On Sunday morning of Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend, Reverend Dr. Ambrose Carroll Sr. steps into the pulpit as a guest preacher at Allen Temple Baptist Church in East Oakland, a largely Black and Latino working-class community. Outside, the Oakland streets are damp from three continuous weeks of rare, record-breaking rainstorms that pummeled Northern California, causing floods, landslides, and deaths.
Although the deep gray skies on this Sunday morning are filled with thick clouds pregnant with heavy raindrops, good news brightens the congregation’s day: Car manufacturer Tesla has provided a new roof and solar panels on the church’s Family Life Center, which serves as a community meeting space and gymnasium. Tesla's investment will help the church save more than $285,000 on their electric bills over the next 10 years.
“The African American church will always be a place of power,” says Rev. Carroll during his sermon. His organization, Green The Church, played a pivotal role in connecting Tesla and Allen Temple, the first church in Northern California to work with the company on a sustainability project. When Rev. Carroll says “power” he’s not only referring to the Black church’s legacy of having a prominent role in the movement for racial justice, but also to becoming a source of clean energy and solar power for the Black community in a fight for environmental justice.
Waking Up the Black Church
Green The Church, which Rev. Carroll founded in 2010 while living in Denver, is a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping its more than 1,000 member Black churches address environmental justice issues in their local communities. Rev. Carroll says it’s critical that more people in the Black church wake up to what’s happening to the environment, as Black Americans disproportionately suffer from health problems related to environmental issues.
The organization educates congregations and faith leaders on matters like climate change, pollution, and sustainability and energy efficiency that can directly impact communities’ health, in part by hosting three-day summits at churches to discuss these issues. In addition to addressing large-scale topics, Rev. Carroll says churches and their members are also encouraged to make small changes that will have a big difference, such as recycling, repurposing old food instead of throwing it in the trash, and installing energy-conserving lights and sensors.
Originally from Oakland, Rev. Carroll, who is the senior pastor of Carroll Ministries International, is now based in Berkeley and is also CEO of Green The Church. His siblings and family members are part of it, too.
Rev. Carroll says he became passionate about the environment after reading The Green Collar Economy by environmentalist and New York Times bestselling author Van Jones. "When I read his book, I felt like someone had articulated for our generation what would be our big tent issue, the way our foreparents had the Civil Rights Movement.”
He says that Jones's look at the environment appealed to him because it came from a "holistic standpoint" that was racially diverse and included serving the needs of those who are poor — such as feeding and clothing people.
"[The way] Van Jones talked about the environmental movement and climate change, it was not simply limited to science of the climate, but opened it up [to] what people of color were doing," he says.
Around 2008, Rev. Carroll became a fellow in Jones's Green for All program. Fellows learn about bringing environmental sustainability and green jobs to diverse and low-income communities.
This all inspired him to join environmental organizations, but he noticed people like him were missing.
“I was with Green for All and there were a lot of people of color, but not a lot of people of faith. Then I discovered Interfaith Power and Light, which is a national organization [with] a lot of people of faith, but not a lot of people of color,” he says. “I figured that if the environmental sustainability movement was going to be successful, it needed the tone and tenor of the Black church. So we set out to wake up the sleeping giant that is the Black church.”
Waking Up to Environmental Injustices
Although BIPOC and working-class communities are disproportionately impacted by pollution and climate change, the environmental movement has largely been white. Activists have criticized the movement for not being inclusive of marginalized communities.
Many Black communities are located in or near sources of serious pollutants. A 2017 report from the NAACP’s Clean Air Task Force found that “more than one million African Americans live within a half mile of existing natural gas facilities, and the number is growing every year.” Toxic air emissions from these natural gas facilities increase Black residents’ risk of cancer, the report further states.
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The pollutants are harming Black children, too. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 14.3 percent of non-Hispanic Black children have asthma, compared with 5.3 percent of white children.
The health disparities hit home for Rev. Carroll. “My son suffers with asthma. My mother-in-law, who lived in [San Francisco’s] Bayview-Hunters Point her whole life, died [around] the age of 54 of brain cancer. My mother, who lived in East Oakland and then retired to Louisiana where they're doing a lot of fracking, had a bout with breast cancer,” he says. Research shows that fracking exposes people to known or suspected carcinogens.
