The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany - January 29th, 2023Micah 6:1-8; | Psalm 15 | Matthew 5: 1-12
Rise, plead your case before the mountains, and let the hills hear your voice!
In this morning’s reading from Micah, God is again scrapping with the Israelites… will they ever behave? The text we hear today follows five chapters of condemnation and doomsday prophesy against both the northern and southern kingdoms of Israel. Like a lecture from a frustrated parent, we hear the laundry list of leaders and guides that tried and failed to get them to straighten up and fly right.
Starting at verse six, we shift points of view to whatever unlucky Israelite has been summoned to the negotiating table. A list of increasingly over-the-top sacrifices are proposed, one suspects, with a degree of sarcasm that suggests this is not the first time this conversation has taken place. Both sides seem to be saying, “would you be satisfied then?”
On a mountain not far from here lives a man who could probably relate. He’s a member of the Turtle Clan of the Ramapough Mountain Indians (or Ramapough Luunape Nation), a multi-racial indigenous group that claims the legacy of the Lenape people who once occupied our whole region. If you’ve never heard of the Ramapoough, or at least by that name, you’re not alone. They tend to keep to themselves, and as a result, a mythology largely imagined by others has emerged to fill in the blanks. They are probably better known in northern New Jersey by a pejorative term that starts with the same letters as Jehovah’s Witness.
I met him on Saturday when Ellen, Mari, Bill and I attended an event at the Church of the Good Shepherd in Ringwood, an Episcopal congregation whose membership largely overlaps with the Turtle Clan. Although the church leaders were there, the event was actually sponsored by Rutgers, as part of a grant program* to explore and document the lives of disadvantaged people living in so-called “sacrifice zones” along the Passaic River, where environmental degradation was allowed to occur despite the proximity to places where people live, work and play.
In the 1960s and 1970s, the Ford Motor Company used abandoned mines in the immediate vicinity of the Ramapough people’s homes to dump millions of gallons of paint sludge, enough to fill two of the three tubes of the Lincoln Tunnel. This being New Jersey,, organized crime even got involved to ensure dumping continued despite the passage of environmental laws.
Knowing this was happening, the company still donated land for homes for the tribe to be built on the property in a model much like Habitat for Humanity. Due to lack of education or warnings, children played with the brightly-colored residue and their fathers scavenged through the debris looking for valuable metals to sell.
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?’
Although the site was removed from the EPA’s Superfund list in 1994 after 53,000 tons of sludge were removed, groundwater and soil samples around homes and the church continue to reveal high levels of contaminants including lead, antimony, 1-4 dioxane and benzene, leading the area to be added to the list again in 2006 after an explosive series called “Toxic Legacy” was published by the Bergen Record. Hundreds of members of the tribe have exhibited symptoms associated with exposure to contaminants, including cancer, asthma, and diabetes.
In 2008, out of fear that Ford, then in financial peril, would go bankrupt, the tribe accepted a settlement that amounted to about $8,000 per member after attorney’s fees. Cleanup continues in fits and starts, meaning trucks of contaminated dirt rumbling through the area, but in 2011 the EPA decided to cap the remaining debris in three specific areas instead of removing it. Environmentalists remain concerned that contaminants will continue to spread, possibly reaching the Wanaque and Monksville reservoirs which supply millions of New Jerseyans with their water.
More recently, a pipeline company announced plans for an oil & gas line between Albany and Linden that would pass through the area. Fearing further environmental damage and inspired by the people of Standing Rock, the tribe staged a protest encampment in Mahwah to draw attention to the matter.
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with tens of thousands of rivers of oil?
My new friend has lived in this area his whole life. For decades, he worked as a town employee, and thus bit his tongue a lot about the things he witnessed out of fear he’d lose his livelihood. Now retired, he feels more emboldened to speak up, and told the event organizers, who outlined plans to draw attention and resources to the tribe’s plight, “Don’t tell me. Show me.” He and others recalled a long history of outsiders coming to the area, making and breaking promises or flinging trivial amounts of money at the problem and disappearing into a mountain of toxic red tape.
I admit that when I heard these things and saw the conditions there, this was my instinct as well. What could we well-meaning strangers do? Noticing and hearing someone complain about the church’s dilapidated sign, several of us independently, instinctively thought, “well, we could fix that!” only to hear a non-native participant—apparently reading our minds—tell us later, “As soon as I got here, I offered to fix that sign.”
