Photo courtesy of New Psalmist Baptist Church
An effort that started as a mission trip to Kenya for New Psalmist Baptist Church in Baltimore has grown into an environmental commitment with an impact on international policy.
In mid-October, members of Baltimore’s New Psalmist Baptist Church celebrated the opening of their gleaming new campus with prayer, song and dance.
Dubbed the “Holy City of Zion” by the church’s 7,000-plus members, the 175,000-square-foot space is three times the size of their old church and boasts a banquet facility, an exercise center and a stunning theater-style sanctuary that seats 4,000 worshippers.
But for all its amenities, the new church was missing something -- and members noticed right away.
“This building is three times the size of the old building. I’m still getting lost,” said the Rev. Alfred J. Bailey II, minister of missions and outreach. “But they wanted to know, ‘Where’s our recycle bin? The old church had one.’”
Like many churches, New Psalmist Baptist is committed to environmental issues. But the congregation’s impact has spread far beyond the walls of their own church, the city of Baltimore or even the impoverished communities in Kenya that first inspired their efforts. This African-American megachurch now serves as an adviser to major governmental organizations -- the United Nations among them -- helping to craft global environmental policies.
At the old church, five miles to the south, they’d recycled 84 tons of paper in three years, using the proceeds to aid a community in Kenya.
There, during a mission trip in 2005, Bailey and New Psalmist Baptist Bishop Walter Thomas Sr. visited a Nairobi slum and a drought-stricken community in the Rift Valley, where clashes over access to clean water had left dozens dead.
They vowed that their church, which had long supported the needy in Baltimore, would do what it could to address the economic, environmental and educational needs of those African communities.
“It was then that we began to make the connection that if we wanted to be effective at poverty remediation, we needed to address the larger environmental issues,” Bailey said.
The church started a series of “go green, save green” workshops, teaching congregants how to save both the planet and money by making small changes like washing all their clothes in cold water or switching to energy-efficient light bulbs. Now, members clamor for recycle bins and community gardens and remind each other to conserve water and electricity.
Questions to consider:
- Issues of injustice and poverty are huge and daunting. How do communities discern where and how to make targeted, faithful efforts for change?
- What’s your institution’s strategy to act locally and globally?
- In what ways can the Christian imagination have an impact on policies regarding water and other resources?
- How can churches leverage their nearly ubiquitous presence and shared beliefs to facilitate change across denominational and cultural lines?
- Does dislocation -- being uprooted to new places -- stimulate institutional creativity and clarify values?
Throughout the church, they’ve posted pictures of the children and families in Kenya who’ve benefited from the school supplies, medicines and water projects financed by their recycling efforts.
“By no means are we experts. We’re learning every day,” Bailey said. “But my mom has a saying we often use: ‘In order to decide what’s in the cake, you have to be in the kitchen.’ It’s great to have the privilege to be in the kitchen.
“We don’t know how big the impact is going to be in the future. We’re doing it because we see God’s leading us on a path to do it,” he said. “This is not something available just to us. You can do this. You just have to have the desire to want to do something.”
Why would a church in Baltimore want to tackle environmental issues half a world away? It’s all part of the church’s mission, Bailey said: “Empowering disciples to empower the world.” Plus, those issues can ultimately make their way to Baltimore, he said, reeling off a list of examples.
Mercury levels in fish affect the safety and cost of seafood sold in Maryland. The recent invasion of the Northern Snakehead -- a predatory fish native to Asia -- has endangered Maryland’s ecosystem. And a rise in cases of asthma and bronchitis among African-American youth may be linked to climate change and environmental hazards, he said.
“You have to begin to relate environmental problems to what people are facing every day,” he said. “It’s relating the environmental issues to Main Street that helps people want to work globally.”
T.D. Jakes begins a partnership
Bailey and Thomas traveled to Kenya in 2005 at the invitation of Bishop T.D. Jakes, leader of The Potter’s House in Dallas, whose organization was drilling wells in communities near Nairobi to address the water crisis.