Rev. Carroll grew up in an East Oakland neighborhood not far from Allen Temple Church. Railroad tracks and factories exist within residential areas.
Running through both East Oakland and West Oakland, another working-class BIPOC community, is Interstate 880. Big rig trucks travel on that highway, which gives access to the Port of Oakland and the city’s airport. According to an Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) report, the “I-880 corridor carries the greatest volume of truck traffic in the Bay Area region and among any highway in California.” However, near the more affluent Oakland Hills neighborhood, where more than 70 percent of the residents are white, is Interstate 580. Trucks over 9,000 pounds are banned from I-580, with the exception of buses and paratransit vehicles. I-580 is the only interstate freeway in the Bay Area with this truck ban, according to the California Department of Transportation.
The EDF report also states that East Oakland has higher death rates due to heart disease, stroke, and lung cancer compared with the rest of Oakland and Alameda County, which includes Oakland and surrounding areas. Multiple factors can be attributed to these health issues, but exposure to high levels of traffic air-pollution “increases death rates associated with coronary and lung diseases,” according to the report. In West and Downtown Oakland, where more than 70 percent of the population are people of color, the EDF found that up to 1 in 2 new childhood asthma cases were due to traffic-related air pollution. In Oakland Hills, however, about 1 in every 5 cases of childhood asthma are caused by traffic pollution. The problem is not unique to Oakland.
“It’s well documented that highways were built through our communities,” says Anthony Kinslow, PhD, a civil engineer and CEO of Gemini Energy Solutions in the Washington, DC area. “Not around our communities, through our communities.”
Kinslow, who works with Rev. Carroll on various projects, is referring to the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, which authorized the construction of 41,000 miles of additional highway routes across the United States. The act is the biggest public works project in the country’s history, but it came at a cost to Black lives. Coast to coast, in cities such as Indianapolis, Miami, and the Bronx in New York City, Black communities were decimated. Many were displaced. Houses, businesses, and churches were destroyed. Air quality worsened for the remaining Black communities that ended up near neighboring highways.
“Our communities are experiencing the emissions pollution from those highways,” he says. “So when we start to electrify our [city] buses, school buses, trucks, and cars, the communities will benefit from no longer having fuel emission.”
Creating Clean Energy in Black Communities
The commitment to clean energy is where Kinslow, whose company provides lower-cost energy audits to smaller buildings like storefronts and churches, sees Green The Church as having a big impact.
“Black churches are a cornerstone of the Black community. If we’re going to successfully move our communities into clean energy, we need the Black church,” he says. And that’s why he and Rev. Carroll are collaborating to get churches to own and operate revenue-generating microgrids that Kinslow calls clean energy hubs, which utilize solar power, energy storage, and more to create emissions-free energy.
“The clean energy hub is a place where [churches] can generate wealth with this clean energy transition to reinvest into their communities,” says Kinslow.
Gemini Energy Solutions and Rev. Carroll are working with Bay Area church Glad Tidings, for example, to construct and work with fiscal agents to finance a $7 million revenue-generating microgrid at the church. This will include solar rooftops on the church and its parking structure, 14 electric vehicle charging stations, and three actual electric vehicles to serve as batteries to power the church in case of an environmental-related emergency.
For working-class communities and communities of color, having an extra energy source can be extremely helpful: Research has documented that these groups are often not prioritized during emergency and disaster responses.
“So often in today's conversation, the Black community is only talked about from a deficit standpoint,” says Kinsley, referring to money itself but also to the common theme of lack of access to resources in Black communities. “[Rev. Carroll] fully believes what we bring as a community, as individuals, is worthwhile. It's important, it's impactful, and it can cause great change.”
Turning Revivalists Into Environmentalists
For Rev. Carroll, convincing others of this hasn’t always been easy. He’s faced some challenges in getting Black churches on board with the green movement. For many Black Americans, nature is associated with trauma, and they don’t feel safe in it. Enslaved Black people endured inhumane conditions working in the fields. Post-slavery, the violence continued, including people being hung from trees. Black people from the South fled to the North and West in what is called the Great Migration.
