Soil and Soul Restores the Earth for Justice

by Rebecca Shipman ([email protected])

As a child, Rev. M. Dele loved spending time outside and, even then, she saw the restorative power of nature. As the daughter of two front line civil rights activists, Rev. Dele explains that nature and activism were a part of her life from the beginning. When her mother, Mrs. Rayella Booton, felt overwhelmed by her fight for justice, she would say, “I’m going to the mountains,” and the whole family would go and share in the peace the mountains provided. This experience taught Rev. Dele that environmental health is not just about food and nourishment. It also encompasses the emotional and mental balance nature provides.

Rev. Dele was living and working in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina devastated the community and the ecosystem. As part of the reconstruction effort, volunteers from Common Ground Relief remediated the toxic soil in front of her healing arts center. “There was so much JOY as a crowd of thirty people descended on our front yard for five days, expressing LOVE for those who the center would serve,” she shares. They tested the earth and planted native species of soil and plants to return the earth to its natural and healthy state, in a process known as permaculture. “I knew then that we needed to transfer this permaculture knowledge to other communities of color around the country. Everyone deserves lead-free soil, flood-proofed yards, and clean air that native plants have refreshed.”

With the second chapter of Genesis in mind, Rev. Dele asserts that all land needs this treatment, not just land exposed to toxic waste. “If we put the earth back the way God designed it, we will have clean water; we will have good soil, we will have clean air.”

Rev. Dele became certified in permaculture.  She learned how to put the land back to its natural order to William and Mary College, where she taught permaculture, and then to a family plot of land in Virginia to practice her skill.

Rev. Dele started pilot projects for her organization, Soil and Souls, a communally-based resilience school, to spread her understanding of God and nature.  In 2012, Rev. Dele “got a real kick” from God not to sequester one geographic area, but to share a sustainability model with the church. Soil and Souls is a cross-generational group connecting young people doing work for environmental justice with the resources of the congregations. 

Rev. Dele saw the church losing its sense of domestic mission and young people badly in need of guidance in their spiritual lives. To respond to these two problems, she developed a solution: “Reuniting scientific knowledge with the sacred text, so that we can be integrated as we move forward.” 

Rev. Dele emphasizes the importance of a biblical vision for the environmental movement: “Turn away from ecological ignorance because God will heal the land. Because our behavior will be in alignment with what God had said.”

Moving forward, Soil and Souls plans on opening more resilience hubs to get more churches involved with sustainability practices. Rev. Dele works for a future where all people have a garden of native species planted in their yard, even the 3-foot-by-3-foot yards found in cities. To ensure people can do this, Soil and Souls is beginning an effort to buy a 260-acre piece of property in the Catskill Mountains.  This will be a national training center with a native and medicinal plant nursery.

Rev. Dele is also writing a children’s book about Sojourner Truth to share the impact nature had on Truth’s life and activism. Rev. Dele wants the next generation to grow up with the knowledge to achieve environmental justice.