In Evangelical Country, an Apocalypse of Rising Seas

In Hampton Roads, Va., an epicenter of both the evangelical movement and climate change, land and ideology are losing the battle to a rising Atlantic.

This project is the result of a months-long collaboration between InsideClimate News and Scalawag, a new print and online magazine dedicated to celebrating and examining the American South. 

As Hurricane Gloria was bearing down on Virginia Beach in 1985, the evangelist Pat Robertson resolved to pray the hurricane away. On his TV show, The 700 Club, Robertson clasped hands with his co-host. "In the name of Jesus, we come against this Hurricane Gloria," Robertson said. "We command that the storm would continue to go farther to the north and the east, and go harmlessly out into the Atlantic Ocean."

With 100 mile-per-hour winds, Gloria was bearing down on the evangelical mission that Robertson had started by buying a defunct TV station to broadcast Christian programming. Twenty-five years later, The 700 Club was nationally syndicated, and Robertson was one of the country's best-known televangelists. He had started a university in Virginia Beach. He had just interviewed Ronald Reagan in the Oval Office. He was contemplating a run for president.

When Gloria swerved northward and hit Long Island instead, Robertson took it as a sign. "I felt, interestingly enough, that if I couldn't move a hurricane, I could hardly move a nation," he later said in an interview. Robertson's bid for higher national office did not succeed, but his ministry helped the evangelical movement acquire sustained electoral clout. Today, White evangelical Christians form a major voting bloc within the Republican Party.

The Hampton Roads region—which consists of seven adjacent coastal cities, including Virginia Beach and Norfolk—is home of Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network and Regent University. With about a dozen megachurches and several national ministries, it is an epicenter of evangelical life in the United States. 

This part of southeastern Virginia has another distinction—one that has acquired more ominous significance in the three decades since Gloria's northward deflection. More than almost any other part of the United States, the area is vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Built largely on drained swampland and filled-in creek beds, the cities of the Hampton Roads region sit just a few feet above sea level. The Atlantic Ocean is slowly reclaiming them. 

I traveled to the Hampton Roads area to witness the collision of these two realities, at a place where climate change is visible and evangelical Christianity defines local politics and culture. I wanted to see if the palpable impact of the changing climate on this community is influencing the evangelical response to global warming policy and politics.  

Municipal governments in the region are beginning to respond to the effects of a changing climate. So is the military, which has a major naval installation there. They've been joined by local environmental groups, and by a handful of religious organizations.

But despite their influence, evangelical organizations in the Hampton Roads area have been largely silent. It illustrates how difficult it is for evangelicals—and Americans in general—to understand the urgency of dealing with climate change.

Some experts believe religious groups could help shift the national policy conversation about the issue, especially on the political right.  Recognizing the moral dimensions of climate change is "potentially a way around the political stalemate that has arisen," said Edward Maibach, the Director of the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University.

In a place like the Hampton Roads region, the stakes couldn't be any higher.

Sea waters surged during Hurricane Joaquin. Photo by Rich-Joseph Facun.

Seas Rise, Land Sinks

President Obama traveled to Alaska in August to see the effects of climate change up close. He could have simply driven three hours down the interstate and taken a tour of southeastern Virginia.

Global sea level is rising as the polar ice sheets melt, and in the mid-Atlantic states, seas are encroaching even faster. Climate-linked changes in the Gulf Stream, a powerful oceanic current that runs along the Atlantic seaboard of North America, are pulling the ocean there upward.

Like other coastal areas in Virginia and Maryland, Hampton Roads is also prone to subsidence: The land is gradually sinking into the giant meteoric crater that formed the Chesapeake Bay. Some coastal neighborhoods, built on filled-in wetlands, are subsiding even more as the fill compacts.

Climate change exacerbates the problem and will do so more in the future, as the ocean rises to meet the sinking land. Taken together, the relative sea level in the Hampton Roads area is rising two to three times faster than the global average. Since the 1920s, Naval Station Norfolk has recorded a roughly 1½-foot rise in the local sea level, much of it from subsidence.

