Disciple: Baptized in Dirty Water
By The Rev. Jemonde Taylor
None of the mission strategy priorities of the Diocese of North Carolina stands alone. They are inextricably linked with one another, with the actions of one directly impacting one or more of the others. Such is the case with Creation Care and racial justice.
Historically, harmful decisions relating to the environment all too often most directly impacted, and continue to impact, communities of color. The story of St. Ambrose, Raleigh, shared here by the Rev. Jemonde Taylor, is but one example of living this cause and effect for almost 150 years. Yet for all it has endured, St. Ambrose has also responded, bringing light to the intersection of environmental and racial injustice and working from a deep foundation of faith to restore the damage done both to the environment and to its resident people.
[Image: The rain garden at St. Ambrose mitigates rainwater runoff and provides a beautiful and restful natural space.]
Water is life. The Christian journey begins in the water of baptism. The Holy Eucharist nourishes Christians’ walk of faith. The clergy add water to the chalice wine as a sign of Christians’ humanity and to represent the water that flowed from Jesus’ pierced side. The officiant asperges the casket or urn with holy water at the Burial Rite. The Thanksgiving Over the Water prayer in the baptism service recounts the importance of water in salvation history.
Sin is the breakdown of relationships. Episcopalians pray in the Ash Wednesday liturgy to repent “[f]or our waste and pollution of your creation.” (BCP 268) It is appropriate to consider environmental injustice in the context of sin: against God, humanity and God’s creation. For the last half millennium, the stain of white supremacy served as the catalyst for environmental injustice. Since the Church gave birth to white supremacy in the 15th century, it is imperative that the Church do the reconciliation and reparative work. Pope Nicholas V in his 1452 papal bull, Dum Diversas, authorized the conquering of non-Christians for “perpetual servitude.” Pope Alexander VI in his 1493 papal bull, Inter Caetera, stated that land not inhabited by Christians could be “discovered,” claimed and exploited by Christians. The beginning of white supremacy and racism is in two 15th-century papal bulls: the taking of land in the name of Christ (which led to genocide) and the taking of people (enslavement). The operation of white supremacy is the domination of God’s creation and people.
Dr. Daniel White Hodge is a Black professor, Christian theologian and hip-hop enthusiast who wrote the book, “Homeland Insecurity: A Hip-Hop Missiology for the Post–Civil Rights Context.” “Baptized in Dirty Water” is the title of one chapter. He uses the phrase dirty water to describe the space between good and evil, the sacred and the profane. It is this murky, middle, overlapping area where rappers meet God by rejecting a binary way of looking at the world. It is finding God in the ordinary.
Being baptized in dirty water is not foreign to Black Christianity. It is Black Christianity. A good number of Black churches founded after the Civil War started under trees, a hush harbor or brush arbor, because Black Americans believed that God’s presence was felt closest under large trees. Baptisms took place in “living water,” meaning moving water, like water in rivers, ponds, lakes and streams. Living water is dirty water. The Jordan River, where John baptized Jesus, is green, brown and dirty. The Gullah people of the South Carolina and Georgia Sea Islands coastal region historically have a moving expression of baptism in the ocean combining African traditions that survived the transatlantic slave trade with the Christian rite of passage. In my home church, St. Matthias’, Louisburg, I remember Mrs. Alda Brown, born in 1918, telling the story of Blessed Henry Delany, North Carolina’s first Black Episcopal bishop, baptizing her in the Tar River as an infant.
Being baptized in dirty water means encountering God in the real world. Even though the world is full of dirty water, the Bible upholds the image of the water of life. “Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life.” (Revelation 22:1)
The African American Spiritual, “Wade in the Water,” carried a double meaning for the enslaved Africans. It was a phrase of salvation when associated with Christian baptism. It was a coded song communicating how enslaved Africans could escape chattel slavery. St. Ambrose in Southeast Raleigh and the surrounding Black communities continue to fight against the impact from the floodwaters of environmental racism and environmental injustice. Northwestern University Black Studies professor Dr. Richard Iton used the phrase confludity as the theory of how different types of discrimination interact. The confluence or confludity of the racial injustice stream and the environmental injustice stream formed the headwaters of environmental racism flowing from racial and environmental discrimination.
