dennis opened with a summary of the political dynamics driving ecological injustice and highlighting the unique role that people of faith can play in solving these problems because of their strong commitments to social justice and care for the earth. Dr. Laurel Kearns revealed startling statistics about the disproportionate exposure to environmental toxins based upon racial and economic factors. Religion and Society doctoral student Fernando Linhares recounted his experiences growing up in the Ironbound and working for ecological justice in that setting. And Dr. Elias Ortega-Aponte wrapped up the presentation by detailing not only the linkages between the prison-industrial complex and the problems of ecological injustice, but also some exciting new sustainability-related programs being implemented in the Washington state prison system.
Following this information-packed session, the group boarded the bus for the Ironbound district of Newark. Cynthia Mellon of Ironbound Community Corporation, a group that has a long history of working for ecological justice in the Ironbound, guided the tour. The Drew group witnessed firsthand the number of trucks and ships coming in and out of the port, creating an air pollution problem resulting in a twenty-five percent asthma rate among the school children in the Ironbound. Driving past the fat rendering plant as it emitted the rancid stench of boiling carcasses, the Drew group was exposed to the noxious smell to which the Ironbound community is subjected almost daily.
Along with noting the problems, Cynthia Mellon demonstrated successes as well. She highlighted the many ways in which the Ironbound Community Corporation partnered with Ironbound citizens, local churches, and religious groups such as GreenFaith, in order to make changes such as reclaiming riverside land for a park, cleaning up a playground contaminated with lead, and reducing the number of trucks driving through the residential area near the schools. These successes demonstrated the power of people working together, and awakened many participants to the possibilities of doing such work as part of their future teaching or congregational ministries.
Upon return to Drew, the group deepened their understanding of how to embody these learnings pastorally, during a brief session on pastoral processing. Dr. Keller awed the crowd with her extemporaneous rendition of “Seven Doctrines in Thirty Minutes,” describing each theological doctrine via the lens of ecological justice as inspired by her participation in the event. Religion and Society doctoral student Elizabeth Freese and Tina Notas wrapped up the day by enumerating the many ways that students can take action here and now on Drew’s campus.—Shelley Dennis, GDR Student Intern
The testimony of participants best illustrates of the power of the transformative experience:
Members of TERRA demonstrated a remarkable capacity for leadership in eco-social justice work in their organization of the Newark tour. They worked the intersections of academic, ministerial and social activism. I don’t think I have heard quite so many confessions of conversion from a single event (at least a single ecological event related to Drew) as I did among the seminarians involved in the tour, several of whom were students in my Systematic Theology class…Several of them come from evangelical backgrounds involved in charity, but not in systematically thinking about justice at all; several had involvement in social justice themes, but without the ecological referent. And a couple cared deeply about the earth but hadn’t put its degradation into relation to the lives of the urban poor. Through their canny choice of sites and guides, their understated but expert framing of the event, and their gracious facilitation of every stage of the process, affected this collective effect. May it ripple out into the world!
Dr. Catherine Keller
Bringing the Biblical narrative of justice in all its forms to bear on the real world is the work of the seminary. We exist at the nexus of the academy and the congregation, as did our tour. The Ironbound is parable writ large: We saw the filth of corporate greed and the collective complicity of American consumerism in that system, being poured out on a single community. We breathed in the stench of toxicity from having a steady and concentrated stream of waste and chemicals that others are powerful enough to keep out of their neighborhoods converge in this one place. We listened to the efforts of this community to fight for justice in a sea of abuse, to plant green seedlings in a wasteland of brownfields, to breathe easy in a diesel fumed cloud of uncertainty.
I am prayerful that out of experiences like this, scholars will lay down their books and pick up their tools, so that those who toil may have time to read and reflect, and that those who are accustomed to reflection will learn a new way of doing so, letting go of the academy and going out to meet the world. Jennifer Barry McNulty, M.Div. student
The tour is not just learning about all the terrible toxic waste dumps and underhanded dealings that have happened in Newark, but about the struggle to create a safe and just world for residents there – a struggle that has been going on for decades. I think the tour can serve as an important reminder and model to church-goers and to students who are often overwhelmed by issues of injustice. Yes, the problems are overwhelmingly bad, but there are ways to participate in change and to support the work of the ICC, starting with me locating myself here in New Jersey and looking at my own habits of consumption.
Natalie Williams, PhD Candidate Religion and Society