Reverend Gerald L. Durley believes climate justice is one of the biggest civil rights issues of our time.
That’s part of the reason why Durley, a civil rights and social justice veteran and Pastor Emeritus of Providence Missionary Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia, was in D.C. Thursday, joining the hundreds that rallied for climate action while Pope Francis delivered his historic speech to a joint session of Congress. The rally attracted reverends, congregational leaders, church members, and pastors from Christianity and other religions.
“[Pope Francis] is a prophet of our time, breaking the barriers not only in Catholicism, but he’s talking about how we can go back to the perfectly balanced world that God gave us,” Durley told ThinkProgress. “God said to take care of it, but we’ve ruined it by our own greed, our own selfishness, we’ve destroyed the trees, the ants, the bees, the birds, and each other now. The pope is saying lets come back to a balanced world again, so that what inspires me.”
Rev. Durley has long fought against racial injustices, police brutality, and other civil rights violations. In the late 1950s and 60s, during the height of the American civil rights movement, Rev. Durley marched alongside Martin Luther King Jr. and has long been active in local and national justice movements. But about seven years ago, he started to realize that environmental justice and climate change are connected to the civil rights movement. In recent years he has written for Huffington Post on climate change, spoke at the United Nations, St. John University with Al Gore, and at last year’s Climate March that brought in a historic 400,000 people. Durley has emphasized climate change’s out-sized impact on poor communities and communities of color, and its impact on asthma and other respiratory illnesses that are found at higher rates in minority communities.
“I began to connect the dots,” said Rev. Durley. “To understand why environmental justice and civil rights are so important.”
Rev. Michael McBride, pastor of the Way Church in Berkeley, California, and national director for Live Free, a campaign of the largest faith based network in the country, also spoke at the rally and gave his moral reasons for acting on climate change.
“I think we all understand that as followers of God and stewards of his creation, these issues have always been central to the way in which we understand the world,” Rev. McBride told ThinkProgress. “The Pope says it best: ‘How can we say we love God but cannot love what God created?’”
PICO’s faith community is planning 40 Days of Faithful Action to take place nation-wide after Pope Francis’ visit to Philadelphia later this week.
CREDIT: Jess Colarossi
“We know that the people with our power influence the political and legislative agendas, so Congress must feel the power of our people,” said Rev. McBride. “We think there’s an extricable link between environmental justice, climate justice and racial justice, particularly because many families across the world that are bearing a brunt of unjust policies.”
The papal encyclical, he said, has brought a wide range of social and environmental justice issues to the forefront of faith-based communities, and the pope himself emphasized the urgency of these issues early on in his U.S. trip.
“I believe that the pope’s articulation of a broad justice agenda has forced congregations and faith leaders to take a look in the mirror to see if we are living to our highest ideals as stewards of God’s earth and ministers of this great gospel,” said Rev. McBride.
Faith groups in Washington D.C. also prepared for Pope Francis’ visit with interfaith vigils and group prayer. Susan Rogers, a coacher of Green Souls at All Souls Unitarian Church in D.C., attended the rally with her congregation.They held a 12-hour vigil at a nearby park before coming to the rally.
“We’ve had Green Souls at our church for many, many years, but we’re so glad regarding how the pope has stood up for this,” said Rogers.
‘Being green’ is nothing new for All Souls, nor is it a new concept for most Unitarian congregations. All Souls tries to bring awareness about what’s going in our environment by educating church members on ethical eating, waste reduction, and green building investment. Rogers and the rest of her congregation wore bright yellow shirts at the rally, which read, “Stand on the side of Love.”
CREDIT: Jess Colarossi
“I think in many ways, [the pope] is leading for his time but I think many of the progressive forces across the globe are coming together to recognize that there’s an element of our society that has hijacked the whole world in terms of varied personal wealth interests,” said Rogers. “We have to come together in whatever group you’re affiliated with to fight against this.”
T.C. Morrow, with the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, was also at the rally. She said that, “as a United Methodist, I feel that part [caring for God’s creation] is informing others about the realities of climate change.”
Pope Francis’ speech was aired on a large screen in front of the mall. Rally attendees were able to watch together, in the shadow of the Capitol as the Pope addressed issues on climate, immigration, poverty, and many others.
“I am convinced that we can make a difference and I have no doubt that the United States – and this Congress – have an important role to play,” said Pope Francis during his speech. “Now is the time for courageous actions and strategies, aimed at implementing a culture of care and an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature.”
An earlier version of this post referred to Rev. McBride as the national director of PICO. He is actually the national director of Live Free, a campaign of the PICO National Network. The post also misspelled the name of T.C. Morrow. ThinkProgress regrets the error.