Movement against proposed gas pipeline inspires Virginia Episcopalians’ environmental advocacy

By David Paulsen
Posted Feb 22, 2019

[Episcopal News Service] Episcopalians in Virginia are joining a movement to block a proposed mid-Atlantic gas pipeline that they say will disrupt and pollute minority communities and increase American dependence on fossil fuels at a time when the church and others are pushing for greater reliance on renewable energy sources.

The proposed multibillion-dollar Atlantic Coast Pipeline would carry natural gas underground 600 miles from West Virginia through Virginia and deep into North Carolina. The pipeline’s opponents drew new attention to their concerns this week at a rally that featured former Vice President Al Gore and the Rev. William Barber II, one of the leaders of the Poor People’s Campaign. The Episcopal Church is one of the many partners in the Poor People’s Campaign.

“It’s been miraculous to see people come together,” the Rev. Weston Mathews, rector of Grace Episcopal Church in The Plains, Virginia, said in an interview with Episcopal News Service. He was among the hundreds who attended the rally Feb. 19 in a school gymnasium in Buckingham, Virginia.

The Episcopal Church’s interest in such issues focuses on both creation care and environmental racism, Mathews says. The rally was held in the mostly black community of Union Hill, which would bear a large part of the pipeline’s negative impact. Dominion Energy and its partners want to build a compression station there, which opponents warn would spew toxic pollutants into the air.

“The pipeline should be canceled,” Gore said, according to a Prince Williams Times report. “It’s an environmental injustice, and it’s not too much to say environmental racism is located in this historically black community.” Union Hill was founded by former slaves who were freed after the Civil War.

The companies’ website lists jobs, lower energy costs and tax revenue among the benefits of a new underground pipeline, which it calls “the safest form of energy transportation in the country.”

Mathews participated in the Feb. 19 rally as a member of The Episcopal Church’s Task Force on Care of Creation and Environmental Racism, which was established in response to General Convention resolutions related to the environment.

One focus of the task force is on changing government policies that result in “disproportionate health or environmental impact on those living closest to the land in subsistence cultures, ethnic minorities or poor communities.” Another goal is to study practices aimed at “supporting humanity’s transition from industrial life to sustainable life.” The threat of climate change looms large over that mission.

Fossil fuel infrastructure projects like the Atlantic Coast Pipeline are “the building blocks of our climate crisis,” Mathews said, so activists feel an urgency in stopping new construction. Episcopalians in his own congregation and others around the Diocese of Virginia are supportive of such advocacy and generally committed to conservation of Virginia’s natural beauty, he said.

He also is working on these issues through the Interfaith Alliance for Climate Justice, a nonprofit he founded a year ago with a fellow Virginia Episcopalian, Robert Dilday, who is now a seminarian at Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria.

Dilday told ENS that environmental advocacy comes down to Episcopalians living out their baptismal covenant to “strive for justice and peace among all people and to respect the dignity of every human being.”

“That’s the overarching criteria by which we come to this environmental justice movement. The ways in which creation is being degraded is not only a way in which God’s gift is lost,” Dilday said, “but also, people who are most impacted by it tend to be marginalized communities.”

The Episcopal Church has taken a stand against environmental racism at least since 2000, when General Convention passed a resolution supporting efforts to “eliminate the practice of locating polluting industries disproportionately near neighborhoods inhabited by people of color or the poor.”

Episcopalians have been particularly active in recent years in supporting demonstrations against pipeline projects that could pose a threat to the environment and to minority communities, from the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in the Dakotas to the Great Lakes.

The Interfaith Alliance for Climate Justice, one of numerous organizations opposing the pipeline project, is focused on raising money to support nonviolent civil disobedience and direct action on environmental and conservation issues. Its current work is in Virginia, mainly because Mathews and Dilday are based there, but they are leaving the door open to expanding their work beyond the state in the future.

Much of the success in opposing pipeline projects is measured by victories in court or with regulatory agencies, but for residents who live in the path of such proposals, Episcopalians often can serve them by “just being with people and meeting with them and helping them keep their morale up,” Mathews said. “That’s the good, slow work of environmental justice organizing.”

– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for the Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at