Conservative estimates predict a further rise of 1½ to 3 feet in the next century, accelerated by climate change. Those estimates are used by many local city planners. Even a 1½-foot rise would reshape floodplains and threaten neighborhoods. But those estimates are probably too low. "We tend to think that higher scenarios—three feet or more—are likely," said Larry Atkinson, who directs the Climate Change and Sea Level Rise Initiative at Old Dominion University in Norfolk. The Navy has prepared reports that analyze the effects of local sea level rise of up to 6½ feet. It is possible that the change will be even greater in the 22nd century.

Granby Street in Norfolk flooded during the 1933 Chesapeake-Potomac Hurricane. (Courtesy: Sergeant Memorial Collection, Norfolk Public Library)

In the low-lying Hampton Roads region, a major sea level rise would be devastating. A storm could hasten the destruction. It's been more than 80 years since a major hurricane delivered a direct hit. The last time, Virginia Beach was a tiny resort town. Today it's Virginia's largest city. The Hampton Roads metropolitan area has 1.7 million people—300,000 more than greater New Orleans.

Hurricanes generally bypass the region or weaken over the Outer Banks of North Carolina. But at least five major storms have hit since the 1740s. As the climate has warmed, the frequency and severity of hurricanes along the mid-Atlantic coast has increased, and the Hampton Roads area is more vulnerable than ever. Virginia authorities distribute hurricane evacuation maps, but local leaders recognize that a full evacuation would be almost impossible; the roads simply can't handle it, and nearly all the evacuation routes involve tunnels, which can flood during storms.

Add in sea level rise, and the impact of a hurricane could be formidable. I asked Atkinson whether, say, a foot of extra sea level really mattered in the context of a full-blown hurricane storm surge. He laughed. "Have you been down here?" he asked. "It's flat! That's a matter of whether the tunnels are going to flood or not."

Could the Hampton Roads area survive the combination of significant sea level rise and a major storm? Few people interviewed for this story wanted to discuss that possibility. "The City of Virginia Beach is not going to retreat," said Dave Hansen, a deputy city manager for Virginia Beach. The water, he said, "is not rising an alarming rate."

Skip Stiles, the director of Wetlands Watch, a Norfolk nonprofit that organizes for climate action, sees danger. As a Congressional aide in 1977, he helped prepare the first-ever legislation funding climate change research. Today, the longtime Norfolk resident looks to the century ahead with concern. "I don't see, for this region, a real optimistic outcome," he said. 

With Doubt Comes a Lack of Urgency

In front of the Christian Broadcasting Network headquarters, a map of the globe is painted on a concrete circle. The concrete slopes upward toward the North Pole, where a small gas jet powers an Eternal Gospel Flame. "This perpetual flame," explains a plaque, "commemorates the launch of CBN WorldReach, a continuing global mission to lead souls to faith in Jesus Christ."

Pat Robertson and Al Sharpton in a 2006 commercial. (Via YouTube)

For many years, CBN's leadership saw that mission as compatible with concern about the climate. In 2006, Pat Robertson starred in a commercial for Al Gore's "We Can Solve It" campaign. In the commercial, Robertson and preacher Al Sharpton sat together on a couch, talking about the need to address climate change.

It was a vibrant time for evangelical environmental response. The National Association of Evangelicals had recently signed on to a major initiative urging climate action. The Southern Baptist Convention, the representative body of the country's largest and most influential White evangelical denomination, was about to pass a resolution along similar lines.

As the debate over climate became more politicized, though, Robertson and other evangelical leaders backed off. By 2014, Robertson was referring to "the scam about global warming" on The 700 Club.

Evangelical theology didn't change during that period, but national politics did. As the Republican Party hardened its stance on climate issues, many evangelicals followed. According to national survey data, evangelical Christians today are more likely than members of other religious movements to express doubt about or deny climate change.

