As the environmental and climate change movement continues to build momentum and expand, a number of new partners join the coalition. One important addition has been the faith community, with leaders from a wide array of denominations adding their voice and unique perspective.
One veteran civil rights activist and faith leader visited Des Moines recently to do his part to push forward the conversation on climate change. Rev. Dr. Gerald Durley was the pastor for 25 years at the historic Providence Missionary Baptist Church in Atlanta. A psychologist as well, Durley was deeply involved in the civil rights struggle in the 1960’s. He brought that perspective to local climate activists in Des Moines, and Starting Line sat down with him for an interview during his trip. The following has been edited slightly for clarity and brevity.
What brings you to Iowa and why do you feel climate change is a civil rights issue?
For the last six or seven ears we’ve been deeply concerned with climate change, global warming and environmental justice. All too often the masses are not too involved. We don’t really know what happened in Paris and Copenhagen. Until we take it to that grass-roots level, where it has a face and meaning.
In my estimation, climate change is a civil rights issue. I started in the movement with Dr. King in 1959, and went to jail many times because it was a civil right to be able to vote. To be able to ride the bus, to buy a house where I wanted to. But those were all negated even though the Constitution gave me the right to do it. The Constitution gives all Americans the right to clean water, clean energy, toxin-free air. But because of the greed of the corporate structure, these are being denied in the political process. At this stage in my life I only go where I think it’s something that’s important.
You’ve been involved in a number of political movements in your life, what brought you to climate change?
It was about six years ago. Really how I got involved in it, I was pastor-ing for many years in the city of Atlanta, and a lady joined the church. She asked me if I’d curb the rate of teenage pregnancies in Georgia. This was her passion. So we got involved, many of the evangelical groups. Her name was Jane Fonda. She was married to Ted Turner. So we got involved with Ted, and then Sally Bingham, who was the president of Interfaith Power and Light. And we started talking more and more.
And then I began to see that climate change was negatively disproportionately affecting low-income and particularly minority communities, who contributed the least amount to carbon in the atmosphere. I went on a radio program and was asked why would I change from civil rights to climate change. I said because I can’t get to civil rights and human rights if I’m dead breathing the air and drinking the water that’s out here. So I gotta do something!
So that’s how I made the shift. And it went beyond polar bears, because, really, I could care less about polar bears melting, I’ve never seen a polar bear, never had a polar bear sandwich. So polar bears didn’t move me, but then I saw how as we destroyed different areas, how the trees were being destroyed that absorb the carbon and give back oxygen.
I was a dean at Morehouse School of Medicine for eight years, dealing with medical concerns. I began to see how this was impacting children’s lives from an asthmatic condition. That’s when it really began to take on a human and civil rights meaning to me.
What are some of the parallels you see to the civil rights movement?
The civil rights movement was not done by a whole lot of people. In fact it was a small group of people. If everybody who claimed to march with Dr. King, marched with Dr. King, nobody left in America! So the parallelism is that it starts with a few people. In 1963, when we went to Washington D.C. with the march, but up to that point we faced nothing but going in and out of jail, no one was listening to us, it had no meaning. We were being accosted, not only by the white structure but the black folks who said leave these people alone. In August of ’63, John Kennedy said don’t bring this to Washington. He was not with us, then after it was a success, he and Bobby jumped on board. After it’s a success, people get on board.
I think in the environmental movement right now people are wondering if we’re getting our message across. How’s it getting to the people? And I tell them not to be discouraged. We were not discouraged. We believed what the mind can conceive and believe it can achieve. Therefore, it’s going to get there. When I look at the landscape, there’s so many little groups. Everybody’s got a little piece of it.
When it comes down to the real issues impacting our daily lives, it’s going to take hold and impact what we do in this nation in terms of what we drive, what we eat. It’s a movement, not a campaign. Someone asked me if I’d join a campaign. Definitely not. Campaigns have a beginning and end. Movements continue until victory is won.
Are there ways that it’s harder to organize for? In past movements it’s much more personal, it’s about how someone is as a person. This affects many more people, but does it connect as well for them?
You hit one key word: “personal.” Climate change for the masses is not personal. You have to make a transition. If my mother got in my way, I’d walk over her when it came to my voting rights, my housing rights, my human rights, when it came to dignity of the masses. But it hasn’t reached that level of intensity down in the very DNA of people. Things begin to move when the masses take personal ownership.
The Pope has set a tremendous standard. We saw on the streets, he’s given us cover to go ahead and do what we should do. I think the mere fact that it comes from him – this is interfaith.
What I’m frightened about right now in America in the press, when we talk about those of us who are talking about climate change, it’s slowly taking a backseat to police brutality, racism and trumpet ignorance. The press, it makes money to talk about Trayvon Martin and immigration and the craziness around it. That gets press and generates people’s thoughts and shifts it away from something that’s much more global, much more insidious. We need to gear up much more the importance of how this directly personally impacts you.
How do you tie the overall stewardship of the earth and faith message into it?
God created a perfectly balanced ecological world, he said I’d like you to take care of it for me. See, when it was first built, ants got along with dinosaurs, and dinosaurs got along with bears. And we all loved each other. And we threw everything off balance. You might have a Rolls Royce, but if you only have three tires, it won’t go very far. We’ve done that in the environment, in terms of plants, in terms of our own pollution, to make money. At first I think it was done for convenience, but at some point how much convenience and comfort do you need?
The faith community needs to stand up. Science now has already said what they believe is happening. Business is saying, wait a minute, we’ll work on it.
All the faiths talk about the virtues of God’s great, magnificent, perfectly ecologically balanced planet. We’ve got to take that and get the business people to the same level of consciousness. So that then the business people will influence the politicians. When I deal with Duke Power, the CEOs say I’m concerned about my children, my grandchildren, but I’ve got investors. I think when some of the energy giants realize money from solar, the power will shift.
What has encouraged you from what you’ve heard in the 2016 campaign?
Not much. When I see America from a drone perspective, it looks like, if you were ever a little boy and you had an ant hill and you kicked it over, you have ants all around and you can’t get a grasp on it. President Obama’s constantly trying to put things in perspective and that’s kicked over just because we don’t like you. Maybe it’s premature, after Iowa, it’s still shaking out right now.
When working with communities of faith, especially evangelical ones that may be more culturally and politically conservative, how do you break them away from the partisan aspect of it?
When I’m sitting with some who are a little more conservative than me, they have the same understanding from a Biblical perspective about our role in taking care of the earth that God has given us. But when you go into certain congregations, the people that contribute to the building of the new steeple are business people. And the business people influence their parishioners. They’ll say in private rooms, I understand, but I have to keep this congregation together. When many evangelicals are beginning to understand the impact from both a health and spiritual perspective, I think they’re going to start making an impact with their parishioners, who own these major companies.
Any other major observations?
I think the key thing right now – there’s a phrase we use in the text, be not weary in well-doing. You will reap in new season if you faint not. If you don’t give up. I had many days when I wanted to give up. I had days when I wanted to say all white people are racist, and they’re not. I had days when I said, is it worth it? It is. The time is right. If not you, then who? If not now, then when? So we all come to serve at a particular time. The issue then becomes, do I do all that I can do during our time? If it doesn’t come at that time, you’ve laid another brick in the wall for success.
Most people don’t know what happened in Paris. We must bring the energy of Paris together. When I looked at the post-Paris things, there’s no real teeth in it to make people do things. We were there together for one cause: to bring awareness to the people, so the people now can take ownership. Let’s put a face, a human, personal face to this, and we got a shot at this.
by Pat Rynard