of rainbows, race, and raw sewage: Parashat Noach 5780
There are two stories in this weeks’ Torah portion that stand out— stories that we all know.
-first, the story of Noah and the flood.
In God’s anger, God decides to wipe out the inhabitants of the earth, and start all over.
-second, the story of the Tower of Babel.
The people, as the story goes, get a little over-confident; convinced there is nothing they can’t do, including building a tower to the heavens.
Again, in God’s anger, God decides to confound their hubristic project. Whereas before they all spoke one language, working together on this common goal, God confounds their speech, making it so that they can no longer communicate.
This week, I have been thinking a lot about the hidden through line between these two stories—
In both stories, we humans thought we had it figured out. We thought we were ok. And then, a flood, and then- chaos, comes along, and we are forced to start all over again.
This pattern of disruption stands out to me especially as I reflected on my own experiences over the past week: what does it mean to have to start over?
This week: I had opportunity to travel down to Montgomery, AL for the first time. This year, in addition to traveling there with our Confirmation Class, I will also be leading a group of rabbis there in June 2020 for a deep dive on the legacy of slavery, and the ongoing systems of racial inequality that we are wrestling with today. The purpose of my trip this past week was to meet with leaders, activists, and elders of the Civil Rights movement to help discern where we (the group of rabbis) might focus our energy.
One question that I brought with me was around the arc of the civil rights movement in our country: specifically— how are we navigating this particular political moment as racism and discrimination seem to have reached a critical tipping point, at least in my own lifetime?
On the flight down to Atlanta where I would meet my colleague to drive the rest of the way to Montgomery, I thought a lot about the elders of the Civil Rights movement that we would meet.
Had they ever thought “we were ok”? Had the steps forward in the post-Equal Rights Amendment era made them comfortable? Had the election of the first Black president given them a sense of true, deep, and enduring change?
To some extent, I thought I knew what to expect.
I thought I would encounter:• People doing justice work• People working to un-do the setbacks that we have seen unfold in the last three years around Voting Rights and Voter Suppression; people like Bryan Stevenson working on serious criminal justice reform. • Monuments and spaces dedicated to memory
But there was one surprise: Catherine Flowers.
Tonight I want to tell you about Catherine Flowers—
Along with my friend and colleague, Rabbi Benjamin Ross, I had the true blessing of spending some time with Catherine this past week, sitting in the lobby of the Renaissance hotel in Montgomery.
Catherine, was born in Lowndes County, Alabama- about 30 min outside Montgomery— one of the 10 poorest counties in Alabama’s Black Belt; a term first used to describe the rich, black topsoil in the region; but then took on the extra valence of race following 19th century slavery.
Catherine is the founder of the Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise Community Development Corporation (ACRE) which seeks to address the root causes of poverty by seeking sustainable solutions. She also serves as the Rural Development Manager for the Equal Justice Initiative serving the citizens of Lowndes County, one of the 10 poorest counties in Alabama’s Black Belt.
Presumably, we were there to meet someone who might help us: someone who might shape our trip in some way— a potential speaker, or point of connection.
I have to admit— on the line-up of plans we had made for this short scouting trip, Catherine was a surprise mostly because of my own implicit biases and assumptions.
I went into the meeting knowing we were meeting with a local environmentalist—and here was my own bias: when I picture environmentalists, I don’t often picture women like Catherine Flowers: an African American woman in her 50s, dressed in business clothing, holding her iPhone in her hand while her Apple watch dings her with reminders throughout our meeting
Catherine told us how her childhood home in Lowndes County is best known as a hotbed for political action around voting rights, an important stop along the march from Selma to Montgomery.
She told us how when 1965 began the African Americans in Lowndes County, Alabama could not vote.
The county, which was 80% black, had eligible black voters, but not a single one was registered. African Americans had no say in the political process. There were no black elected officials and there hadn’t been one since Reconstruction. And no African-Americans sat on juries since jury pools were derived solely from lists of registered voters.
She told us about how she watched a movement being born. How by the end of the next year, this movement, led by local people and supported by daring activists from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), had transformed Lowndes County
from a citadel of violent white supremacy
into the center of southern black militancy—
Lowndes County is where the original Black Panther party began.
Catherine was just a little girl when this all unfolded— the daughter of activist parents.
We asked Catherine—when did you become politicized?
She laughed— “it started with mysterious rash.”
Catherine’s story started from the personal, and became political.
She spearheaded research that found evidence of hookworm throughout Lowndes County, which led to even more research.
The UN Rapporteur appointed to Lowndes County reported that the poverty they encountered was “uncommon in the developed world.”
This pushed Catherine’s work from general Civil Rights and justice work, toward environmental justice.
She learned that in Lowndes, city sewer systems reach only 18 percent of the people. Everyone else is required to have an on-site septic systems, but few can afford them.
She learned that residents were facing arrest and eviction because they were too poor to install proper sanitation;
and so she dove in — stopping the arrests and raising funds to install 40 septic systems —
only to learn that the conventional septic systems couldn’t handle the unique conditions of the soil and failed.
The local soil, with an abundance of clay and sand, and a high-water table, requires more adaptive septic systems that can cost $5,000 to $30,000. Flowers retrenched and began focusing on the long term.
Thus was born the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice.
Today, the Alabama Department of Public Health estimates 40 to 90 percent of homes have either inadequate or no septic system.
And half of the septic systems that have been installed aren’t working properly.
Catherine’s work today is focused on uncovering the tangle of broken infrastructure that keeps poor people poor: especially in rural communities.
She speaks passionately about the devastation that exists at the intersection of poverty, climate change, and politics: about the real life human beings who live with raw sewage in their backyards; about young children who need a CPAP machine to sleep due to all the mold in their homes. She talks about the poorest people in our country— both black and white, who overwhelmingly represent those incarcerated.
The issues are complex and interconnected:
Catherine has made it her life’s work to expose these problems, educate about them, and work to solve them.
I asked Catherine: what keeps you going? What gives you hope?
Her demeanor this whole time had been relaxed, and warm— her speech often bubbles through with a laugh.
But when she considers this question— her whole posture changes: with a straight back, and deep eye contact she says: God.
“God is my All of All’s— I pray a lot. My father told me that God works through us- and we have to do the work.”
Since returning from Montgomery, I’ve been thinking a lot about Catherine- about what it means to work for justice in a twisted and gnarled system of oppression and lawlessness.
I think about the world that Catherine inhabits: the change she has seen is possible, the change she has made happen, and the setbacks— the frustrations of a world that doesn’t seem to want to change.
This Shabbat, I am carrying Catherine’s faith in God within me: her surety and unwavering trust in a God who is her All of All— how in spite of the brokenness and callousness, she has hope.
Her work is literally grounded: pursuing justice for the earth that human beings live upon. But her faith, that is something higher—something
I am reminded of a pasuk from this week’s Torah portion, which I would offer as a nechemta- a word of comfort, that would seal Catherine’s faith in with ours on this Shabbat:
אֶת־קַשְׁתִּ֕י נָתַ֖תִּי בֶּֽעָנָ֑ן וְהָֽיְתָה֙ לְא֣וֹת בְּרִ֔ית בֵּינִ֖י וּבֵ֥ין הָאָֽרֶץ׃
I have set My bow in the clouds, and it shall serve as a sign of the covenant between Me and the earth.
On this Shabbat, my personal prayer for us all is that we remember that rainbow in the clouds— that we feel God’s Presence, our own All of All’s. 1