To better understand why, I spoke with pastors at 10 Hampton Roads evangelical churches. I found very little outright denial. Rather, I found disregard, confusion, and curiosity about why global warming should be an issue for them at all.

"So this has to do with, what, the Earth?" asked a pastor at Wave Church, who subsequently declined to be interviewed for this article. "I don't know much about that," said the pastor of a Filipino-American evangelical church.

Sitting in the high-ceilinged assembly hall of the Greater Metropolitan A.M.E. Zion Church, in Norfolk, Reverend Adrian Wyrick was apologetic. "With so much going on, and being an African-American congregation, our main focus is primarily on our young people and the homeless population," he explained. "It's something we really need to be looking into."

Others expressed concern about the politicization of the topic. "When something is a political issue, I jump out," said Steven Byrum, the pastor of Norfolk's Mosaic Church. Michael Blankenship, who leads Norfolk Apostolic Church, said that "God has given us dominion over the planet. We do have a responsibility to be stewards of it." But, he added that he's unhappy "when I perceive that I'm being yanked around by a political agenda." Climate change, to Blankenship, looks mostly like a pretense for expanded government regulation.  

It's not surprising that perceptions in the evangelical community should largely come through the lens of national politics, or through national figures like Robertson. After all, climate change is almost always framed as a battle between the environment and the economy, a struggle that can feel distant from the specific concerns of a church. It can be more difficult to see climate change in moral terms, as human beings harming other human beings.

Bubba's Restaurant in Virginia Beach flooded during Hurricane Joaquin. (Photo: Michael Schulson)

Flooding Changes the Landscape

I found Pastor Marvin Bagent pruning bushes behind Ocean Park Baptist Church in Virginia Beach. "I don't think it's an issue," Bagent said of sea level rise. Bagent is reserved, thoughtful, and soft-spoken. Before the city fixed the drains on the street, he recalled, people used to kayak past the church after large storms.

Calvary Assembly is a large, predominantly White Pentecostal congregation on a peninsula north of Norfolk, a couple hundred yards from the Hampton River. On a recent Sunday, David Johnson was volunteering as a greeter at the church. Johnson lives in the city of Hampton, in a flood zone. He's not worried about sea level rise or climate change. "I think what's meant to be is meant to be," Johnson said. He does believe that people are influencing the climate. "Seven billion [people] is gonna affect it some. But what are we gonna do?"

After services, I spoke with Angi and Dylan Kennedy, a young couple in the church (Angi is the lead pastor's daughter). The two were warm, thoughtful, curious about climate change, and unaware of sea level rise in the Hampton Roads. "I think indirectly people care, but we don't talk about it all the time," Angi said of evangelical approaches to the climate. "I think evangelicals generally are more people-focused," Dylan said. "The environment's just not people."

A few hundred yards from Bagent's church, the estuary has come to reclaim Bubba's, a popular waterfront bar. Water now floods the patio and building during larger storms. They've hung pictures of recent floods to celebrate their survival so far. "I don't know the scientific stuff, but it's definitely changing a lot," said one longtime employee, who preferred not to give her name.

Ralph Stallings has lived in the neighborhood since the 1950s, when, at age 23, he bought his house for $18,000. "It's flooded more in the last 10 years than it's ever flooded, I guess," he said. "I couldn't tell you what's changed. But something's changed."

Carol Kromkowski and her husband, Dave, bought a brick ranch house in 1998, a few minutes' walk from Bubba's and Ocean Park Baptist Church. They were told that the street hadn't flooded since the 1960s, and that floodwaters had never reached the house. Over the next 11 years, the Kromkowskis dealt with three major floods. The last one, caused by a nor'easter in 2009, totaled the house. The landscape, Carol told me, "looked like a swimming pool." Two of their neighbors never moved backed in, and their houses are still empty. It took the Kromkowskis more than a year to rebuild. During that time, they lived in hotels and temporary housing with their two children.