“We were lynched off the land,” says Rev. Carroll.
Black people encountering racial hostility in nature continues. In 2020, a white woman made headlines for calling the police on a Black man as he was birdwatching in Central Park. Rev. Carroll himself has faced hostile situations, too: He says that around 2018, he took a group of Black kids camping at a Cub Scout retreat center near San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. On the second day, an employee at the campsite’s cafeteria saw his kids and threatened to call the police. “The white folks brought their young Cub Scouts there. When my young kids went in to eat, they said, ‘Y'all can't eat in here. Get, get outta here.’” Rev. Carroll says the Cub Scout center apologized and gave the campers a full refund.
The history of violence against Black people in natural environments is unfortunate, especially since there are so many health benefits connected to spending time in nature. Studies have shown that being exposed to nature decreases stress, boosts your mood, improves cognition, and more.
But many Black Americans do know the joy of being in nature and the outdoors. A custom for some descendants of those who were part of the Great Migration is to visit relatives who remained in the South. Rev. Carroll recalls childhood summers spent at his grandparents’ home in rural Holly, Louisiana.
“In the ’70s, they did not have running water in their home. They had well water that was so sweet,” he recalls. “Of course, you can't drink that now because they're fracking. White folks had oil pumps pumping right under the land that our grandparents owned.”
Present-day energy extraction techniques don’t tarnish his memories, though. “I don't recall there being a dining room table. But we would shuck corn on the porch and bust open a watermelon,” he says.
Stories like these are what Rev. Carroll uses to show Black parishioners that Black people have a positive connection to nature as well. Through Green The Church’s use of cultural practices, and by changing the language, Rev. Carroll is making environmentalism more inclusive and relatable to Black churches.
“We don't see ourselves as environmentalists, but Black folk do see ourselves as revivalists,” he says. “In fact, we have revival all the time. We believe anything old, decayed, decrepit can be made brand new again.”
This spring, Rev. Carroll will be hosting Green The Church revival tours in Texas and Louisiana that include a night of worship, vegan meals, and days spent discussing environmental injustices and opportunities with clergy and activists.
“We're going to reach out to national gospel artists and bring them to communities,” he says.
Making Food Justice Part of Environmental Justice
Rev. Carroll is passionate about clean energy, but greening the Black church’s plate is also crucial.
“We're talking about how to establish food systems, working with Black farmers, working with young people who want to farm, and making sure that we're growing food on church-owned land,” he says.
Green The Church
One of the ministers he has partnered with is Reverend Michael Smith of McGee Avenue Baptist Church in Berkeley, who founded the Center for Food, Faith, and Justice. Urban gardening, food sovereignty, and teaching how to grow food are key issues the organization addresses in their programming.
“You can't talk about food justice without talking about environmental justice if agriculture is one of the biggest sources of the polluters on earth,” says Rev. Smith. “The pesticides and fertilizers we put into the ground and onto the plants, the processing, the packaging, and the preservation of food — that’s an environmental issue.”
Since 1982, McGee Baptist Church has served cooked meals to those in need through their food program. They provide fresh vegetables from their quarter-acre garden, which Rev. Smith started in 2007 when he was a youth pastor. McGee and Green The Church host community harvest and Earth Day festivals together; feeding people healthy food feeds their spirit.
“One of the reasons you need to grow food is because you need to learn how to feed yourself,” says Rev. Smith. Another is that “there is healing and power in the soil. It’s gotta be because it's created by God. There is something that God gives you in planting a seed that's regenerative … and life-giving.”
Spreading the Spirit of a Green Church
Rev. Carroll pastors a virtual church, the Renewal Worship Center. He and his congregants look at green theology, which explores Christians’ connection and responsibility for the planet. “There's mathematics in this Bible, there's chemistry in this Bible. There's scientific knowledge in this Bible that is ancient,” he says.
Although his church is virtual, Rev. Carroll continues to bring his message inside church doors.
“Black folks don’t own a lot of skyscrapers in downtown, but we do own a lot of church buildings,” he says. “Some of them are great cathedrals. Some are storefronts. But all of them have to be retrofitted, electrified, and upgraded to have clean air and clean water.”