Who Will Save Hampton Roads From the Flood?

Lightning_2 (Photo by Matthew Sullivan available on Flickr)

The full impact of climate change is often lost in statistics, science, politics, and economics; it’s easy to forget there are real people whose homes and livelihoods are threatened right now. But a recent article by Michael Schulson in the Durham-based Scalawag magazine serves as a powerful reminder that environmental protection is also people protection.

In the article, Is Hampton Roads on the Edge of the Apocalypse, Schulson tells the story of residents and evangelical groups in a coastal Virginia community:

The Hampton Roads region—which consists of seven adjacent coastal cities, including Virginia Beach and Norfolk—is home of Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network and Regent University. With about a dozen megachurches and several national ministries, it is an epicenter of evangelical life in the United States.

This part of southeastern Virginia has another distinction—one that has acquired more ominous significance in the three decades since [Hurricane] Gloria’s northward deflection. More than almost any other part of the United States, the area is vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Built largely on drained swampland and filled-in creek beds, the cities of the Hampton Roads region sit just a few feet above sea level. The Atlantic Ocean is slowly reclaiming them.

Working with InsideClimate News, Schulson traveled to Hampton Roads to see how an evangelical community is dealing with the harsh reality facing them. What he found was alarming. While evangelicals like Katharine Hayhoe and Rev. Mitchell Hescox have made the moral case for environmental action, evangelicals in Hampton Roads aren’t following Hayhoe and Hescox’s lead.

Schulson writes:

“So this has to do with, what, the Earth?” asked a pastor at Wave Church, who subsequently declined to be interviewed for this article. “I don’t know much about that,” said the pastor of a Filipino-American evangelical church.

Sitting in the high-ceilinged assembly hall of the Greater Metropolitan A.M.E. Zion Church, in Norfolk, Reverend Adrian Wyrick was apologetic. “With so much going on, and being an African-American congregation, our main focus is primarily on our young people and the homeless population,” he explained. “It’s something we really need to be looking into.”

Others expressed concern about the politicization of the topic. “When something is a political issue, I jump out,” said Steven Byrum, the pastor of Norfolk’s Mosaic Church. Michael Blankenship, who leads Norfolk Apostolic Church, said that “God has given us dominion over the planet. We do have a responsibility to be stewards of it.” But, he added that he’s unhappy “when I perceive that I’m being yanked around by a political agenda.” Climate change, to Blankenship, looks mostly like a pretense for expanded government regulation.

I found Pastor Marvin Bagent pruning bushes behind Ocean Park Baptist Church in Virginia Beach. “I don’t think it’s an issue,” Bagent said of sea level rise. Bagent is reserved, thoughtful, and soft-spoken. Before the city fixed the drains on the street, he recalled, people used to kayak past the church after large storms.

Calvary Assembly is a large, predominantly White Pentecostal congregation on a peninsula north of Norfolk, a couple hundred yards from the Hampton River. On a recent Sunday, David Johnson was volunteering as a greeter at the church. Johnson lives in the city of Hampton, in a flood zone. He’s not worried about sea level rise or climate change. “I think what’s meant to be is meant to be,” Johnson said. He does believe that people are influencing the climate. “Seven billion [people] is gonna affect it some. But what are we gonna do?”

The climate complacency of Hamton Roads’ evangelicals is hard to stomach. The community is flooding more often and the flooding is getting worse. People are aware of the problem, but people aren’t connecting it with climate change. Schulson writes, “To visit the region is to witness a slow-motion disaster that no one understands.”

Perhaps the situation in Hampton Roads would be different if polluters like the Koch brothers hadn’t been so successful politicizing climate change. Religious leaders have a moral duty to guide people toward the path of acceptance and adaptation — to save Hampton Roads from the flood.

I highly recommend reading Schulson’s article in full here. His in-depth look is a view many in the media have simply glossed over.

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About the Author

I'm an organic-eating, energy-saving naturalist who composts and tree hugs in her spare time. I have a background in environmental law, lobbying, and field work. I believe in God; however, I do not call myself a Christian or a Jew or a member of any religion. I am merely someone who finds a spiritual connection to all humans and the environment. You can find me on Twitter, Facebook, and .