Black Churchgoers, Environmental Activism and the Preservation of Nature in Miami, Florida

Article excerpt

Abstract

This paper examines connections in three case studies of Black churchgoers in Miami and their views toward the natural environment, from environmental attitudes to activism. There were four major findings in the research. First, there is a link between the preservation of Black history and the preservation of the environment among Black churchgoers who feel a strong connection to rural life. Second, these case studies dispute the stereotype of Black churchgoers as less concerned about the environment due to pressing social concerns in Black neighborhoods. This stereotype artificially separates environmental and social issues. Third, public access to public lands is a basic and important right espoused by these Black churchgoing activists. Fourth, spirituality impacts environmental sentiments among Miami's churchgoing Blacks. Possessing an understanding of how Black spirituality, history and local concerns relate to the environment adds to the sparse literature on the subject. The discussion also provides information for policy makers interested in bridging gaps between Black churchgoers and the "mainstream" environmental protection movement, to the benefit of both local communities and the overall ecosystem.

Introduction

Deacon Baldwin, clad in overalls, stood in the searing Florida sun of September, 2001, and mused about what had brought him to this place. He had recently orchestrated the planting of over six hundred native trees by volunteers. This tree-planting project took place on the outskirts of Miami in foliage-barren Richmond Heights, a neighborhood settled by Black service men after "World War II. Deacon Baldwin revealed through his actions and words the essence of how many churchgoing Blacks in South Florida connect the natural world and the environment to their lives:

I was intrigued by the nature, the sun and the rain. Belle Glade [Florida] had such rich soil. You could plant anything and it would grow there. I like to plant things. I believe in nature. Now I've got a generation coming after me that's going to be successful. The way to deal with it is history, environment and church (Baldwin, interview, 2001).

For more than two years during 2001 to 2003, I explored environmental preservation and activism through ethnographic research, including qualitative interviews and participant observation, among three groups of churchgoing Blacks in Miami, Florida. The term "Black" is used in this paper rather than African American because the majority of my interviewees seemed most comfortable with that self-description, and I attempted to respect participants' opinions and use of language throughout this study. These study groups included Blacks with ancestry in Cuba, the Bahamas, Haiti, Jamaica and the U.S. south, among other locales. I chose to examine them collectively as attendees of Black churches where most congregants had race in common, but not necessarily place of origin. Participants self-defined their volunteer projects, such as preservation of Miami's historic "Black beach," as dealing with "Black history." They described their proposed nature camps and their realized tree plantings as dealing with people from the "neighborhood" who shared race in common, but not necessarily place of birth. This examination of the category of "Black churchgoers" might not have been a useful grouping had all of my case studies taken place in churches in a strong ethnic enclave such as Miami's Little Haiti, where many people come from a fairly small geographic region. However, most of my research took place in neighborhoods or involved church (or multi-church) projects where the ancestry of participants was more geographically diverse, therefore the broadness of the group Black churchgoers seemed appropriate. A note must also be made that several participants clarified that their churches/projects were not "just" for Blacks but were welcoming to all.

The results of my research indicate that there are several key aspects of the relationship between Black churchgoers in South Florida and the natural environment. …