[Image: An arial view of St. Ambrose, the church’s labyrinth, and the surrounding neighborhood and wetlands.]
St. Ambrose was born in the water of environmental racism. The church formed in 1868, shortly after the end of the Civil War. It was the Rev. J. Brinton Smith who established both Saint Augustine’s University to educate those recently emancipated people of African ancestry and a worshiping congregation that eventually became the Episcopal Church of St. Ambrose. The church began in Raleigh’s Smokey Hollow community, one of the areas where free Black people lived during enslavement. The Smokey Hollow name came from the community’s proximity to the Raleigh and Gaston railway depot. The noxious gas from the trains floated to the low-lying community, making it smoky. This was an undesirable place for Raleigh’s white residents to live. There is no medical respiratory data on the residents during that time. However, it is reasonable to conclude that the polluted air had a negative impact on the Smokey Hollow residents, including parishioners at St. Ambrose. Currently, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, Black Americans are 34% more likely to live in areas with the highest projected increase in childhood asthma diagnoses.
St. Ambrose remained in Smokey Hollow until 1900, when three events forced the church from its property. Smokey Hollow transitioned from a Black community to a white mill worker community. Raleigh’s response to the rise of Jim Crow and segregation was to mandate two color lines, forming three quadrants where white residents lived and one quadrant where Black residents lived. The North Carolina General Assembly brokered a deal with the Melrose Cotton Mill to sell St. Ambrose’s land to construct a new mill. Church leaders decided to physically move the Carpenter Gothic-style church by placing the structure on logs and rolling it one mile south across two racial color lines to the newly designated Black community. The Archdeacon for Colored Work the Rev. John Pollard wrote in his 1901 report to diocesan convention, “St. Ambrose has done more to bring the Church in touch with the [Colored] people than any act previously put forth in connection with this special work.”
St. Ambrose remained at its new location until the 1960s, when the church began making plans to move again. Raleigh created two developments for Black communities to live during segregation in 1956. The congregation moved the church geographically close to the Black community for the second time in its history by relocating to Rochester Heights. The Rochester Heights neighborhood is adjacent to the Walnut Creek Wetland, where the city discharged raw sewage for 70 years. This area also acted as an unofficial garbage dump site. The pollution of the Walnut Creek Wetland negatively impacted the environment and the Black residents. St. Ambrose’s church and property are in the floodplain because that is where Raleigh’s city officials mandated the church build. Those first residents began to experience home flooding, a problem that still exists today. Flooding washed residents’ homes off their foundations. Rochester Heights residents described being evacuated by boats in a rain event that felt like the flooding following Hurricane Katrina. One parishioner in the 1990s blamed her chronic respiratory disease on the damp environment that caused the mold and mildew in her home.
[Images: Scenes of environmental racism in Raleigh’s predominantly Black Rochester Heights neighborhood:
flooding caused by runoff and trash in nearby Walnut Creek
St. Ambrose founded an environmental nonprofit, Partners for Environmental Justice (PEJ), to help resurrect the ravaged wetland and combat the ways this pollution was hurting Black residents in the 1990s. This partnership resulted from the collaboration of churches, government agencies, universities, nonprofits and the corporate sector. The church began this process by leading the first Walnut Creek cleaning, or Big Sweep. Volunteers manually pulled mattresses, autoclave medical sterilization devices, refrigerators, thousands of tires, trash and debris from Walnut Creek. The 2009 ribbon-cutting ceremony for a multimillion-dollar education center ushered in an era for environmental awareness in Raleigh. The Norman and Betty Camp Education Center at Walnut Creek is named after St. Ambrose parishioners who pioneered the environmental movement in Southeast Raleigh. In 2014, PEJ, St. Ambrose and the community supported a $1 million city bond that helped categorize the Walnut Creek Wetland from a five-acre center to a 58-acre park.
[Image: Members of the St. Ambrose youth group participated in the annual Walnut Creek wetland cleanup, the Big Sweep.]
