Former IPC board member Rev. Allen LaMontagne, now pastoring in Jacksonville, FL, called us because he was bringing his youth group to DC to learn about justice and advocacy...and fighting for clean water was on his mind. Together, Rev. LaMontagne and IPC built an immersion experience for his group that explored the impact of human action on the waters and communities of the Anacostia region. We offer this story of their “Pilgrimage” and invite you to consider replicating this environmental justice experience for your own faith communities.

To begin our day, prayers of blessing for the waters were to be offered from a member of the Piscataway tribe, the original inhabitants (along with other tribes) of this watershed along with selections from scripture (Job 12:7-8, Psalm 24:1-3, Isaiah 24:5) about our relationship to the land, waters and wildlife. Direct experiences of witnessing challenges to the local waters were schueduled with these local partners: Groundwork Anacostia, the Anacostia Riverkeeper, and Earth Conservation Corps. We were poised to fulfill the motto for this pilgrimage: We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience ~ Teilhard de Chardin.

The week of the Pilgrimage finally arrived in July when metro DC received record levels of rainfall with almost daily flash flood warnings.  The direct result of so much stormwater runoff was vividly evident by the amount of trash floating throughout the river. Highpoints along the river were sightings of an eagle perched in a tree, turtles sunning themselves on riverbank logs, the chattering of a Kingfisher flying overhead and the beauty of Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens where the lotus flowers were in full bloom, all gifts of Creation which many in DC hardly know about!

IMG_20180726_152731735_HDR.jpgWe learned that the eagles now flourishing in the Anacostia watershed were re-introduced in 1992 by youth members of Earth Conservation Corps.  Indeed the capstone experience of the day, ECC addresses both pollution and poverty by building leadership among youth from Anacostia neighborhoods rife with drugs, violence, and premature death due to these.  An original ECC member, Burell Dunkin shared both the pain of experience (26 youth from the program have been killed in the 26 year history of the organization) and the joy of being part of the solution that offers life-transforming opportunities for 20 youth every year.

A service project for the group was to join the Groundwork Anacostia youth in cleaning out the Bandalong Trash Trap located on the banks of the Anacostia River. Trash traps are just as they sound: floating booms that collect trash that washes into the river from stormwater drains throughout DC and upstream. This cleanout task offers volunteers a directl view of the huge amount of trash that gets accumulated.  Getting us out on the river, Anacostia Riverkeeper (ARK) offered a free boat tour (fully funded by the DC plastic bag fee!) with an overview  of the history of environmental injustice. This was evidenced by legacy toxics in the river caused by the siting of landfills, power plant, poor infrastructure and lack of access to the riverfront on the east side of the river, a largely low-income African American community. The toxic materials continues to impact the fish, many of which have lesions, andh threatens human health of those who catch them. A study showed that over 17,000 people fished there in one year, out of a river that is among the top 10 most polluted in the U.S.  ARK educates people about doing “catch and release.”

The FL Pilgrimage youth group took away much to ponder in their hearts about the social and environmental disparities they witnessed in the Anacostia watershed.  Their experience on the river and with people who are impacted informed how they may address environmental justice in their own home watershed. And you can too! Contact IPC if you are interested in replicating this experience for your faith community.

Kolya Braun-Greiner, MDiv
IPC Religious Educator