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(This week, our editor, Rebecca Randall, highlights the creative ways that Hood Theological Seminary and the churches they serve are leveraging George Washington Carver to advance the Gospel and meet the needs of people who have been marginalized. – Drew)
Sharon Grant grew up visiting Hellshire Beach in Jamaica, a center of community life for locals and tourists alike. Today it is eroded due to the loss of coral reefs, which provide a protective barrier to shorelines. Coral reefs have suffered with intensified hurricanes, warming water temperatures, and pollution. Over the last 40 years, the white sand beach has receded nearly 400 feet, affecting homes and businesses. Jamaica’s economy relies upon tourism and the fishing industry, and both livelihoods are precariously close to collapse.
“They’re inches away from being wiped out,” said Grant, who visited last during an intercultural trip with her seminary students in 2018. “That’s when (climate change) became real for me.” While Grant hadn’t discounted climate change before, there was something different about seeing its effects in a place she considered to be home after being away.
For Grant, who already was teaching church history at Hood Theological Seminary, the need to integrate science in her classroom and beyond became more urgent, and she included the potent memory of seeing Hellshire Beach in decline as part of her 2019 proposal for a Science for Seminaries grant from the American Academy for the Advancement of the Sciences (AAAS). “I knew I wanted ecological devastation to be part of the framework,” she said.
With the grant, Hood Theological Seminary formed the International Center of Faith, Science and History (ICFSH). Grant, who had always included George Washington Carver’s life and work (see last week’s newsletter) in her history curriculum, began to augment with more about his work helping southern farmers to address agricultural problems. Carver became the emblem, inspiring programming not only at the seminary but at churches and in their communities.
A large part of Hood’s Science for Seminaries curriculum is engagement with scientists. The first year the program was offered students would have taken an intensive course on science and healing in Ghana, but 2020 changed that. The silver lining of the pandemic, however, was that students heard from scientists from all over the world via video calls.
In 2021, Grant led a follow-up interaction with some Jamaican counterparts with lectures from a theologian, a Rastafarian and environmental scientist, an ethnobotanist, and a doctor. Held amid the pandemic, it became an opportunity to discuss the coronavirus, vaccine hesitancy, and religious beliefs among Maroons (descendants of Africans who formed free settlements in the Caribbean), medicinal plants that strengthen the immune system, and the effectiveness of newly developed antiretroviral treatments.
“For the Maroons, if science and religion do not agree, there’s something that’s in error,” said Grant. Carver also would have seen a dualist, separatist view of science and spirituality as problematic.
The ICFSH also planned religion and science conferences, and last year hosted the first Earth Day Conference at Hood Seminary.
- Grant wants to see African American churches active in science literacy efforts through programs like the AAAS Project 2061. “For African Americans and other marginalized communities, people of faith are the go-to for everything,” she said. The program can help church leaders to navigate science and better anticipate ethical ramifications.
- Consider how local science education organizations like Muddy Sneakers or a science museum can contribute to programming at your church.
- A Rocha USA offers this guide for churches thinking about starting gardens.
- Congregations can become Green the Church members and receive coaching on developing sustainable practices in local churches. Aiming to provide creation care resources for the Black Church, the website offers a blog, a newsletter, and past lecture videos. Or reach out to one of the many denominational creation care organizations.
Grant extends her engagement through summer science camps, partnering with a community group called FACT — Families and Communities Together — based in Salisbury, North Carolina. “They already had a reading camp and creative expression camp,” said Grant. “So, I said, do you mind if I integrate science into this camp?” Started in 2019, preschoolers through senior citizens from all the Black churches in Salisbury participate in the camp.
The first year, the kids read books about Black scientists, including Carver, and completed science projects. She showed the students Carver’s pamphlets on regenerative agriculture and recounted how his work fits into the history of the Great Migration, when Black people left the South for the North. He educated the poor farmers, who owned their land, on techniques to rebuild the soil, giving them the chance to earn a productive livelihood in the South.
During the pandemic, the camps pivoted to Zoom and campers engaged a metaverse theme. Grant again worked Carver’s life into the curriculum, giving the students a peanut, as she told them how Carver turned it into over 400 products. She explained how, like Carver, they will have to be creative to solve the problems we face in today’s virtual ecosystem. “You guys are going to have to code the world that you want to live in. You will have to create code that affirms who you are as African Americans — that affirms your history and safety and the best parts of who you are,” she told them.
In 2022, the camp moved back to the natural environment and reached 200 children. Scientists from AAAS visited and talked about the water cycle, soil, and ecosystems. A science education organization in North Carolina called Muddy Sneakers paid for activity kits.
Grant explained how Carver invites students to “relate to the plant, mineral, and animal kingdom in order to gain an understanding and allow them to teach us.” Like African indigenous spirituality, Carver understood the inter-relationality between the environment and humans — if one part of our ecosystem is not thriving, humanity suffers because of it.
Beginning in January, three churches in North Carolina will support each other in a regenerative agriculture project called Soil and Souls, which is connected to a Texas project of the same name. Each church will design a medicinal and vegetable garden. While most of these congregations are over the age of 60, they will invite 18- to 35-year-olds to design the gardens and work the land, engaging an age group not typically at church. The church will provide lunches, a building for workshops, and the community, of course, gains a food resource.
But Grant will add to the model by integrating Carver’s life in a curriculum aimed as regenerating souls too. “Our souls have been ravaged the last two years, so we will do soil work and soul work,” said Grant. “Everyone is experiencing trauma and seeing it in the pandemic. Carver’s life shows us how one engages in a lifelong journey to fulfill one’s God-given potential” despite trauma.
Back in Jamaica, a community suffers devastating economic losses due to the environmental threat of climate change. But Jamaica is just one example of many communities. Globally, marginalized peoples will be the most impacted by climate catastrophes over the coming decades.
At Hood, the focus is on the salvific nature of Christianity, thus Grant wants her students to engage the question: “How do we preach the good news in the era of climate change?” Including lessons from Carver’s life in the curriculum and programming will help future clergy studying at the seminary, as well as local churches and their communities, to answer that question.
For those of us trying to figure out how the church can fruitfully engage science, Grant’s work shows us how a scientist can become an emblem to guide ministry programming and ultimately impact how we share the gospel.