But the sign is not the problem; it is just a symptom. There are people here who could fix that sign for them in two hours and we could go home feeling better about ourselves, but it would not change the fact that the children of that congregation innocently play in the grass outside at their peril. Or that young descendants of the tribe don’t want to be identified by its common surnames to avoid the suspicion and mistreatment that go with them.
Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
You could hear a weariness in the Ramapough people’s voices as they told their stories. Many times the system has promised to make things better, and didn’t. But I also heard a rich and deeply-deserved pride in recalling passed-down wisdom and resilience. There is way more going on there than we could have absorbed in a single afternoon, or even the six months of enlightening and frequently disturbing history we’ve been learning in the Sacred Ground curriculum. I suspect that I’m not alone in that I mostly learned and thought about the Lenape in the past tense, as people who existed long ago without any explanation about where they went, leaving little behind but the names of places and school teams. Nothing was said about the residential schools—sponsored by the U.S. Government and run by religious denominations including ours—where indigenous children were “deprogrammed” of their culture in an effort to “save” them.
I left there in a pensive and unsettled state, and stopped to stare at the water of Monksville Reservoir which I kayak every summer. I had had a feeling of déjà vu in that room, and recalled that I’d actually been there once before, likely in the 1970s when all this was beginning to unfold. I’d spent another forty years mostly not thinking about them until now. But as Bill and I agreed afterwards, you can’t un-know this, and—though it probably shouldn’t—realizing that many of them are also Episcopalians makes it feel that much more imperative to not become yet another rich white person who nods sadly at their story, writes a check or two, and goes back to his privileged life.
One of the things that struck this frustrated journalism major about the Gospel is the passive voice in which the Beatitudes are written:
Blessed ARE those who mourn, for they WILL BE comforted. ‘Blessed ARE those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they WILL BE filled.
I noticed that Jesus didn’t say “I will bless them. I will give them comfort.” and thought, “it’s not that He won’t, but it can’t be just Him. Looking at that beat-up sign, I thought about the story, possibly apocryphal, about a statue of Christ damaged by vandals. Instead of repairing it, the church added a plaque paraphrasing St. Teresa of Avila, “I have no hands but yours.” I believe these people and situations are placed in our paths as opportunities to mirror the compassion and generosity that Christ modeled for us in the Gospel.
Oberlin College Professor and environmentalist David W. Orr said,
“The plain fact is that the planet does not need more successful people. But it does desperately need more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of every kind. It needs people who live well in their places. It needs people of moral courage willing to join the fight to make the world habitable and humane. And these qualities have little to do with success as we have defined it.”
The second film they showed us at the event was about a farm that members of the Ramapough created to provide the tribe with fresh organic food. Because it is unsafe to eat anything that is grown or hunted or fished in the vicinity of the dump site, the farm is located miles away in Sussex County. I learned afterwards that Amanda Kearney has actually volunteered there and wondered what other opportunities there might be to educate ourselves further and provide solidarity and support.
“Don’t tell me; show me.” With my Ramapough friend’s words still ringing in my ears, I have no idea yet what my response should look like, other than it should involve a lot more listening than talking.
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?
Our Land, Our Stories, a collaborative project with Rutgers University, Department of Landscape Architecture and the Ramapough Lunaape Nation, is a multimedia project for environmental justice advocacy and curriculum development for Native American history and contemporary Indigenous land relations. The project elucidates how relationships to land are disrupted by environmental pollution. It explains how negative portrayals of Native American communities have contributed to the targeting of their lands as dumpsites, while leaving them marginalized in the remediation process. It illustrates how Indigenous communities are responding with programs for cultural restoration and food sovereignty. Project materials were created in collaboration with the Turtle Clan, many of whom live on a Superfund site. Materials include the Our Land, Our Stories book, The Meaning of the Seed documentary film, traveling exhibits , short video projects on our YouTube channel , social media platforms , and this digital exhibit for Rutgers University Libraries. Utilizing a variety of formats, the project incorporates multiple voices and creates a multi-media forum for sharing important stories of land and loss, and of survival and recovery.