Engaging frontline communities: Presbyterian Mission Agency Board learns about environmental racism

STONY POINT, New York – When the committee in charge of socially responsible investing in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) visited the bayous of southern Louisiana last spring, Native American leaders who led the tour spoke of roads that used to be shown on Google Maps. Now those roads are under water.

The marshlands in southern Louisiana are disappearing. (Photo by kris krüg, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Familiar trees and landscape – part of these people’s personal history – had disappeared, the result of flooding of marshland and erosion of the coastland as oil and gas companies have dredged and damaged the wetlands. Last spring, the city of New Orleans filed a federal lawsuit against a number of the firms.

And with many environmental crises, the impact hits hardest on people of color and those with little money or resources.

On Sept. 26, representatives of the PC(USA)’s Committee on Mission Responsibility Through Investment (MRTI) led a cultural humility training session for the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board on environmental racism – a term used to describe the often disproportionate impact of environmental degradation on people of color.

During meetings earlier this year, MRTI committee members have intentionally taken time to meet with people from local communities impacted by environmental issues – in in the bayou region of southern Louisiana where the coastline is eroding; in Flint, Michigan, where lead leached into in the water supply and sickened and killed people; and in Detroit, where people living in the shadow of the Marathon oil refinery complain of pollution, odor, and the health problems they’ve developed.

The reality is that many of those who live in Flint and drank, cooked with and bathed in the polluted water there are black and low-income. Environmental racism – which one commentator for the Atlantic described as “the new Jim Crow” – looks at the nexus of public policy, discrimination, poverty and lack of opportunity.

Filmmaker David Barnhart in the heart of Flint, Michigan. The city’s water crisis is the focus of his film, “Flint: The Poisoning of an American City,” which premiered in Flint Sept. 12. (Photo by Rich Copley)

The Flint water crisis, for example, stemmed from a decision in 2014 to begin using the Flint River to supply water for the city of Flint – a decision made to save money. The water was not adequately treated, so lead leached from water pipes into the drinking water. When residents raised concerns about the look and smell of the water in 2014 and 2015, describing their rashes and illnesses, government officials assured them the water was safe.


Presbyterian Disaster Assistance has just had the premiere showing of the documentary film its Story Productions team and filmmaker David Barnhart produced – “Flint: The Poisoning of An American City.” That film will be screened soon in a series of cities (October 7 in Baltimore, with Congressional Representative Elijah Cummings; October 10 in Atlanta; October 12 in Los Angeles).

Gregory Simpson serves on the Committee on Mission Responsibility Through Investment. (All other photos by Leslie Scanlon.)

MRTI member Gregory I. Simpson, who is trained as an organic chemist and is pastor of Nauraushaun Presbyterian Church in Pearl River, New York, said ecological justice tends to lean heavily on science and data. “Simply put, let’s protect polar bears. Let’s protect the bald eagle. Let’s protect plants.”

Environmental justice brings in person-to-person relationships, he said – surfacing the ethical and political questions, as Robert D. Bullard, a professor who’s known as the “father of environmental justice,” has put it, of “who gets what, why and in what amounts?” Who pays for, and who benefits from, corporate activity?

Kerri Allen, a PC(USA) minister and vice chair of MRTI, said there are theological implications as well as Presbyterians confront climate change – including the Reformed understanding that “God is active in all spheres of life” and the need for repentance because “we have sinned against God and one another.”

Kerri Allen is vice-chair of MRTI.


At the 2018 General Assembly, Fossil Free PC(USA) and the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship, both of which pushed for divestment from fossil fuel companies, criticized MRTI “for not engaging with frontline communities” – those directly affected by the companies with whom MRTI was attempting corporate engagement, Allen explained. “We had to confess that we were not doing that. … It’s because of external pressure that we’re responding to that this has been such a central part of our work this year.”

When MRTI met in New Orleans last March, committee members rode “The Redeemer,” a fishing vessel, to see firsthand the erosion that results from cutting canals through the marshes to transport oil and gas extracted from the region. They heard from the Pointe-au-Chien Indian tribe and Chief Shirell Parfait-Dardar of the Grand Caillou/Dulac Band of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Tribe, who said his people “are at the forefront of climate change and every impact.”

In Detroit, they heard from people whose families had moved north as part of the Great Migration, mostly to work in the auto industry, “to live the American dream,” Allen said. Then a refinery is “plopped down in the middle of their neighborhood,” and their houses are now worth $3,000 at most.

The refinery offered buyouts for a section of the neighborhood where more white people lived, Allen said, and “were offering next to nothing for the black segment of the community.”

Rob Fohr, the PC(USA)’s director of Faith Based Investing and Corporate Engagement, said the PC(USA) works in partnership on environmental issues with the Climate Action 100+ coalition.

These visits are in part the result of an instruction from the 2018 General Assembly that MRTI initiate community engagement as part of its work, to “listen to the perspectives and voices of people most impacted by environmental racism.”

The metrics that MRTI is using to measure companies’ progress in environmental action now includes, among its 60 criteria, the impact of the company’s operations on neighboring communities and on the historically marginalized.

Rob Fohr, the PC(USA)’s director of Faith Based Investing and Corporate Engagement, said part of the denomination’s role is to be an ambassador of mission values to the corporations in which the denomination has money invested. Those investments are significant: including from $9 billion to $11 billion for the Board of Pensions, from $1.5 billion to $2 billion for the Presbyterian Foundation, and sizeable but unknown amounts for individual Presbyterians.

“At what point does our work move into policy?” asked board member Patsy Smith of Oklahoma.

Board member Patsy Smith, a ruling elder from Oklahoma City, said she has sometimes assigned her students to read the book “Toms River,” which chronicles the human costs of toxic dumping of industrial pollutants in one community.

Along with corporate engagement, “at what point does our work move into policy?” – for example, into trying to clean up Super Fund sites or provide health care for those who suffer the effects of pollution, she asked the MRTI representatives.

To some extent, that may be the work of the PC(USA)’s Office of Public Witness, Allen said.

“The policies are obviously much broader than what MRTI does,” Simpson said. “They are national in scope,” and driven by politics and the companies that affect politics. Justice work “is always about pushing back.”