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One morning in mid-July, I drove north out of Houston at the crack of dawn, three hours up Highway 59 into the cleaner air and dense, piney woods of deep East Texas. It was Sunday, and I was on my way to church. I'd been up that way before: my father was born and raised in northeast Texas--in fact, my whole family is from Texas--and I'm no stranger to Bible Belt Christianity. But I'd never been to a church like the one where I was headed that morning: the small, progressive Austin Heights Baptist Church in Nacogdoches, which meets in an unassuming building on the edge of town.
Austin Heights was formed as a breakaway congregation in the charged atmosphere of 1968, when its founders could no longer accept the dominant Southern Baptist line on issues of race and war, and it established a lasting fellowship with the leading African-American church in Nacogdoches, Zion Hill First Baptist. The first morning I was there, the Rev. Kyle Childress, Austin Heights' pastor since 1989 (and the only white member of the local black ministers' alliance), preached on the Old Testament prophet Amos, who, he noted, was among the favorites of Martin Luther King Jr. Childress began his sermon by reminding us that this year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the protests in Bull Connor's Birmingham in the spring of 1963 and the March on Washington later that summer, and that one of King's most-used lines (found, for example, in his 1963 "Letter From a Birmingham Jail" and "I Have a Dream" speech) was a verse from that morning's Scripture reading in Amos: "Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream."
The prophet Amos, Childress told us, was called to be a fierce advocate--among the Bible's fiercest--on behalf of justice for the poor and oppressed. "Amos's strong preaching was hard then, and it's hard today," Childress said. Just as in Amos's day, when the wealthy trampled on the poor while worshiping piously in the temples, so today our "programs of care for the poor and needy" are dismantled "with a religious zeal." Meanwhile, "giant corporations get a free ride. They can diminish people, destroy the earth, pour out climate-changing carbon, all in the interest of short-term profit, and no one can do anything about it." But Amos knew, Childress assured us, that God is the spring of justice--and that without God, "we are unable to keep up the struggle for justice and goodness and love over the long haul."
"God calls us to justice, to be a people who embody justice," said Childress, himself a longtime activist on issues of race, poverty and peace. And yet, as King and all those who fought for civil rights knew, "serving and battling for justice is a long-haul kind of calling."
Childress--deeply influenced by the likes of Wendell Berry, the late Will D. Campbell and, of course, King--is not a Bible-thumper. He doesn't shout. Heavyset and ruddy-faced, with a whitening, close-cropped beard, he speaks with a soft, flat West Texas accent. But his voice carries real power and conviction. I would have been impressed with his sermon even if I didn't know that his words that Sunday morning held a heightened significance for his congregation--not just because of the civil rights history, but because this little East Texas church, which can count perhaps 100 souls in its pews on a typical Sunday, is involved in a new battle. I wasn't there just to hear the preaching.
In the past year, the Austin Heights congregation has found itself in the thick of the intense fight over the Keystone XL pipeline, specifically the southern leg of it--running from Cushing, Oklahoma, through East Texas (within twenty miles of Nacogdoches) to Gulf Coast refineries in Port Arthur and Houston--which was fast-tracked by President Obama in March 2012 and is now nearing completion, according to TransCanada, the Canadian corporation building it.
I'd reached out to Childress, and following the morning service I was scheduled to meet and interview, there at the church, several members of Tar Sands Blockade, the diverse group of mostly young, radical climate and social-justice activists (many of them Occupy veterans) who one year earlier had mounted a high-stakes, headline-grabbing campaign of nonviolent direct action--including a dramatic, eighty-five-day aerial tree blockade and numerous lockdowns at construction sites--to stop or slow the pipeline's construction in Texas. In the process, they've worked with everyone from local environmentalists raising the alarm on the dangers of tar sands leaks and spills (as seen in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and Mayflower, Arkansas) to conservative landowners fighting TransCanada's use (and, they will tell you, abuse) of eminent domain. Most of those who have engaged in and supported the direct action campaign--a true grassroots uprising--have been Texans, young and old, twentysomethings and grandparents.
Last fall, a number of the young blockaders, living at an encampment on private property just outside Nacogdoches, started coming to church at Austin Heights. And though they came from all sorts of cultural and religious backgrounds, and often had no religion at all, they formed a close bond with many members of the mostly white, middle-class congregation--who welcomed them into their homes like family--and had been working with the local grassroots anti-pipeline group Nacogdoches STOP (Stop Tar-Sands Oil Permanently), co-founded by members of Austin Heights.
Since the blockaders began showing up at his church, Childress told me as we drank coffee on his back porch the next morning, people have noticed a change in his preaching. "There's an urgency that maybe I didn't have before. They're reminding us that climate change is not something we're going to fiddle-faddle around with. I mean, you've got to step up now."
But there's more to it, Childress continued: "I'm preaching to young people who are putting their lives on the line. They didn't come down here driving a Mercedes Benz, sitting around under a shade tree eating grapes. They hitchhiked. They rode buses. And they get arrested, they get pepper-sprayed, they get some stiff penalties thrown against them." (In January, Tar Sands Blockade and allied groups settled a lawsuit brought by TransCanada seeking $5 million in damages for construction delays, forcing them to stay off the pipeline easement and any TransCanada property.)
Childress noted that some of the blockaders, especially the Occupy veterans, refer to the corporate capitalist system as "the Machine." "And they're exactly right, using that kind of language," he said. "They're going up against the Machine in a real, clearly defined way. Not subtle--really upfront. And I'm trying to help them realize what it's going to take to sustain the struggle."