Digging deep into their savings and taking loans, the Kromkowskis were able to scrape together the money to elevate their house off the ground. The new house—a two-story structure with yellow siding—sits on a rectangle of grass a few feet above the street. Cinderblock retaining walls hold the building up on three sides. A low, narrow space between the cinderblocks and their fence forms a kind of dry moat. Carol says that she has "no idea" why the flooding has increased.

Across the region, flooding is common and getting worse due to the combination of subsidence and sea-level rise. At the intersection of 21st Street and Baltic Avenue, near the Virginia Beach waterfront, employees at Oceanfront Dentistry kick off their shoes and head outside to help when heavy rainstorms swamp vehicles. In Grandy Village, a public housing development in the Chesterfield Heights area of Norfolk, residents have to park their cars on the grass during heavy storms, and kids walk through swamped fields to get to school.

A street in Norfolk after moderate rain. (Photo: Rich-Joseph Facun)

The higher water blocks drainage outflows, backing up the system miles inland. And in many places, it's saltwater  spilling over the banks. Nowhere is that clearer than in Ghent, an upscale, historic neighborhood near downtown Norfolk. A large inlet, called the Hague, curves through the heart of the neighborhood.

During ordinary high tides, the Hague now spills over its walls, flooding streets. The Chrysler Museum of Art, which overlooks the Hague, has had to move collections out of its basement. The Unitarian Church next door gave up and left. At nearby St. Mark's Episcopal Church, a recent nor'easter sent 10 inches of water into the choral room, and the Hague has come up to the entrance to the church's bell tower.

Almost everybody recognizes the flooding is more frequent and severe, but few understand that climate change will make things even worse. To visit the region is to witness a slow-motion disaster that no one understands. People "literally don't know what's happening, they don't know why it's flooding," said Harrison Wallace, the Hampton Roads community organizer for the Chesapeake Climate Action Network.

Two girls ride bicycles through a Virginia Beach street flooded by rain from Hurricane Irene in 2011. (Photo by Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images)

Religion Is Beginning to Frame the Issue

Experts agree that the impact of climate change will fall disproportionately on poorer and more vulnerable communities. Yet according to a study published this spring, only a fifth of Americans consider it a major moral issue, and only 24 percent see it as an issue of social justice.

Evangelical institutions may not be responding to the threat in the Hampton Roads region. But other religious institutions there are beginning to frame climate change in explicitly moral terms. In August, Catholic bishop Francis DiLorenzo, citing Pope Francis' recent encyclical on climate change, hosted a panel of theologians and climate experts in Norfolk. Around 200 people showed up. The Unitarian Universalist church in Norfolk has begun organizing for climate action, with an explicit social justice bent.

The United Church of Christ, a Protestant, non-evangelical denomination, recently formed partnerships with the Sierra Club and Virginia Organizing to do climate outreach work in lower-income areas of Norfolk. Reverend John T. Myers, the Minister of Church Affairs for UCC communities in the Hampton Roads, cited Jesus' command to help "the least of these" as inspiration for the project.

As a seminary student in 2006, Myers did outreach work in New Orleans a few months after Hurricane Katrina. He saw the devastation there firsthand. "Hampton Roads is the second area that has this same risk of flooding. Potentially, we have another Katrina here," Myers said. As for those who would be affected most, he said, "it's the children, it's the elderly, it's the homeless, it's those who are impoverished."

Some local evangelical leaders are beginning to think similarly. At a Wednesday Bible study at Azalea Baptist Church in Norfolk, Pastor Bart McNiel gave a teaching about Paul's epistles to a mostly elderly assembly. At the end, he talked about green spaces, the Gulf Oil spill, and the concept of "shared suffering with creation."

