by Sarah Thompson and Cherice Bock
Sarah Thompson contributed an excellent chapter to Watershed Discipleship: Reinhabiting Bioregional Faith & Practice entitled, “An Ecological Beloved Community: An Interview with Na’Taki Osborne Jelks of the West Atlanta Watershed Alliance.” I loved reading their thoughts and conversation focused around the question, “What might it mean to be in solidarity with struggles in other watersheds to build the ecological Beloved Community?” (102). Recognizing that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” (Martin Luther King, Jr. in “Letter from Birmingham City Jail”), Osborne Jelks and Thompson discussed the concept of SSDP: “Same Struggle, Different Place,” between the communities with whom they work. Osborne Jelks has been working with the West Atlanta Watershed Alliance (WAWA) to advocate for the predominantly African American community living in a region of northwest Atlanta where a sewage overflow system results in raw sewage running through a creek in residents’ backyards. Learning about WAWA’s activism and successes is an inspiring read, and covers some important ground regarding the intersection between racism and environmental degradation.
I also wanted to learn more about Sarah Thompson. She shares a bit of her story in the chapter, and what she shared made me want to learn more about her own work, and the directions she would like to go with watershed discipleship. Until recently, Thompson worked as executive director for Christian Peacemaker Teams, so I was particularly interested in hearing her insights about the connections between nonviolent direct action, international conflict, civil rights, environmental justice, and faith.
When we happened to be in the same area, we sat down for a conversation around some of these topics, and our conversation will appear in two parts: part 1, here, will offer a bit of background and Sarah will share about her challenge to a theology of waste, and part 2, in which she will offer thoughts about what it looks like to live out this alternative to a theology of waste through environmental activism.
Cherice Bock: What motivated your chapter in Watershed Discipleship, interviewing Na’Taki Osborne Jelks?
Sarah Thompson: I wrote the chapter because I wanted to connect with Na’Taki, to get to know where the conversation on environment, civil rights, and race is at right now. What they were fighting for in Atlanta was to not have an open sewer flowing through their backyard. I’ve spent a lot of time doing peacemaking and activism work, helping people deal with their own crap metaphorically. Now I want to also do it physically, and Na’Taki was working on that.
CB: What really energizes you about “helping people deal with their own crap,” in a literal sense?
ST: Just helping people get back to the land, and recognize that there is no “away” to flush their crap to, there is no “away” to bury their crap. All the water is connected, and it will make us deal with the crap we’re putting in the soil and aquifers and lakes. When I talk about crap I am talking crudely and colloquially about human solid waste, but also the metaphor, and all its meanings.
I was recently at the beach on Lake Michigan. It was a sunny, long weekend, and the beach was packed! I saw a lot of trash on the beach. That was an overwhelming experience—the amount of trash and pieces of plastic rivaled the amount of people there. I could feel the debris of life as if the sandy beach was littered with data points. We don’t even understand how much stuff is getting thrown away. It makes my blood boil and I want to scream about it from the rooftops. I just want to spend all my time sorting through trashcans. Sorting through trash would also be a consistent way to work through grief…the grief of our collective death due to greed and the reliance on the petrochemical industrial growth society of death… “death by crap,” essentially. I’m not exactly sure where this calling will take me; I could be perfectly happy just doing that for the duration of my lifespan. But I know that trash sorting and landfill diversion are treating the symptoms, and there is structural change that I wish to affect.
CB: How did you become interested in environmental concerns, and this particular issue about trash and waste?
ST: I come to environmental work through antiwar work, through feminism, and through how social justice struggles are connected, and I have been a tree-hugger for a long time. As I remember it, when I was eight or so years old, the county wished to expand and pave a road. Some trees in my cousin’s yard were marked for demolition. My cousin and I put our arms around these trees and tried to protect them, and we just waited. They didn’t come, so we thought the trees might be alright. We went in for lunch, and they cut down the trees while we were in there. So that was my first environmental loss! My cousin’s love of the outdoors inspired mine. I had early experiences like that. My mother is also an avid recycler.
