For all that is our life! by Rev. Andrew Clive Millard
In November I was invited by Robin van Tine on behalf of the Southeast CARE Coalition to attend a meeting with Virginia Secretary of Natural Resources, Molly Ward, in Richmond. (The Community Action for a Renewed Environment, or CARE, grant program was created by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2005, and the Southeast CARE Coalition was created in 2011 to specifically address environmental concerns in the Southeast Community of Newport News.) As one of a number of presentations and testimonials, I offered the following “faith and moral perspective”.
Unitarian Universalist congregations are held in relationship with one another not by a specific set of required beliefs but by a covenant on the basis of particular shared values. Primary amongst these are “the inherent worth and dignity of every person” and “respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.”
Now science tells us that interdependence is simply a fact: at the most basic level, we are inescapably connected through the food we eat, the water we drink and the air we breathe. Inherent worth, on the other hand, is a matter of faith, and it’s up to us to figure out how to live it. For instance, the Golden Rule or something equivalent is found in every world religion, and it’s important to note that there are no conditions or exclusions. It’s not “treat other people the way you want them to treat you but only if you like them or think they’re worthy”!
As shared values, inherent worth and interdependence are just two of what Unitarian Universalist congregations name the Seven Principles. The other five run from “justice, equity and compassion in human relations” to “the goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all”. It’s notable that “justice” is the only such word that’s mentioned twice in the Principles, and not coincidentally it’s also the most obvious consequence of the theological combination of inherent worth and interdependence.
For example, our demand for energy connects us to both destructive “mountaintop removal” mining in West Virginia and the devastating incidence of asthma and other diseases in the Southeast Community of Newport News. What’s more, we know that such impacts are always greater on communities of color and other minority groups. In the case of the Southeast Community, this isn’t about new sources of pollution; rather, it’s existing sources of pollution that need to be understood and addressed, and the first step in doing that is to set up accurate monitoring of air quality. It’s about empowering residents in regards to their own health and environment.
In these terms, it’s important to define “environment”, as explained by Southeast CARE Coalition Project Coordinator, Dr. Erica Holloman, as “the natural (air, water, land), cultural (ethnic identity and history of community), social (existing and lacking public services), economic (local business, health care cost), and political (local, state, federal) components” of the community. It’s important because this is not just about economic class and who has money to pay lobbyists. There is clearly a disproportionate impact on people of color — on children in particular — and that is far from “treating others as we wish to be treated”.
My wife and I recently moved with our three-year-old to a neighborhood that, according to the Virginia Health Department’s Office of Minority Health and Health Equity, has a high “Health Opportunity Index” compared to most other parts of the Peninsula, corresponding to better health outcomes such as higher life expectancy. My faith, my sense of morality and justice, requires that I call for all families to have equal health opportunities. I ask you to support the accurate monitoring of air quality in the Southeast Community.
Secretary Ward thanked me for my comments, acknowledging that she holds the same values and that I was “preaching to the choir”. Appreciative of the coalition of people meeting with her, she also lamented the common lack — or even complete absence, thanks to the exclusionary effects of privilege — of people of color at the government’s table when decisions impacting their communities are being made.