“Multiple generations of wounds,” Building Environmental Justice in Charleston, North Carolina

Guest Spotlight: Reflections from Charleston, by Richard Hayes, he/him/his, Unitarian Church in Charleston, home of the Kusso Indigenous peoples

The Unitarian Church in Charleston (UCC) is a Green Sanctuary Church.  We practice green in our Church as a way of being. The reality of Climate Change inspired us to go beyond ourselves into the wider community. The original form of Green Sanctuary inspired us to reflect on our practice, and now we look for deeper partnerships. Our minister, Rev Rebecca Hinds, has been our leader for 12 months, and is a fierce supporter of Social Justice, particularly the intersections of environmental and racial justice.

We need to work with the world community and our local community to minimize the devastating effects humans are having on our integrated Earth life systems. To live in Charleston is to know what it means to be at the whim of Mother Earth. As a coastal city, our livelihood is connected to the water, be it through fishing or tourism or trade. But as much as the water presents opportunity, it is also a very real threat to all of us here in the Charleston area.

We need to make sure that as we make local changes that these changes are fair and equitable to all citizens of Charleston.This has not been the way in the past – the City of Charleston has supported businesses and white wealthy areas in the City at the EXPENSE of communities of color. As we support tackling the effects of climate change in Charleston, we must make sure that we do it fairly and equitably. And to do this local environmental justice effort, we must partner with other like-minded organizations to assure our goals are met. And white Charleston leaders must include, and follow, the leaders of the Black and Latinx communities in Charleston.

The Unitarian Church in Charleston is a founding member of the Charleston Area Justice Ministry (CAJM), a faith-based organizing network including 40 churches, mosques and synagogues. Over half of these congregations are proudly, historically Black. This last year, CAJM membership, 2000 strong, voted to tackle the environmental issue of flooding in Charleston. We studied and found that the City of Charleston was going against the engineering and scientific community, and filling in the last of the tidal creeks, critical for tackling the flooding issue. This fill-in was proposed so that developers could build 8 story buildings and shopping centers on the land that was formerly a thriving Black community in Charleston.

CAJM is challenging the City Council, arguing that filling one of the last surviving tidal creeks on the peninsula would worsen flooding problems and deny nearby communities access to a vital natural resource as documented in the Dutch Dialogues held in Charleston in 2019. Charleston City Council voted on a plan to fill the creek and upgrade flood abatement infrastructure, in such a way that mostly would benefit residents of the new WestEdge development and not longtime African American residents of neighborhoods nearby.

CAJM is partnering with the advocacy group Friends of Gadsden Creek to pressure the City of Charleston officials to reconsider the plan. The project is in limbo while a lawsuit filed by activists works its way through the courts. One complicating factor is that a portion of the creek became a badly managed landfill that some argue poses dangers to the environment and to people nearby.

CAJM member Jeremy Rutledge, pastor of Circular Congregational Church, said the current permitting that will result in the creek’s destruction is just the latest of many assaults on the Black community and “presses on multiple generations of wounds.” Better, he said, would be to follow the advice of experts and restore the wetland area.

CAJM now has secured the support of three of Charleston’s City Councilmen Jason Sakran, Stephen Bowden and Keith Waring. Together, these three Councilors agree with CAJM that filling the creek should be prevented, though they insisted on a solution that would address the flooding and landfill problems. The Councilors also agreed to the concept of a pedestrian greenway that connects the Gadsden Green housing complex to the Ashley River.

The Unitarian Church in Charleston’s local environmental efforts will continue to work hard with CAJM to build Environmental Justice centering the communities of color in Charleston as we combat the effects of climate change.

Do you or your congregation have an Earth Ministry or Climate Justice story to share? Send UUMFE an email at office@uumfe.org… We’d love to hear about it! 

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This is an administrative account for UU Ministry for Earth (UUMFE).