Coal and Poverty – Robin Lovett, ​M.Div. student LSTC

fontIt is no surprise to mention how growing up in poverty can greatly limit the quality of one’s future life. There are reduced opportunities to pursue education, jobs don’t pay as well, and the many systems and cycles that make life hard for your seem to be insurmountable. What we don’t often talk about, however, is how pollution is also something that disproportionately impacts the poor. This week’s author, Robin Lovett, talks about this in today’s post – at the end inviting everyone to contribute their energies to the cause of renewable foods in the United States. Read, comment, and share!

Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas – Professor of Theology and Anthropology, Chair of the LSTC’s Diversity Committee, Editor – “We Talk. We Listen.”


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I spent the last summer as a hospital chaplain during one unit of Clinical Pastoral Education. I provided spiritual and emotional care for patients and their families, and I was assigned to my hospital’s two pediatric units. As a chaplain for a pediatric intensive care unit in a non-trauma hospital, I gratefully did not see many of my patients die. I saw young people of all ages with a variety of grave illnesses, from the tiniest, premature babies recovering from open-heart surgery to twenty-something year-olds suffering from childhood cancers. In the three months I interned as a chaplain, I only witnessed the deaths of two children.

Both died of asthma attacks.

The first was a teenage boy named Alexander, but his family called him Xander. He suffered a major asthma attack, which led to cardiac arrest, which led to brain death. He was on my unit for nearly a week before life-sustaining care was ended. In the days leading up to his death, I learned so much about this boy. He was an athlete at a high-performing school in Chicago. He always had friends around him, and he was always making others smile and laugh. His mother proudly told me about how Xander would spend time with the kids no one else wanted to be around – the bullied kids or the new kids. Similarly, Xander would often bring home abandoned animals to take care of them, like baby birds or lost dogs. His heart, the same one that could not withstand his asthma attack, was big.

The second boy was only eight, and his name was Trey. He had special needs and was non-verbal at baseline. Though he didn’t use words, his parents told me Trey nonetheless would always make sure you knew how he felt – and he was generally happy and excited in his young life. He loved Sponge Bob; he loved to play with his sisters, who adored him. Trey was surrounded by love and tenderness and he returned love and tenderness to the world.

Xander and Trey were very different from each other in life, but their deaths have so much in common – both with each other’s and with thousands of Americans every year who die of asthma attacks. Both Trey and Xander were black and both were from the Chicagoland area, a fact which reflects that asthma rates are highly disparate between different ethnic and geographic communities. Namely, poor children are most likely to die from asthma, especially those children who live in monetarily impoverished areas or children of color, wherever they might live.

And while these two children remain foremost in my memory because of their deaths, I had dozens of children on my unit who were hospitalized because of their severe asthma, most of whom were black.

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A coal-fired power-plant in South Carolina.

The disparate rates of asthma depending on where you live, your class, and your race reflect the reality that asthma is not a tragic happenstance – asthma is a man-made disease. Asthma, which kills more than three-thousand six hundred people every year, is created by our collective lack of regard for the natural environment. It is caused by our willingness to pollute the air we breathe. Xander and Trey didn’t die randomly and we, collectively, could have prevented their deaths.

So when I read the Trump administration’s analysis of its own proposed deregulations on coal-burning power-plants, in the so-called “Affordable Clean Energy rule,” my stomach sank. By their own estimates, these deregulations will cost 1,400 lives annually and result in up to 15,000 new cases of upper-respiratory disease. These numbers do not reflect the additional 48,000 cases of asthma caused by the Affordable Clean Energy rule, nor have I yet mentioned the additional deaths and illnesses which would be caused by other efforts of environmental deregulation by the Trump Administration. This was most assuredly predicted by the Trump Administration: coal plants are some of this nation’s largest emitters of mercury, lead, sulfur dioxide, and carbon dioxide, so the fact that they’re deadly is no surprise. These efforts do not present a goodwill effort at reducing your home’s energy bill by the Trump Administration, but instead show a calculated effort to determine how many lives coal is worth.

 It’s hard to imagine what those numbers mean when you read them from the comfort of your desk; it’s all too easy to imagine what they mean when you’ve met and mourned children like Xander and Trey.

This was not the first time I have encountered deaths resulting from pollution. As a native Tennessean who considers East Tennessee my home, I was already all too familiar with pollution-related deaths. While many Americans might see few connections between rural, (mostly) white Appalachia and urban, racially diverse Chicago, both areas suffer greatly from poor health as a direct result of environmental degradation. Progressive massive fibrosis (better known as “black lung disease”) is known as a coal miners’ disease; COPD, another lung disease, is far more common in Appalachia than anywhere else in the country, and the biggest contributing factor to this is air quality and exposure to coal dust. Finally, lung cancer is most deadly in Appalachia. Air pollution, caused significantly by coal, is literally killing the people of Appalachia.