One thing I learned about what it means to be a person of African descent on this planet right now is that the blackest thing I can do is to not meld into white supremacist society, to resist being lured by extractionism. This also connects with my root tradition, Mennonite Anabaptist Christianity. The roots of Christianity are in earth-based Judaism, and Jesus and his hippie friends spent most of their time moving around outdoors, learning the seasons, and creating new celebrations with the already multivalent symbols of bread and cup and of the waters and the birds of the air. There’s enough in the Christian tradition to show caring for the Earth to be a very faithful move.
CB: Can you say more about how you see helping people deal with their crap as the blackest thing you can do?
ST: I called the third section in my chapter, “Black to the Land,” to try to look head-on at the history of various Black relationships with land. Because Black people are everywhere doing everything, that also means our relationships to the land are super varied. One reason they kept trafficking us over to the Americas to farm was because Europeans and European settlers in the United States could treat us like crap — disposable, to be used and left. But another reason was because we were awesome farmers, we carried experiences of mutually-sustaining relationships with land. We knew how to grow stuff well at a similar latitude and climate on the continent of Africa.
But now, given the historic trauma from being forced to work the land, without rest and reciprocity, we were broken. We were forced to break the land for the purposes of this broader system that replicated brokenness like barbed bramble rather than holistic, reciprocal relationship. Those patterns of traumatic extraction are still with us today. This is why many Black people want to stay as far away from farming as possible. We have bought the myth of progress that says the further you are from manual land labor, the more advanced you are, the more acceptable you are in white society, you’re awarded higher social status.
CB: What are some of the ways you’re feeling drawn to go about addressing this historic trauma, and moving toward a more holistic relationship between people and land?
ST: My dream is to work on composting toilets, but I’m open to however I can make a difference in reducing the amount of fresh water used for treating human excrement. I know talking about outhouses is not really on the table yet; it’s still too close for most people, they feel like they’re “going back” away from “forward progress.” And zoning laws in the US don’t make it easy to stop our dependence on fresh drinking water as a supply for “waste” removal. Maybe if people are willing to look at the fact that dealing with refuse is part of life, maybe we can heal a little bit. We’ve made it so that in order to feel like you’ve “made it” in society, it means you do not have to think about your waste and your refuse.
A larger analysis about wholeness within the Black community and between the land and us would include food sovereignty, and also power to decide what happens in the land where we’re living. We would need to come to terms with what it means to live on the land of indigenous people, and what it means to get to know the woods again.
The woods was often a scary place, where some difficult things happened, such as lynchings. However, knowing how to navigate the woods by nighttime was also crucial to survival: to have prayer meetings or dance meetings, to have time and space to be sensual, and to just be away from the daily, row-by-row, back-breaking, monocropping demands of forced labor. And of course, the woods were essential in sheltering us during escapes from the plantation to freedom.
Much of the work before us now is trying to figure out how to heal the trauma of enslavement, and reconnect with the life-giving parts of our community’s relationship to the wild parts of creation. There are those who have led the way. Soon after emancipation, they decided to not try to participate in the white supremacist capitalist system: they began farmer co-ops and bought land together. There has never been an era when those collectives have been left to farm in peace; they were and are constantly under threat of being bought out by large corporate farms, and other threats to their survival. The numbers of Black farmers in North Carolina, for example, has dwindled tremendously, but there are still some survivors.
CB: I’m also interested in hearing more about how you view this work as one of the most Christian things you can do. If Christians transform our understanding of waste, what does that mean for our theology?
ST: “Waste” is a human creation. The idea of “waste” comes from the belief that we’re not dealing with a closed system. When we talk about throwing something “away” — “away” to where?
What it does to theology is it reorients: theology becomes not so much a straight line, as a spiral. This kind of theology requires embracing death as part of a cycle and not pushing it away. It is a way of seeing the compost cycle as the cycle of everlasting life, spiraling around in ever widening circles. All that rots feeds all that grows.
Compost theology is yet another way to look at Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection…seeing it in the seasons of the planet and in our lives…that the breaking down of the body or ideas is part of spiritual growth and transcendence. To say that waste is not waste, to say that there is no “away,” that can challenge the idea that our only hope is outside of this world, that our reward for “right belief” and “good behavior” is an otherworldly prize. To quote my friends from the Carnival de Resistance, what if “Earth is the only heavenly womb that we were designed to roam?” What if the most important part of the Kin-dom of God is not the “pie in the sky after we die” but participating in the tastiness of the planet now?