Though Thomas had been to Africa before, it was Bailey’s first experience with international ministry. Until then, Bailey said, 90 percent of New Psalmist Baptist’s outreach had been local: hosting health fairs and career days, providing supplies for area schoolchildren and distributing food and holiday gifts to the needy.
He worried that the problems he witnessed in Kenya might be too much for even his large church to tackle.
“You go to Kenya or Mexico or any Third World country and you’ll never be the same,” said Bailey, who refused to water his lawn after returning from the dry Rift Valley. “I saw people who were dying over water, and I thought, ‘Why am I watering my grass?’”
New Psalmist Baptist member James Morant knew Bailey and other church members were eager to make a difference, and he thought he could help. Morant had traveled all over the world as the special assistant for international affairs for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under three different administrations.
In the spring of 2006, he urged Bailey to come with him to Mexico City for the World Water Forum, a triennial conference at which government decision makers and their civilian counterparts discuss how best to provide clean water across the globe.
There, Bailey and Morant organized a seminar on how faith-based organizations could help the professionals deliver water.
“They had a lot of questions: Why should the environmental world work with faith-based organizations?” Bailey said. “The line I’d heard Bishop Jakes say -- and I said it -- was we could do so much more together than we could ever do apart. That must’ve resonated with the crowd.
“One thing faith-based organizations have to their advantage is we have been able to capture the hearts and minds of people,” Bailey said. “While a person may not listen to a government entity, they’ll listen to their pastor.”
That’s true, said Ellen F. Davis, a professor of Bible and practical theology at Duke Divinity School whose current work focuses on an exegetically based response to the ecological crisis. It’s advantageous for public officials and nongovernmental organizations to team up with community churches to institute long-lasting social change, she said.
“The church is in every village, and it is the church leaders -- both lay and ordained -- who are the opinion leaders. They’re often the best-educated people in the village,” said Davis, who works with the Episcopal Church of Sudan to provide communities with theological education, sustainable agriculture, and health and nutrition programs.
“In places torn by conflict, sometimes -- not always -- the church is the organization people feel has not been compromised. In many cases, people still trust the church. They don’t necessarily trust the government,” she said.
Traditional conservation groups and governmental entities have a lot of expertise, Bailey said. But congregations such as New Psalmist Baptist, which is affiliated with the National Progressive Baptist Convention and the American Baptist Churches, USA, bring a special energy to the process born of an overpowering need to preserve God’s creation.
“The environmental field is known for creating sustainable projects, but it takes them so long to do anything because they’ve got to do all the research,” Bailey said. “Meanwhile, as a faith organization, we’re going in to provide an immediate need. We have a saying in the faith community: We tend to ‘blow in, blow up and blow out.’ One thing we wanted to make sure we were doing is creating a sustainable effort.
“So let’s bring together the expediency of the faith-based tradition and the sustainability of the environmental movement,” he said. “That’s the beauty of the partnership we have.”
New Psalmist Baptist Church and the United Nations Environment Programme
The church’s enthusiasm caught the attention of Achim Steiner, executive director of the Nairobi-based United Nations Environment Programme. He encouraged them to apply for accreditation from his agency, a designation that would allow them to weigh in on international environmental policies as they were being crafted by the U.N.
In May 2007, New Psalmist Baptist earned accreditation, essentially becoming a consultant to the U.N. Environment Programme alongside 252 other organizations such as Greenpeace International, the Sierra Club, Rotary International and The Nature Conservancy.
Though the list includes other faith-based groups such as the World Council of Churches, the World Muslim Congress and the Coordinating Board of Jewish Organizations, New Psalmist is the only individual congregation to hold that status.
“What that means is that every policy paper, every suggested strategic direction of the United Nations Environment Programme, is sent to us for comment,” Morant said. “One year, there was a whole series of papers to review on mercury -- the chemical and the chemical devastation to the endocrine system and specifically the female reproductive capacity -- and they sent papers to little New Psalmist to see if we have any comment.”
The church has also advised the U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID, on how to marshal the forces of faith-based organizations for work in sub-Saharan Africa. And they’re serving as a subcontractor to UNICEF, mapping the progress of a program called Water, Sanitation and Hygiene, or WASH, which hopes to extend safe water to every school in more than 90 countries -- 60 of them developing.