Another similarity between my home in Appalachia and the black Chicagoan children I cared for?

Poverty.

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Though across the US the poverty rate hovers at around 15%, it is 34% among black Chicagoans. In Appalachia, the poverty rate is about 20%, and many of the nation’s poorest counties are situated in these mountains. Nationally, the people living near coal plants have an average income of less than $19,000 a year, and many of them are people of color.

The deaths of black children in Chicagoland may seem like a far cry from the deaths of white coal miners and their families in Appalachia, but they point to the same truth: the true cost of polluting our air is the deaths of the most vulnerable people in our country, whether they be children of color in urban areas or workers in the hollers of the Smokey Mountains.

It’s impossible to say whether Xander and Trey died as a direct result of pollution, and even more difficult to say definitively if these deaths resulted from our use of coal. Climate scientists have been reticent to ascribe climate change or pollution as the cause of any one death. But, we do know that the actions of the Trump Administration will cause more deaths like Xander’s and Trey’s, and that these same deregulations will cause more intense suffering in Appalachia. When we fail to protect our natural environment, we inevitably fail to care for the least of these among us.

The cost of coal – the deaths of both the urban and rural poor – is far too high. We must move away from this deadly and dirty source of energy if we claim to care for the lives of the poor and disenfranchised in our midst. We must begin to care about climate change, pollution, and environmental degradation of any kind. Fighting back against the Trump Administration’s deregulation of the coal industry can be a first step, but it must be the first of many steps towards environmental justice.

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(Written public comments on the “Afford Clean Energy Plan” can be submitted to the EPA until October 31st. Submit one online here.)

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photoRobin Lovett  is an M.Div. student and a Public Church Fellow at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. Her sermons and writings can be found at robinlovettowen.com

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God’s Work? Our Hands? – Rev. Tom Gaulke

Linda Thomas at CTS eventGoogle dictionary defines solidarity as “unity or agreement of feeling or action, especially among individuals with a common interest; mutual support within a group.” It is something we talk about quite a bit at my seminary, with our Public Church curriculum. But it isn’t such an easy thing to teach – as what most folks consider solidarity is, in sad truth, nothing but activist tourism, and as such is not educational, let alone transformational. Weighing in on this is Rev. Tom Gaulke – the pastor of a scrappy Lutheran parish in the Bridgeport neighborhood of Chicago – and some trenchant observations on the subject. It’s a good bit of reading for the first week in Easter, and we’re sure you’ll agree. Read, comment, and share!

Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas – Professor of Theology and Anthropology, Chair of LSTC’s Diversity Committee, Editor –“We Talk. We Listen.”


51d17yMqhVL.jpgPhilosopher Slavoj Žižek once made a very interesting observation about the 90’s block-buster, Titanic.

In Titanic, the main character, Rose, is seated in the upper deck, wining and dining, but yawning in her boredom. She is missing something. Is it romance? Is it adventure? Is it a spiritual experience? She’s not sure. But she thinks the answer, for her, might be found in the exploration of another realm.

In her search for some kind of resurrection, Rose descends. She moves down through the floors of the ship. She finds, at bottom, the proletariat – the working people far removed from her life among the gilded elite. There they dance. There is joy. There is a movement of bodies and loudness of voices that would be deemed crass and transgressive in the upper echelons of the ship. She gives in, is swallowed up by the joy of the ecstasy. She finds a lover in a character named Jack, played by Leonardo DiCaprio.

To her the world of the poor is a Paradise, and for some moments, she escapes the restrictive confines of her privilege and finds unbound pleasure and ecstasy.

But then something larger than the ship appears. An iceberg. Suddenly that which was covered by the walls of the ship is exposed: not only were there floors on the ship, but the floors were obvious markers. Classes were divided by them. First class… Second Class… Bottom… And there was more than division. Those passengers’ privilege (or lack thereof) would now determine their fate or their salvation. Aware, Rose returns to her caste, and thereby saves herself from a poor person’s fate, from death by being defined and confined in poverty. Though she was temporarily positioned with the poor, her geography, unlike theirs, was not confined by her economics—she was free to move.