This can change our understanding of how to deal with something like personal trauma. Dominant US American church cultures don’t generally deal with trauma very well, just like with our waste. We want it to be washed away, sanitized, chemicalized, and we proclaim victory over it. Then we want our “normal” lives back without having to do any of the work or understand how the process of transformation happens through decomposition. Instead, if we see the elements of trauma like fallen flower buds, rotting down, composting, and becoming fertile soil again, we are more able to deal with a traumatic event as something to be worked on, not pushed away, and not seen as waste or shame. Though it is easier said than done, the elements of trauma can be broken down with the little decomposing bugs and fungi to create a more resilient or fertile soil to grow the next stage of your life. This is best done in a regenerative eco-system of plants, animals, minerals, and people. I want to help our churches be regenerative ecosystems.
CB: What you’re saying reminds me of resurrection and grace, as a sort of cycle of redemption. You put in poop, and it comes out compost!
ST: Right, that cycle of life, death and resurrection. Each season, going through Passover, walking through Jesus’ death with him, we go through motions not necessarily expecting resurrection, but each time, living in that hope. To do this type of transformation, we’re going in with expectancy, but we don’t know. But we can certainly trust in the eons of earth’s life cycle that, frankly, not only is there resurrection, but new life forms are springing up, and toxins are being de-mobilized. Our understanding of God brings us back to the miracle of every single breath, every single movement, the sacredness of all that is, including the sacredness of squatting.
I love to mess up categories of sacred and profane. Jesus was messing with those categories during his ministry, saying, “Do not call unclean what God has made clean.” He was playing with those categories so they could be looked at afresh by the community. What are the categories really for? Whose interests do they serve? This is an area where I need to dive into understanding these separations as I continue in this lifework I think Jesus was interrogating the categories because he sought to widen his circle of care to include the people who were considered unclean, physically dirty, and waste. “Love God, love your neighbor,” he said are the central commandments. I stand in that tradition to continue to widen our circle of care: “Love God, love your neighbor, love the Earth.”
CB: So you’re seeing in the Levitical codes something that organizes that separation in a positive way, if used properly.
ST: To make it livable and healthy, yeah, that’s right. The Hebrew leadership did put a layer of holiness (sacred and profane), and a judgment (better or worse) on some aspects of what they delineated. But a lot of that was building on the evolutionary principle of necessary separation: don’t poop where you eat! Beyond that, the rest is culture.
CB: You can’t poop where you eat — that’s important and good! It’s not like you’re trying to make poop sacred.
ST: Well, I’m not saying poop’s not sacred, it’s just that it’s delineated — there’s a separation.
Jesus would have known the Levitical commandments. I see the genius of their delineations and separations. It will take that type of genius and that type of collective willingness to abide by shared agreements to figure out how to create a system that does not use freshwater for sanitation, for example, and can deal with large amounts of refuse. We’ll see where this all goes theologically.
On a practical note, there is a joke about pastors going around after church jiggling the toilet handles to make sure no water is leaking. I support that both as a financial practice, and as a spiritual one. Maybe in the future, pastors will go around to make sure there are enough woodchips in the bin by the composting toilets for next week’s supply!
At a base level, all of this can add to and support the theological work that’s been done around food justice, in terms of what we are returning to the earth, because the better you eat, the better you poop! I like to say, “I care a lot about food justice, just the other end of it.” I think it’s just as important to have the willingness to take a look at what’s coming out of you.
Bio: Sarah Thompson is a 2018 Generations Fellow at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center in Atlanta, Georgia. 2018 is a key year as it is 50 years since 1968, the year of the assassination of King and the Poor People’s Campaign. She is working on the Beloved Community Talks this April. Formerly, Sarah was the Executive Director of Christian Peacemaker Teams, an organization committed to building partnerships that transform violence and oppression. At the request of local peacemakers, CPT sends international teams to support grassroots struggles for human rights and nonviolent social change worldwide. Sarah is a Mennonite from Elkhart, Indiana, and attended Spelman College, majoring in Comparative Women’s Studies and International Studies, with a minor in Spanish. She is a 2011 graduate of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, and through theological scholar-activism and ecological Black feminism she has visited 63 countries.