“Never before has there been a UNICEF committee chaired by a faith representative. Not only have they done it, but they have done it with an energy that has been an example to the U.N. and other NGOs,” said Martin Palmer, director of the England-based Alliance of Religions and Conservation, or ARC, which argues that compassion for the earth is a direct extension of all the world’s religions.
Palmer, who has worked with New Psalmist officials, raved in an e-mail about the church’s “extraordinary energy put into new discoveries and new ways of living the gospel and of being faithful.”
“The reason they can be so powerful is that they have actually done this in the slums of Kenya,” he wrote. “They are not just well-meaning, concerned people -- they have also taken action.”
In February, Bailey and church members will travel again to Nairobi as part of their partnership with a public school and a Kenyan church. But they’ll also meet with federal officials there about providing water and sanitation facilities to schools throughout the country under UNICEF’s WASH program.
“It’s one thing to work with one school, four schools or five schools. But then to talk with the people in government who oversee all the schools or to work under the umbrella of UNICEF, hopefully we have a little more influence than a single church meeting with officials. You carry the weight of the U.N. with you,” Bailey said. “To see if you can change the lives of children all around the world is mind-blowing.”
Recognized by Prince Philip at “Many Heavens, One Earth” event
In November 2009, New Psalmist and 29 other faith-based organizations were recognized by England’s Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, and United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon for their efforts on behalf of the planet.
Church leaders and choir members traveled to Windsor Castle for the “Many Heavens, One Earth” event, organized by ARC. There, the choir earned an almost-unheard-of standing ovation after performing a version of St. Francis’ “Canticle of the Creatures.”
“Windsor Castle is very staid. All of a sudden, you hear this cheering and yelling,” said Morant, a soloist. “The choir was ready to walk offstage, and we were called back to do an encore. It was truly overwhelming.”
A month later, at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, officials from nearly 200 countries would squabble over how best to address global warming.
But at Windsor, representatives from 30 organizations representing nine religions pledged in writing to work together to care for the earth and to protect its resources for generations to come. Their seven-year plans ranged from launching green initiatives at Hindu pilgrimage sites in India to creating Islamic labels for environmentally friendly products.
In its own seven-year plan, New Psalmist promised to continue its work in Kenya supporting clean water efforts, medicine delivery and the establishment of a school’s computer lab.
But the plan was also notable for the church’s efforts at home, including:
• Conducting energy audits in congregants’ homes with the local power company and making sure its new building was energy-efficient
• Educating its youth about their impact on the environment with an annual science fair
• Establishing a community development corporation that, with a grant from the National Science Foundation, is teaching Maryland kids about environmental science, engineering, technology and math through boat building
• Planning “hoop houses” -- simple greenhouses -- on its new campus where fresh vegetables and herbs can be grown and offered to the community
In addition, the large outdoor recycling bin will be moved from the old building to the new church soon, Bailey said.
“If we’re tasked with caring for God’s creation, we need to do so in a tangible way,” he said. “My goal is to make sure we stay as active in the community locally as we do internationally.”
Morant said members of New Psalmist Baptist have embraced the church’s environmental efforts at home and abroad, viewing them as another way to “love thy neighbor,” even if that neighbor happens to be 7,500 miles away.
The church has been able to make an impact on a global scale because its suggestions have also been well-received by policymakers, he said. They seem to realize that New Psalmist Baptist and other faith-based groups bring a sort of “real people” perspective to the process that often gets lost when only bureaucrats are in the room, said Morant, who himself worked for the federal government for 39½ years before retiring in July 2009.
“I think we bring reality. We think we bring the capacity to mobilize people for change, and I think we bring commitment. It’s a passion, and we don’t take it lightly,” he said. “We stand on the shoulders of a lot of folks out there struggling day to day, and we find ourselves in this marvelous position at this moment in time. We have gotten to suggest things and verify things and have people bounce stuff off of us, which isn’t too often done. We are a nontraditional yet powerful force.”