As the movie concludes, Rose recalls the good times she had.  In her recollection, something again is exposed. It seems in her travels that she saw not people, but rather romanticized caricatures of The Poor. There was no real community or solidarity. She had really only used them – for dancing, for pleasure, for ecstasy. They were chattel to her, goods manipulated as means to her end, merely 3/5 human.

tumblr-mlle87hghf1soiv6eo1-500-jpg.jpg They were her triumphant articulation of a “meaningful experience,” pleasure, “good times,” recalled from a stage or a fireside room. And instead of seeing more family, more of God’s beloved, she saw only more possibilities for “use.” Žižek calls this “Hollywood Marxism.”

And we see this everywhere.

Think about mission trips in which, for example, churches from the tops of ships will come to churches in the city, often described as urban or poor (For the record, these are not always fun names to be called). Paint a wall! Plant some flowers! Take selfies! For these tasks, grandparents and football coaches and godparents give money—to make sure their youth have a “meaningful experience” among The Poor. A similar phenomenon happens at protests. Radical-minded church people and seminarians show up. This is fine, but what if we do not engage any of those we claim to love? What does it mean when we stay in a cluster and seem to avoid those who are different from our young, moisturized, [white] skin? Are we in the struggle or are we at a fun event like any other fun event, like going to see a comedian or a rock show?

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Hollywood Marxism emerges also in the classroom, as well. “I’ve got it!” students often exclaim after an afternoon of reading. That is, “I understand this,” or “I have got a hold on this.” “I possess this.” I own it. If our academic work, our reading, is only a project of reading so that we might “master” or “contain,” in order “to have a handle on it,” then our academic project ceases to be in line with the vision of the conspiring, companion-ing church.

But if our intent is only to master, we are Rose.

By ‘mastering’ we perpetuate a legacy of slavery and colonialism, whereby we use the writings of the poor and people of color as means for our own purposes. We appropriate. We steal. We hijack the weapons of the weak and melt them into glorious sparkling idols of the status quo.

Vitor Westhelle, in The Church Event, suggests that church happens in those spaces where and when we are at ease in the presence of the radically Other, where the truth is told in a revealing way, and captives are set free. Here we are transformed by one another, and shaped into companions and conspirators. Where is that space?

Is it possible to foster such a space? Can we help Church to take place? To happen? Or do we remain a bunch of Roses, without the salvation of metanoia?

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I very much love Westhelle’s image of our ministry—a tree. We can try! We can prepare—like Advent, like the women at the tomb. We can plant and nurture a tree. We can place it in the sunlight. And we can pray and hope that once our tree grows tall that maybe in it an orchid (the Church) will take root and bloom. Still, who knows what shape the blooming will take?

But we plant, we grow. We hope.

As we groom new trees for a new time, in the church and in the classroom, transforming Rose means intentionally exposing students, youth, and parishioners to the radically o/Other. In classrooms, this means even the non-academic other. This means song, poetry, stories of pain and struggle, putting voices in dialogue, and most importantly, real people, real flesh and blood, real experiences of pain—perhaps beginning with those in the room—with the aim of the student being transformed from the distant observer into the one who stands in solidarity, from understanding to standing with, moved to create spaces and communities for the sake of speaking the truth and setting captives free.

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Can my denomination make this motto a reality?

Hence if my denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), is to be such a place there should be no room for snobbery. Insisting on only MDiv preachers or only academic authors in our pulpits and classrooms reinforces class divide.

Any serious conversation about liberation needs to include the non-sanitized, political bluntness of real communities who struggle. If the church, if the academy, does not allow the poor to speak, it is only pretending to be Christian.

If the ELCA continues only to reinforce the class divide that exists in the United States within our own churches – gaining “inspiration” from visits to poor communities, then returning to the suburbs, gaining joy from the struggle of the disadvantaged, putting the poor to “use,” then jumping ship, watching them try to swim – then the church is only pretending.

After Jesus was killed by the Powers who found him to be a threat, his disciples gathered together in fear. Jesus invited them out of their locked rooms into the presence of Others to tell their stories of pain, to break bread, and to testify: to dream out loud of a different world, a new Reign, God’s Banquet where all are beloved and free, where crucifixion is no more. Jesus sent them the Spirit so they would never stop dreaming together.

Let’s strive for such companionship and such conspiracy. Let’s keep one another afloat so that no one sinks.

Alleluia.


10313960_10156582589050532_5840765783004842230_n.jpgRev. Tom Gaulke is pastor at First Lutheran Church of the Trinity in the Bridgeport neighborhood of Chicago. He is a leader in The People’s Lobby and Moral Mondays Illinois. Tom enjoys scootering and is engaged to a wonderfully amazing human being named Daisy. Tom also studies Theology in the Ph.D. program at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago.