A Lenten Reflection from Rev. Dr. Faith B. Harris: Governor McAuliffe’s EO57 Working Group
Millions of Christian believers all around the world are observing the season of Lent. Traditional to the season is the practice of “fasting” to acknowledge the human propensity toward evil. Kevin Cotter in the Focus Online magazine entry for February 22, 2017, listed the Pope’s top ten suggestions for what to do for Lent. One of the ten seems particularly appropriate for our times challenged by indifference to consequences of mining, burning, and dumping the production wastes of fossil fuels on poor vulnerable communities.
“Don’t Remain Indifferent: Indifference to our neighbor and to God also represents a real temptation…Each year during Lent we need to hear once more the voice of the prophets who cry out and trouble our conscience. God is not indifferent to our world he so loves it that he gave his Son for our salvation.”
We are an interfaith community where the religious views of the many faith traditions are respected. We think the Pope’s suggestion is relevant for people of every faith tradition and no faith tradition.
Recently, I, in my capacity as Virginia Interfaith Power & Light Co-Chair, and Dr. Mary Finley-Brook, a professor at University of Richmond, gave a 15-minute presentation to the Governor’s E057 Working Group as members of the Virginia Environmental Justice Collaboration. This work group was convened last summer by the governor to make recommendations on how Virginia should limit carbon pollution from its power plants. Our task was to demonstrate our concerns about environmental justice and climate change, and the impacts on the communities the collaborative represents.
Dr. Finley-Brook recounted to the Working Group the statement given by a member of the Tidewater Gardens neighborhood, a community which must contend with school closings from constant flooding due to the rapid rate of sea level rising, as well as unusually high incidences of asthma (upwards of 80%) among the children as a result of the coal dust and ash coming from the Chesapeake Power Station located across the street from them. The people living in Tidewater Gardens are exposed to high levels of mercury, lead, and arsenic from the coal ash site so near their homes.
Additionally, Dr. Finley-Brook suggested that these statistics are not unusual for poor communities in Virginia. Of the 26 power plants in Virginia, 57.7% were located in areas with above average percentages of people of color, and 76.9% were located in areas with above average low-income populations. 50% of Virginian power plants were located in areas with higher percentages than average of both low-income populations and people of color. Air pollutants typically emitted from compressor stations for the transport of natural gas include volatile organic compounds, particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, benzene, acetaldehyde, formaldehyde, toluene, xylenes, and greenhouse gasses (carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide). 
My portion of the presentation was to let the Working Group know that faith helps us understand that our environmental policies should include a profound sense of awe and gratefulness for the natural resources both human and non-human which have been gifted to us. We advocate on behalf of the people who work, play, and live in unjust and unhealthy circumstances due to the practices and policies of the powerful which do no incorporate this sense of awe and thanksgiving for the environment which is our communal home.
People of faith across all traditions acknowledge the primacy of life and justice. We celebrate the grandeur of the gift of Creation by caring for the environment. When the environment is healthy, it supports the flourishing of communities both great and small, urban and rural. We claim an authentic pro-life agenda that refuses to ignore the impacts as well as the unique vulnerabilities that poor and marginalized populations face as a result of burning fossil fuels, dumping coal ash and toxic waste, and dangerous infrastructure. These communities are the least able to advocate for themselves against policies and laws which impact them disproportionately, and they are often the least able to afford the added medical costs resulting from exposure to air, water, and soil pollutants, and displacements due to severe weather events.
This Lenten Season we advocate for a just environment where a sense of awe and gratefulness is nurtured not just as a faith practice but as environmental policy and practices which eschew indifference to our neighbor and to our world. If we don’t act now, we will continue to imperil the quality of life, health, and security of hundreds of thousands of poor Virginians. If we don’t act now, we place in jeopardy the next generation of Virginians who will suffer the consequences of rapidly rising sea levels which will force Virginians from their homes and from increased severe weather events which will cause disruptions in services and increased cost to the state and local governments as well as threaten peace and security of all Virginia’s citizens. Finally, if we do not act now, we fail to practice the moral imperative to care for Creation as a gift of a Creator for the benefit of not just the powerful but for all.
During this Lenten season let us fast from both indifference to the environmental justice issues which disproportionately impact our marginalized neighbors and indifference to the glorious world where we all play, work, and live.
Rev. Dr. Faith B. Harris