Environmental Racism, Repentance, and Youth

Below is an article that I wrote a few months ago about the 2016 Arch Street United Methodist Church youth mission trip to Pembroke, North Carolina. It was published in the Voice of the Spire, Arch Street’s newsletter.

But first, some notes on context:

About a month after our trip, Pembroke and the nearby Lumberton were devastated by hurricane Matthew. The Lumbee River flooded its banks, putting entire towns under water for several days, and leaving many homes unlivable. The Robeson County Church and Community Center, where we worked, was flooded and heavily damaged. Here is a video describing the impact on the community and the work being done by the United Methodist Church.

While looking for a news article to link to about the hurricane damage, I learned that the Pembroke community is also standing up to another environmental disaster: The planned Atlantic Coast Pipeline intends to pipe oil to Prospect, the community just north of Pembroke. Hundreds of members of the Pembroke community have organized marches in protest of the pipeline, recognizing the danger of continued reliance on oil, and the evil in the oil industry’s comfort with saddling the poorest communities (and majority Indigenous communities) with the deadly risks of burst pipelines.

Sound familiar? The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in North Dakota is also currently desperately trying to protect their land and water from a pipeline— theirs the Dakota Access Pipeline. This pipeline is also being forced upon poor and Indigenous people, and the environmental racism in this decision is made so blatant by the fact that the original route of the DAPL near Bismarck, ND was rejected because of the danger it posed to the people and environment of the richer, whiter Bismarck.

Environmental racism means that the kinds of industries that have the most risks to health and safety tend to exploit communities of color. Philadelphia is home to a majority people of color population, a huge oil refinery, and some of the worst asthma rates in the US (not a coincidence). Pembroke, NC and Standing Rock, ND are poor, Indigenous, and some of the latest victims of our greed for oil money at any cost (not a coincidence). In Flint, MI, environmental racism means criminal neglect and water that is still not safe for Flint’s majority Black residents to drink, long after the national outrage has died down. Environmental racism means that, if the Dakota Access Pipeline and the Atlantic Coast Pipeline overpower the Water Protectors in North Dakota and North Carolina, the emissions that they create will contribute to fueling the climate change that is disproportionately impacting people of color, including through natural disasters like Hurricane Matthew in Pembroke, NC.

As I explain in the article below, the United Methodist Church is in the process of repentance for sins committed against Native Americans. The same United Methodist Church that currently has $2 million invested in the fossil fuel industry. We can join the Water Protectors in solidarity, we can publish messages in support of their struggle, we can rally to rebuild the flooded Pembroke, and we can hold powerful “services of repentance” in our churches and annual conferences, but we cannot yet truly repent. Because repentance requires turning away from sin, and we as a Church have not yet turned away from the sin of exploiting our siblings for the profits that can be extracted from their land. What’s happening in Standing Rock and Pembroke is a continuation of the violence that has been committed against Native Americans since Europeans first set foot on this continent, and our Church is complicit.

(Confession: I as an individual am also invested in the fossil fuel industry’s environmental racism. I currently bank with Wells Fargo, one of the big backers of the Dakota Access Pipeline, and I reap the benefits of my father’s employment at an oil company. I also have a long way to go towards true repentance.)

Now, on to the Spire article:


On Sunday, August 7th, the Arch Street youth and several adults set off on the annual Youth Mission Trip to Pembroke, North Carolina. Arch Street has developed a special relationship with this community by returning almost every summer for the past eight years to put in some hard work on a local project. But it’s not just physical work that gets done—the experience also presents a lot of work for the head and the heart as the youth explore the meaning of mission and ministry with, while learning about a very different culture and environment from that of Philadelphia.

This year, the theme of the trip was repentance. For the past four years, the United Methodist Church has been on a journey of repentance for the Church’s involvement in historical and continuing violence against Native Americans. The church has realized that the healing of relationships can only happen after the much more painful work of repentance. Part of this repentance process is reckoning with the aspects of Christian mission that have done violence to Native peoples—physically, mentally, emotionally, and culturally. Because of this, it was very poignant for the youth to focus on repentance while on a mission trip to a largely Native community (the majority of residents are members of the Lumbee tribe of North Carolina).

We were welcomed by Gary Locklear, a United Methodist Home Missioner and a member of the Lumbee tribe, who arranged our work projects. On our first work day, we headed over to the Robeson County Church and Community Center, which offers a food pantry, an affordable thrift shop, and other services and assistance to the community. There, we sorted clothing donations and started constructing a huge wooden cover to replace a garage-type door in the thrift shop. Pastor Kelly Hunt was our master carpenter, and with his skilled guidance we finished the cover on the first day and moved on to our main project: constructing a wheelchair ramp for a family with a member who has limited mobility. For the rest of that day and the next three, the whole team worked in the hot sun, moving wood, measuring, sawing, hammering, and drilling.

In the face of long, hot days and difficult, often frustrating work, the youth remained dedicated. They approached the work with cheerfulness, courage, and a sense of camaraderie. They never complained or got lazy—at least never more than was warranted! (It was really hot.) The perseverance, teamwork, and good nature of the six young people were truly inspiring.

But the week wasn’t all work! Together we hung out, went bowling, cooked, ate, played games (Pembroke First United Methodist Church, where we stayed, was great for hide-and-seek), had meaningful conversations, sang, laughed, watched a meteor shower, went thrift shopping, visited the Museum of the Southeast American Indian, and had nightly devotions.

Through it all, I believe each one of us grew closer to God by growing closer to one another and to the people of Pembroke. As Callie Chen, one of the youth, puts it, “It was a liberating experience. I felt that we were able to connect more with each other spiritually through the process of our nightly devotions and working together to help the community.”

To make next year’s mission trip an experience just as special and unforgettable, you can donate (by cash, check, or online at archstreetumc.org/give/) and designate your gift for the Youth Mission Trip.


Our sweaty, happy group with Gary Locklear (back in the green), Pastor Kelly (front in the brown), and the ramp we constructed.


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