3rd Sunday after Epiphany
One thing I asked of the Lord, that I will seek after: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple.
For he will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble; he will conceal me under the cover of his tent: he will set me high on a rock.
Now my head is lifted up above my enemies all around me, and I will offer in his tent sacrifices with shouts of joy; I will sing and make melody to the Lord. -Psalm 27:4-6
By Sarah Thompson and Na’Taki Osborne Jelks, excerpted from Watershed Discipleship: Reinhabiting Bioregional Faith and Practice
Sarah: Connecting people to land connects us with one another, enabling us to re-knit kinship ties that were broken by enslavement. In the Diaspora, Black folks have had a primarily extractive relationship with the land, and later in industrial factories. We were seen as people whose worth was in our productive capacity, but beyond that, as disposable. It is easy to understand, therefore, why we have had an extractive relationship with one another, and use a lot of disposable things. But this cycle is spiritually devastating.
Na’Taki: Many come out to our preserved lands to connect spiritually with the beauty God has created. West Atlanta Watershed Alliance’s invitation to visit is not about getting African-Americans or others to work the land or do active stewardship of any kind. Rather, we want people to have access to these spaces to enjoy and rest, to get the restorative benefits from being active in the outdoors in whatever way they choose.
And we’ve had a disempowered relationship with bodies of water—from the Atlantic Ocean as a site of separation from Africa and death during the Middle Passage, to racially segregated swimming pool throughout the South. For many African-Americans the natural world is interwoven with a lot of social trauma; I see your work as healing that trauma and re-establishing an empowered relationship with our lands and waters.
We must remember that after slavery legally ended, public parks and natural spaces such as the ones WAWA stewards now were segregated. We didn’t have access to most of them for a hundred years. But even after they were legally integrated, many African-Americans still do not feel welcomed in certain public spaces like parks, public campgrounds or green spaces. Yet these spaces belong to everybody and we ought to be welcome!
Despite all the trauma, there have always been healers, lovers, keepers of wisdom and stories—elders who take risks for the sake of youth, and children who hold the community together. They remind us that we are not separate from all that is—both in our specific watersheds and in the wider universe.
I guess we defy the mold of what one might perceive a watershed group to be. For example, each of the last three years we have hosted a “Great American Backyard Campout,” where now sixty to seventy tents and 250 people sleep under the stars—primarily, but not exclusively, African-Americans. Since many don’t have camping materials, or prefer not to go the long distance to a campground where they might not feel welcomed or safe, we create these spaces in the middle of the city.
When we first did it, we had to pound the pavement to get our neighbors here. We knew if we advertised in the Atlanta Journal Constitution it wouldn’t necessarily be our neighborhood folks who showed up. Our goal was to get first time campers and people of color to come. We work with everybody, but we have to make sure our community is here too, so we need to be intentional. A woman said to me, “I wouldn’t have done this, but I did this for my grandchildren, and I feel safe with your organization.” People might feel that because of their history and background—because they picked cotton in the field, for example—they’d have no interest in doing something like this. But because WAWA is a trusted organization in the community we were able to break down some of those barriers.
And when people get connected to a sense of place, that’s just the beginning!
They want to keep coming out, they want to be stewards, to be engaged. They start to connect the dots between what’s going on politically, how the environment plays a role in some of the things that are happening, how we need to safeguard what is precious to us, and why it’s important for us to endeavor to be more sustainable. And in many cases, people then connect the dots with their upbringings.
Sarah Thompson is a scholar-activist from Elkhart, Indiana (Potawatomi traditional lands) whose ancestral streams of African-American intellectuals and European-American Mennonite preachers manifest in a passion for justice. A Fulbright Scholar with a B.A. from Spelman college in comparative Women’s and international studies, she completed an M.Div. from Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in 2011, and currently serves as Executive Director of Christian Peacemaker Teams.
Na’Taki Osborne Jelks works for the National Wildlife Federation, is an adjunct faculty member at Spellman, and serves as board chair and volunteer ED of the West Atlanta Watershed Alliance. She is a highly respected watershed activist, engaging diverse communities in conservation, and improving environmental quality and quality of life for low-income and communities of color in Atlanta. She is an alumna of Spelman College, earned her Master’s of Public Health in Environmental and Occupational Health from Emory University and is currently finishing her doctorate.