In the fall of 2020, St. Ambrose worked to partner with 43 religious and nonprofit institutions to create ONE Wake, a countywide community organizing power group committed to addressing affordable housing, workforce development and public education. PEJ and ONE Wake worked with a stormwater engineering firm to pressure Raleigh’s planning commission and the City Council to require advanced stormwater designs that aid in keeping rainwater onsite of the 150-acre development only 3,000 feet upstream from flood-prone Rochester Heights and St. Ambrose. Keeping this rainwater onsite helps prevent polluted water from entering the creek, which causes the water level to rise and increase flooding. The Raleigh City Council charged the Stormwater Management Advisory Council (SMAC), on which I serve as chair, to examine the Unified Development Ordinance for Mandatory Use of Green Stormwater Infrastructure with Land Development. In 2019, the North Carolina legislature limited authority by prohibiting local governments’ stormwater runoff rules from requiring private property owners to install new or increased stormwater controls for preexisting development or for redevelopment that does not remove or decrease existing stormwater controls.
St. Ambrose and other community leaders sat in a Raleigh City Council meeting advocating that the developer establish a $2.5 million grant-matching fund for “flood mitigation, stormwater treatment and environmental practices.” This grant will be distributed to six flood-prone areas; two are located within Rochester Heights.
One of the largest contributors to flooding in Rochester Heights and Southeast Raleigh is not climate change but rather non-climate stressors from developments. Rochester Heights is within the 46-square mile Walnut Creek watershed. A watershed is a land area that channels rainwater to a water source that eventually flows into a larger water body, such as the Atlantic Ocean. The construction of impervious surfaces such as buildings, parking lots and sidewalks means rainwater runs off these surfaces instead of soaking into the ground. That water eventually travels into Walnut Creek, which flows by St. Ambrose.
St. Ambrose launched a three-year capital campaign in 2016 to address building concerns in an environmentally conscious manner, emphasizing ecological improvements. The church installed low emissivity (Low-E) glass on the stained glass windows, making the building cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter. A new, increased efficiency heating and cooling system made it greener to keep the building comfortable. ADA-compliant bathroom renovations and plumbing upgrades use 80% less water. A new filtered water fountain decreased bottled water consumption. LED light panels throughout the church decreased energy consumption. The congregation made several improvements in the landscape to decrease the amount of rainwater runoff into Walnut Creek by installing a 550-square foot rain garden. A new prayer garden and columbarium with a permeable walking surface, two rain gardens and 2,000-gallon rainwater cisterns for dripline irrigation help polluted stormwater soak into the ground instead of running into Walnut Creek.
[Image: Members of St. Ambrose installed a rain garden on the church’s property to address runoff and provide a therapeutic natural space.]
The COVID-19 pandemic revealed the need for greater mental and emotional health care. St. Ambrose responded with the Healing Pod, a three-phase initiative consisting of the “Wading Deep” podcast concerning environmental racism and the church’s response; an ADA-compliant, permeable Ethiopian-inspired labyrinth; and therapeutic gardens incorporating therapeutic horticulture to address the Southeast Raleigh community’s mental and emotional health needs. Facilitating interaction with the healing elements of nature helps people process their own emotions around grief and loss. Therapeutic horticulture emphasizes healing communities impacted by systemic and environmental racism through access to the natural world.
[Image: The accessible labyrinth on the property of St. Ambrose addresses runoff and provides a therapeutic natural space. Photos throughout courtesy of St. Ambrose]
These environmental efforts have not gone unnoticed. St. Ambrose received Raleigh’s Community Action Stormwater Award for the prayer garden and columbarium in 2021. The diocesan Chartered Committee for Environmental Ministry presented the congregation with its annual The Rev. Thomas Droppers Memorial Green Congregation Award in 2022. In April 2023, the Environmental Protection Agency designated the Walnut Creek Wetland Park as its 21st Urban Waters Partner location, where I served as emcee for the event.
St. Ambrose’s involvement in responding to environmental racism has not only been an exercise in theological praxis but a fight for survival. The congregation’s ministry continues to address the flooding and repairing the floodwaters of injustice over the levee of history.