Over the weekend of Sept. 23-25, clergy and laity in the Southern Conference (SOC) of the UCC came together to celebrate something new under the sun: the SOC Environmental Justice Network (EJN) which was formalized this past June. We kicked off our EJN summit weekend with a clergy luncheon at Union Chapel in Burlington, NC. The Rev. Brooks Berndt, the UCC’s environmental justice minister, spoke of his recent experience of standing in solidarity with the native peoples of Standing Rock, while Dr. Gail O’Day, Dean of the Wake Forest University School of Divinity, spoke of the school’s Food, Faith, and Environmental initiative with which we hope to partner in the future.
The following morning we gathered at United Church of Chapel Hill to hear Berndt speak of the UCC’s Creation Justice Churches program. This was followed by lively, compelling discussion around our hopes and vision for the EJN, including the need to address the coal ash contamination of North Carolina’s rivers, environmental racism, and the urgency of halting global climate change.
On Sunday morning, after worship at United Church of Chapel Hill, the Revs. Jenny Shultz and Susan Steinberg joined with the church’s youth to lead us in a prayer vigil that concluded at a nearby Duke Energy transmission station. With white poster board signs, the youth held up the names of the many North Carolina communities adversely affected by coal ash contamination from Duke’s multiple coal-burning plants and removal sites.
What does this all mean for our conference, as we look toward the future of Creation justice in North Carolina? I believe that the EJN summit offered a counterargument to the notion, recently expressed to me, that the work of environmental justice is far too “gloom and doom” for our congregations to embrace. To the contrary, what I witnessed among those who attended the summit was a hope-filled sense of curiosity, compelling visions for reimagining the future of Creation, and God’s still-speaking voice, expressed with clarity and conviction, through the voices of those around me. Having already accomplished our dream of an SOC-led environmental community, we will move forward now, together, to accomplish so much more for God’s beloved Creation.
Karen Richardson Dunn is an ordained minister in the UCC's Southern Conference, a member of First Congregational Church in Asheville, and an environmental activist. She has been actively involved in the creation of an environmental justice network for the UCC’s Southern Conference.