The news of the L.A. City Council’s unanimous vote that advances phasing out oil and gas extraction across the city was a joy for frontline communities affected by environmental racism!
We arrived at this long delayed action after over ten years of fighting by frontline communities to protect the health and safety of low-income Black and Brown residents living in close proximity to toxicity emanating from the inherently dangerous practice of neighborhood oil drilling. Though delayed, justice was not denied!!
At the heart of this decade-long grassroots movement of community organizing and courageous advocacy in a city built on the world’s largest oil field was both reparative and restorative justice with a framework for just-transition for community and economic development.
With God’s help, people-power for righteous causes will always bring about win-win victories for some of the most marginalized and disenfranchised communities. Such is the essence of the Black Church when it makes a commitment to seek the welfare of the community and city that God assigned them to.
As the senior pastor at Holman United Methodist between July 2012 through June 2018, I can remember when Holman got involved in this transformational shalom-seeking work, prompted by an impromptu meeting with a concerned neighbor, Joanne Kim.
She came by to welcome the new pastor and took it upon herself to educate me on the dangerous oil and extraction operations in the West Adams community. My awareness of its impact on the health and safety of the community and congregation increased exponentially.
This conversation sensitized me for the numerous conversations that followed between myself and several Holman members, especially Gail Swan. Synergy was unleashed through my conscientization of the issue and expansion of vocabulary, the exploitive and destructive activities by oil and gas companies in Los Angeles and our congregational and denominational theology articulated in the Social Principles of the United Methodist Church.
It was also during this time that the Council of Bishops released their updated theological paper entitled, “In Defense of Creation.” In this paper, the Council presented a holistic understanding of holiness by connecting the dots between personal holiness, social holiness, and environmental holiness.
This was a recipe for deep reflection and deliberate action from the pulpit to the pews and from the sanctuary to the streets. Grounded in the social gospel, the bells went off – spiritually and socially, prophetically, and morally!
The essence of the Black Church is an intentional co-journ between congregation and community. Our followship of Jesus leads us from the shoreline of familiarity into the deep ocean of possibility.
Gail was so concerned about the “fracking” in her View Park neighborhood and the damage she was witnessing to the infrastructure of her home. This happened to be the same community where Holman’s residence was located for the senior pastor!
She had done her own reaching out to local elected leaders, without getting any results. In collaboration with residents in the West Adams, Jefferson Park, View Park and Windsor Hills communities, we started organizing teach-in opportunities with church and community members to raise awareness about the dangerous health and safety consequences of the neighborhood oil drilling and gas extraction operations.
A letter-writing campaign ensued to both the Los Angeles Planning Department and then-Councilman Herb Wesson. With expanded research and analysis with additional community partners, Redeemer Community Partnership and Physicians for Social Responsibility – LA, we discovered that there were three neighborhood drilling sites within a five-mile radius of Holman Church. Two of these sites were actively causing destructive respiratory challenges to neighbors and destabilizing infrastructure to homes.
We further learned that while fracking was no longer the method of extraction, the updated method for drilling in Los Angeles was underground sideway drilling through a method called acidification. The three drilling sites within five miles of Holman Church had different addresses above ground, yet these sites connected underground. Hence, an accident at one site could unleash destruction at all three sites and endanger the lives and homes of over 50,000 people, schools, businesses, churches, convalescent homes, daycare centers, parks, and recreational facilities, etc.
In seeking the welfare of the community, the faith professed by any faith community does not become spiritually moribund. Instead, such a spirituality practiced by a faith community affirms the ministry of mutuality in advancing beloved community. This is essence of the Black Church!
Following several months of meetings with members, neighbors, the Neighborhood Council and then-Councilmember Wesson, and then-Assemblymember Holly Mitchell, facts and faith, conversations and reflections resulted in my sermon, “In Defense of Beloved Community: From West Adams to Wilmington.”
Utilizing a contextualized Black Methodist theological framework, this sermon was a rallying for the church and community to come together, stand together and fight together to resist destructive and exploitive oil drilling and gas extraction. Moreover, this sermon was a clarion call to reimagine a reparative and restorative framework for healthy, safe, and thriving communities.
In collaboration with our neighbors and several organizations, we organized a Community Forum with our local, state, and federal elected leaders to present our research, provide testimony and engage in strategic conversation about how we intend to mobilize people power to engage in spiritual resistance and moral reimagination.
Holman was the site for this Community Hall with 300 neighbors, and elected official Wesson, Mitchell and Congresswoman Karen Bass. This deliberate organizing and strategic mobilizing catalyzed the birth of the movement, Standing Together Against Neighborhood Drilling in Los Angeles (STAND-LA) – an environmental coalition of community groups that seeks to end neighborhood drilling to protect the health and safety of Angelenos on the front lines of urban oil extraction. The essence of the Black Church is to build courageous coalitions with progressive and prophetic grassroots partners, including philanthropy, to realize planetary liberation.
With Holman Church as a founding member of STAND-LA, we were able to collaborate and contribute to the moral leadership emanating from a deeply yet expanded intersectional analysis and theological framework around environmental racism and racial capitalism. The focus of such leadership and analysis were social justice, racial justice, and economic justice.
This multi-racial, multi-religious, multi-lingual, multi-generational and multi-regional movement expanded through its incorporation in Holman’s Freedom School Summer Program. In collaboration with Read Lead and the Children’s Defense Fund, this socially conscious literacy focused educational and cultural experience enabled us to hold space for the education of our young scholars on how fracking and acidification put the health and safety of residents at risk.
Such a risk is exacerbated by the proximity of homes, apartment complexes, schools, or even convalescent homes to these drilling sites. We informed the young scholars that one such an active site was located less than half mile from Holman Church and around from Redeemer Community Church in Jefferson Park. Enraged by their understanding of the cumulative impact of these drilling operations, they were ready to do something about the dangerous and poisonous acts of injustice.
In collaboration with our STAND-LA partners, we organized two marches to the drilling these two drilling sites. Dressed as canaries in their bright yellow t-shirts and orange shoe covers, the young scholars marched up on West Adams and down on Jefferson Avenue chanting slogans and singing songs in defense of the health and safety of our neighbors and communities.
We made the evening news!! The essence of the Black Church is to always pursue updated and upgraded methodologies to let our nets down in new ways, new places, with new people, so that we can achieve new results.
Determined and driven by our vision and fight for our beloved community, STAND-LA grew from strength to strength with the resolute demand for a city ordinance that prohibits new oil and gas extraction operations and make existing extraction activities nonconforming land use in all areas of Los Angeles.
In our quest to seek the shalom of the City of Angels, the essence of the Black Church is to continue praying with opened eyes and mobilize our feet to resist social and economic preying practices!! Though delayed, the God of our ancestors has proven that arc of history will always bend towards beloved community.
Our ancestral cloud of witness joins us in celebrating the motion passed by Los Angeles City Council and made official by Mayor Eric Garcetti during Black History month in 2022. The drafting of an ordinance by the Department of City Planning in collaboration with the Office of the City Attorney will finally end neighborhood drilling and the immoral and racist cumulative impact of sever and lasting structural drivers of health disparities and economic inequities.
Reparative and restorative sustainable justice can now begin for future generations as we face “the rising sun of a new day begun.” The essence of the Black Church in its willingness to listen to new voices for vision, its openness to learn new ways of being, and its readiness to leverage new ways of becoming liberative good news to advance holistic holiness towards racial, social, economic, and environmental justice.