Rev. Dr. Ambrose Carroll stands in front of a giant statue of the Buddha

Insights from Conscious Travel in Thailand with Rev. Dr. Ambrose Carroll

Jan 30, 2023

Reflections from an Interview with the Founder of Green The Church
by Ruthie Redmond

Rev. Dr. Carroll is a fellow in the Atlantic Fellows for Racial Equity (AFRE), a network of changemakers from South Africa and the US building solidarity and action for a more equitable future, based at Columbia University and the Nelson Mandela Foundation. AFRE is one of seven fellowships of the Atlantic Institute, which works to amplify Fellows’ impact in the world through building connections among fellows and supporting them as they exchange ideas and collaborate.

Originally, Pastor Carroll’s fellowship was scheduled to visit Johannesburg, South Africa, and a US city to discuss differences and similarities between South Africa and the US, and how marginalized residents see themselves in relation to power. The pandemic intervened, however, and his cohort has been meeting virtually to discuss culture and anti-racism. Usually, once a year, all seven fellowships come together in Oxford England, however, in 2022, the Institute decided to shift the in-person conference to Thailand.

The Atlantic Institute brought their 400 current Fellows from all over the world to Thailand for two weeks this past summer to connect at the intersection of race and equity, meet one another, and create projects to usher in the Beloved Community around the planet. There were trainings, artwork and cultural sharing showcasing individuals’ work and culture, and time set aside to meet just as the AFRE cohort. 

As Green The Church was created and developed as a project of Carroll Ministries International (CMI), est. 1997, it is important for Pastor Carroll to be a part of international work and bring Black Christian culture to the table. CMI is inspired to express the experiences and knowledge of African Americans as a people, where we came from, and cultural activities that have brought the Black family together. Sharing the experiences and strength of African American culture (family reunions, vacation bible school, etc.) and exploring connections to people of the African Diaspora is paramount to CMI work in the African diaspora and around the world. The follow-up to the Thailand convening took place in Johannesburg and provided further connections to communities addressing environmental justice issues and to African spirituality.

Cultural Conditioning
The process of travel, in and of itself, reminds us that our culture and existence is just one of many ways of being. On the way to Thailand, Pastor Carroll passed through Qatar, a Muslim-majority country with Islam as the state religion. While there, he was able to witness the interplay of Arab culture and the Muslim religion with a deliberately open mind and noticed how our American cultural notions had created a narrative of othering Islamic culture.

Pastor Carroll points out that cultural conditioning hits your body in a way. The experience can show up in your body as emotions, e.g., fear, carefulness, etc. With twenty years of hearing about al Qaeda, bin Laden, etc., it’s easy for Americans to view Arab and Muslim people as characters/caricatures instead of people, so it was nice to see people in their own culture going about normal life. It was also interesting to see the financial wealth of this country and its people moving through the world in a different way due to the power of oil. This reminded him of his grandparents in Shreveport, Louisiana and the stark contrast to the circumstances of their lives. They had oil on their land and oil wells pumping next door, but lived in a house without running water and could not benefit from this resource in the same way. On the brief visit, it wasn’t possible to connect with marginalized people in Qatar.

The Power of Travel
In Thailand, Pastor Carroll gained historical context around religion in the past 400 years, particularly Buddhism, which is the largest religion in the country. He visited Buddhist temples and toured the pristine nature of nearby islands and noticed how being present in a different place is reviving and allows for reflection. He learned from locals that although Thailand wasn’t directly colonized like nearby nations, the country was used as leverage between nations and there is still a large Western influence in the development of their country. They didn’t endure slavery, but had powerful colonial forces working within their country’s sociopolitical landscape.

Cities there felt to Pastor Carroll like places he’d been in Mexico, with conspicuous wealth juxtaposed with profound poverty. He found it fascinating that the city streets had McDonalds, Pepsi, KFC, and Coca-Cola signs that have been there for 50 to 60 years. So even on the other side of the world, the country has been controlled by the same western powers. In an odd contrast, one thing he noticed was that CNN Thailand provided a much broader context of world events than we receive in the US.

Theology as a Means of Connecting
During the fellowship sessions, he noticed a lot of people concluding that religious stories divide people and some saying we need to tear it all up and start over from scratch. While acknowledging the challenges—Western stories of religion come with cultural biases, African Americans may know something about Judaism but not about African spiritual traditions, religion used as a means of oppression—Pastor Carroll sees religion as a powerful motif in what it means to be human. He views the Bible and Book of the Dead as sacred texts that contain within them psychological, scientific and cosmic truths that change names depending on the culture, but the lessons remain the same. He asserts that we shouldn’t throw these 10,000 years of truths away because we have yet to understand what the ancestors knew.

Interfaith and Shepherding
Pastor Carroll is very active in interfaith spaces. He believes all religion comes from the same root and while religion gives us a narrative of being a spiritual being in human bodies, it does not necessarily give us science, math, astronomy, etc., that we also need. We need to peel back from structural violence that uses religion to help empower imperial interests. He sees his role as one of opening up and sharing what has been held secret, and feels that so much knowledge  has been deliberately held back.

Traveling only to the Holy Land or to Oxford to learn about Christianity, the idolization of narrow (and supremacist) theology can leave modern pastors locked into a narrative that only allows us to move within the context of those that are powerful. As Green The Church’s main audience is African American pastors, he views travel and conversation with those outside of our own conditioning and belief systems as a way to engage deeper insights. We need to understand the language of multiple cultures, shift power, and move our people from the bottom of the socioeconomic scale—as we now see only from a point of view of supremacy. Christ was not motivated  to be above others or dominant, but with others and a part of the whole. We need to learn to connect with one another, with love for all people and the planet.