EcoTheo Review



Morning sunlight bounced off the banana leaves that framed the peach stucco healing arts center I opened on Bayou Road. It was the spring of 2006 and I could count on 2 fingers the family, friends and colleagues who were willing to join this mission trip to New Orleans. They didn’t care that the two story two family home stood on a high foundation protecting it from the lethal flood waters. Not afraid were twenty African American teens from Rhode Island who squeezed into the sun room for our last radio broadcast which highlighted youth and Katrina response work.

Emily from Common Ground came to assess the space and didn’t want any more young clients to be exposed to the toxic stew which had marinated the lawn. She called for reinforcements and two environmentalists from Common Ground popped up to test our contaminated soil. Next arrived a motley crew hauling mushrooms, food waste, straw and sunflowers to remediate our front lawn. For a week I served lemonade and watermelon to thirty joyful and gracious volunteers. When their afternoon meal arrived, they spread out in clusters under the banana trees and quiet conversations surfed across the lawn.

I fully embraced the love flowing from these college aged folk who were streaming in from all over the world to help restore New Orleans. This lawn party, a mile from the French Quarter, was my introduction to permaculture design. The level of fun the participants exuded immediately drew my mind back to the middle school aged boys who attended my week long Environmental Arts camp at the Nature’s Friend campground in southside Virginia six months prior. The campers had been strengthened by what they received from Mother Earth. These young adults were deriving life meaning by what they were giving to Mother Earth. I mused about the relationship between soil and souls and the types of interactions which maintained both of their health.

Assuming there would be more climate changes ahead, I traveled to Nashville to learn more about this remixed Indigenous knowledge of how to maintain vibrant soil life in the midst of toxic human activity. As my instructor explained the 7 layer forest system we were to mimic, my mind flashed to the second chapter of Genesis where God planted trees beautiful to look at and trees good for food [Genesis 2:9]. My mind shifted 180 degrees. In the beginning, in the garden of Eden, food was grown in a polyculture system among trees and herbs—Not a farm or plantation. A 2000 year old forest garden in Morroco still bears witness to the abundance which is possible for all when we follow the original directions of serving and preserving the land [Genesis 2:15]. The Hebrew word often translated as till is the same word Joshua used when he said, “..As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” Before humans were asked to Love God or not to steal, lie or cheat, we were asked to Love our Mother, the Earth.

Following my Katrina response work I retired to 13 acres of woodlands to practice permaculture in the Virginia piedmont. I delighted in having my consciousness regularly washed in the sound of millions of leaves rippling in the wind; welcomed rising with the morning mist that watered the landscape and reveled in the full moons as bright as a football field during the NFL Superbowl.

The first year two fawns used to crash through the forest and bump into each other as they stopped to gaze at me in my lawn chair in the middle of the filed. They grew fast until one year the baby antlers between their ears indicated they were no longer babies and no longer were startled by my presence. I chuckled at their prideful adolescent strut past my lawn chair towards the apple tree in the front yard. All was well with my soul until one afternoon, as I was raking pine straw from the forest floor, the Spirit told me, this isn’t your work. An onslaught of ticks drove me out of the forest as I whipped around and demanded to know what does that mean? Further inquiries gave me the final audible response: I was to teach churches how to model sustainability. Water and food sovereignty rose to the top of my Katrina memories. The Spirit began to reveal teaching focal points.

A just food system first of all follows God’s principles of abundance and maintains a just relationship with Mother Earth. Ever since God breathed eternity into a piece of mud [Genesis 2:7], the destiny of the human soul has been inseparable from the destiny of Mother Earth’s soil. I was introduced to the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth as a comprehensive policy document to undergird climate justice. To balance our spiritual practice, it occurred to me ask that we elevate Mother Earth to full membership with a voice inside the Beloved Community.

The political concept of justice rises from the spiritual concept of balance. Our original balance lies in the bio-diversity of thousand year old relationships between shrubs, insects, and birds intermingled for pest control and pollination. Forests cannot be clear cut and the earth beaten into submission with monoculture. The microbes who create the soil’s ability to absorb water and nutrition can not be made homeless with endless tilling. Oppressed farmworkers cannot be imported to endure chemical warfare waged against lifeless soil to produce poisoned food which breeds obese and chronically ill human beings. All of these issues must be addressed to fulfill Christ’s desire of justice that we have life and have it more abundantly.

The Spirit then gave me precepts. Of primary importance is to drive ecological mission with economic empowerment. Follow the climate change prophet of Joseph and advocate for local control and democratic distribution of food systems. Teach rainwater collection so that every church can maintain potable water for their congregation. Since the USDA says a farmers market can be supported for every 1800 people, work the mission field in the square mile surrounding your house of worship. Stop acting like Sodom and Gemorrah and become friendly with your neighbors. Food pantries may exchange the charity model for CSA’s and community farms which employ re-entering citizens and youth who can’t read. Recycle human lives in addition to food waste.

We recycled the name of Nature’s Friends when the campgrounds in southside Virginia closed. It was named after a social justice camp in New Jersey that the owner attended when he was a child. My Mic Maq ancestors would be proud that makes us third generation Nature’s Friends. We have spent 3 years in research and development on the best way to train mission leaders in climate resilience.

Three program areas have evolved for Nature’s Friends and are designed to reinforce one another. Our field school creates a food shed experience for 10 groups (50 attendees) of high school aged students. The Philadelphia Interfaith Power & Light affiliate has invited us to present a full pilot of the sustainable growing program with a cooperative business element. Ecosystem services are taught to young adults who serve as apprentices or who begin their own business. A native plants nursery is being planned for the property in southside Virginia.

Audubon’s Toyota Together Green Fellowship has allowed me to experiment with the soil and soul botanical sanctuaries in D.C., Virginia and now North Carolina. Congregations are given an ecology and Bible lesson while performing a conservation landscape at a house of worship. This is a gateway activity to introduce/strengthen climate adaptation conversations within African American faith communities. Afterwards we want to map the amount of land the faith community is healing. Soil scientists tell us that we only must turn around 1% of our land use to reverse global warming. So literally if we humble ourselves, pray and turn away from our wicked ways, God will hear our voice and heal our land.

God is calling all young people of every ethnicity back to the land to care for her according to the original instructions of balance and abundance.

In much the same way intellectuals were called into service for the Harlem Renaissance, Black millennials report responding to a spiritual calling to cultivate the soil, sometimes leaving professional sports, medicine and neurophysics. Totally bypassing the debates of the science community, Mother Earth is speaking directly to the hearts of our young leaders and praise God they are listening.

And we must listen when they tell us that Black Lives Matter and climate change are flip sides of the same coin. The North and South Poles are not the only places where habitat is disappearing and our forests are not the only places burning out of control. Bears on icecaps and humans in inner cities are both losing their habitat. Forests and militarized neighborhoods quickly ignite into roaring wildfires on our mountains and social wildfires in our human built environments.

The way we treat Mother Earth determines our mental health, our emotional balance, and sustainable economic comfort. Food systems shape every other business structure. May we learn to feed ourselves the way Christ feeds us—abundantly and more than we can ever think desire or imagine.

Check out other articles in this edition of EcoTheo Review:

Rev. Dele is a theologian, visiting professor in permaculture, contemplative and social activist who uses her skills as a Climate Reality Leader and spiritual director to assist churches to model sustainability efforts in underserved communities. Through her organization, Nature’s Friends, she works to train the next generation of mission leaders in faith, ecology and policy. Her vision is for all human souls to redeem and nurture the earth’s soil for climate resilience. 

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