Air Quality and Social Inequality

Yesterday I returned from 7 days in Camden, NJ, where I participated in UrbanPromise‘s workgroup program along with 8 other students and 1 staff from William & Mary’s InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. This was my third trip to Camden, and each time I learn more about following Christ, about Camden, and about urban ministry/urban issues in general.

This year my team had the privilege of staying at the rectory of the historic Church of Our Savior, whose building no longer functions as a church but as the Camden Shipyard and Maritime Museum.

It’s hard to believe I just said that we “had the privilege of staying” where we did, because the Maritime Museum is in the Waterfront South neighborhood of Camden, which is known for drug trafficking, abandoned row houses, and air pollution. For seven days, my team slept on dirty mattresses, found a dead mouse in our kitchen, and breathed in perpetually foul-smelling air. And, for seven days, I went to bed grateful that I even had a mattress, a kitchen, and some shelter from the stench — as well as a safe, comfortable college community to return to when the week ended and a home with my parents when I’m not at school.

During my first visit to Camden two years ago, a city tour provided by UrbanPromise staff informed me that Waterfront South is home to “scrap metal recyclers and junkyard, two ship terminals, the CCMUA sewage treatment plant, the regional trash-to-steam incinerator, the PSE&G power plant, and the G-P Gypsum plant” (list provided by the Camden Center for Environmental Transformation). Such a combination of air-polluting giants would never be allowed into a more affluent area, and if it was it would likely be removed. According to the South Jersey Environmental Justice Alliance:

Studies show that this environmental injustice has taken a toll: Residents of these polluted neighborhoods have unusually high rates of respiratory diseases, especially asthma. Camden City residents also have elevated rates of cancer of the lung, esophagus, stomach, liver, kidney, and pancreas.”

Children and adults of South Camden, therefore, miss valuable days of school and work due to respiratory disease, thus perpetuating cycles of poverty.

That tour in 2010 was the first time that I heard the phrase “environmental injustice.”

And last week was the first time I experienced this environmental injustice first-hand. While volunteering at Camp Freedom, an UrbanPromise site in Waterfront South, I noticed that smog can be seen billowing from the nearby trash-to-steam incinerator, the park where the children play used to be a landfill, and children literally hold their noses while they play. Their health, education, and psychological wellbeing are severely impacted every second of every day.
On a more personal level, within three days in Waterfront South, I developed a sore throat, which increased over the course of the week. Today, back at school, I was diagnosed with a sinus infection and low-grade fever.
I can’t assume that my sickness occurred in direct correlation with my place of residence, especially because I’m prone to seasonal sinusitis anyway. But I can’t help but wonder:
If I developed a sinus infection from during one week in Waterfront South, how much more do the residents of Camden develop upper respiratory infections?
If I miss some school and/or get a little behind in classes, how much more do the children of Camden miss school and get behind in classes?
Ironically, I’m glad that I got sick in Camden. Because I also got well in Camden.
When I say that I got well in Camden, what I mean is that I caught a glimpse of the empathy that Jesus felt for the sick and oppressed. In the person of Jesus, “the Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood,” willingly and perfectly taking on the same weaknesses that the humans around him experienced (John 1:14, MSG). And, for one week, I think perhaps my teammates and I moved into the neighborhood of Waterfront South and experienced a little weakness as well.
I pray that my team doesn’t forget the sight of children tripping over trash or the smell surrounding our temporary home, choosing instead to investigate what we can do about it. By asking UrbanPromise staff (oh, and asking that expert called Google), I’ve found several environmental justice organizations working on community gardens, trash clean-up, and advocacy for the city of Camden. Many of these organizations are struggling and need help raising financial support, a volunteer base, awareness, and sometimes signatures for petitions.
I’m sure many similar organizations exist around the country and around the world. So, wherever we are, I pray that followers of Jesus will stand up for environmental justice, out of pure love for God’s creation and God’s children.
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