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Lenten Reflection on Poverty and the Environment

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The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it,
     the world, and all who live in it;
for he founded it on the seas
     and established it on the waters.
                                                                ~Psalm 24:1-2



We expect clean air and water to be plentiful.
They are, after all, fundamental parts of God’s great creation.

But the threats we pose to our planet and its resources are scientifically undeniable. We humans have proven to be careless in our treatment of the environment, frighteningly efficient in its destruction. And, as in so many cases, the burden for our actions falls disproportionately on the poor.

The coal ash spill in the Dan River has drawn international attention in recent weeks. Coal has for years been burned at a Duke Energy power plant in Eden, and the residual ash had been dumped into a holding pond nearby. In early February a pipe running beneath the pond collapsed, leaking tons of toxic coal ash and millions of gallons of contaminated water into the river. The coal ash has already flowed some 70 miles down the Dan, and public health officials are warning people not to touch the water or eat the fish.

Attracting less attention, a group of residents in the Royal Oak community of Brunswick County has worked against a different contamination threat in recent years. As the county has grown, it has chosen to truck construction and waste products away from gated luxury destinations and to a landfill established in the small, overwhelmingly poor community settled by freed slaves.

Residents, who have been denied waters and sewer service from the government, live with the smell, tainted water, and associated health concerns. When the county sought to expand the dump in recent years, the people of Royal Oak began working with the UNC Civil Rights Center to stop it. Like many who bear the most pressing burden of our environmental mistakes, it appears the most egregious thing anyone in the community did was be poor.

Even with the February coal-ash spill, the utility corporation had dealt with similar problems before on a smaller scale but affecting a disadvantaged community. For more than 30 years, the small, low-income neighborhood of Flemington has dealt with the health concerns posed by a nearby plant’s coal ash seepage. Ground water contamination has now become a threat to an initial fix for the area’s water supply.

Read the description of the Garden of Eden in Genesis. It is a story marked by God’s abundant generosity intended to be shared by us all. God gave us dominion over this planet with the expectation that we would serve as caregivers. Likewise, the expectation is clear that we will care for one another. So when humans damage the earth and seemingly direct the first and worst impact of that damage at those least able to counter it, we have doubly betrayed our responsibility.

So those of us with a wealth of options must commit to making healthier choices for the planet through our actions and our advocacy. And we must work so that the burden of environmental injustice does not fall heavily on those who are disadvantaged because they lack the authority that comes with money.


Creator God, you have gifted us with land, sea and sky, and with all their inhabitants. Forgive us the choices that have damaged your precious creation and for the harm done our sisters and brothers who suffer first. Help us to build a sustainable way of life that honors your gifts to us and our responsibility to each other.



Excerpted from: NC Council of Churches A Social Justice Study for Lent ~ 2014
Written by:  Aleta Payne, Deputy Executive Director of the NC Council of Churches.
For a copy of the NCCC’s Lenten Resource Guide Click Here.

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