McNiel is a Prius-driving, Wendell Berry-reading pastor in a progressive Baptist denomination. After the Bible study, in his office, McNiel talked about a large sheet of ice that had broken off of Greenland that week. "This is a crisis," he said. But while McNiel does talk about environmental stewardship—and while some parishioners will bring up climate issues with him in conversation—he said that climate change was too charged a topic to comfortably discuss in his church, where parishioners come from a range of political backgrounds.   

Just how charged the topic has become was clear last summer, when Katharine Hayhoe, the director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University, appeared on The 700 Club. Hayhoe is both an evangelical Christian and an atmospheric scientist. Appearing on the show alongside her husband, a pastor, Hayhoe talked about tangible signs of climate change, including rising seas and melting glaciers. She also spoke about how a changing climate will harm people through storms, flooding, and heat waves.

The segment inspired a backlash from viewers that compelled CBN to release a statement explaining that "the story was an impartial report" and that "Gordon [Robertson] did not take sides in the debate."

The board that oversees the show, Hayhoe told me in a recent telephone interview, plans to cover environmental and climate issues more sympathetically, a shift that she attributes to Pat Robertson's son, Gordon, who has taken an expanded role at CBN in recent years.

In her broader outreach work, Hayhoe draws a direct connection between climate change and humanitarian issues. "When you look at an issue like climate change, which disproportionately affects the very people that we're told to care for, my faith is telling me take this seriously, to act on it," she told me.

Hayhoe acknowledges that climate deniers wield influence, but said that "the people who comment on blogs, the people who we hear on the media, the people who write us the nasty emails, those people are coming from a very small proportion of the country." She said evangelicals are a more diverse group than is often apparent in national media coverage, or in depictions of prominent institutions like CBN.

Noah Toly, who teaches climate policy at Wheaton College, a prominent evangelical school in Illinois, sees a generational shift taking place that could alter evangelical approaches to the issue. "I think our students—every year they come to us more and more progressive about the issue. More and more open on the issue," Toly said.

Hayhoe, who does extensive outreach work in evangelical churches, agrees. "If you talk to people under the age of 35, the story is different," she said, and then paraphrased what she is hearing: "I care about creation, and I care about people, and I care about the poor, and I think climate change is real."

Stormy weather in Virginia Beach in July, 2015. (Photo by Flickr user Devin Stein via Creative Commons)

Wading Through the New Normal

On the first Saturday in October, southeastern Virginia was windy, with scudding storms. The air felt tropical. A front had dumped rain across the region for two days, and many streets had flooded. Donald Trump, slated to speak at Wave Church, postponed his appearance. The governor of Virginia declared a state of emergency. Now the long westward arms of Hurricane Joaquin were starting to reach the coast.

Three days earlier, it had looked like Joaquin might slam into Virginia. This time, Pat Robertson did not take to the airwaves to command the hurricane away. Nevertheless by Saturday, it was apparent that the storm was going to veer away, into the northern Atlantic, and people seemed nonchalant about how close the area had come to a hit from a hurricane. Four hundred miles away, in South Carolina, the storm system brought devastating floods and killed 19 people.

In the days to follow, stiff winds from Joaquin pushed water into the mouths of the Elizabeth and Lynnhaven Rivers. In Ghent, the Hague overflowed, and the water reached the steps of the Chrysler Museum. Police closed the road in front of the Brambleton public housing complex. In Virginia Beach, the ocean flooded Bubba's once again. Someone paddleboarded down the street in front of the Kromkowski's house—which, on its new perch, stayed high and dry.

Nearby, the floodwaters were coming toward Michael Greaney's garage but he didn't seem worried. He has plans to lift his house above the floodplain next year, with a subsidy from FEMA. "I couldn't tell you if it's global warming, or if it's just our time to flood again," Greaney said, looking out at the inundated street.

On the final day of flooding, Frank Hunley III was sitting on his porch in Portsmouth, across the water from Norfolk. Seawater from the Elizabeth River estuary had backed up through the sewer system, pushed open a manhole cover, and flooded Hunley's street. Instead of wading to his car, Hunley took the day off from work. This kind of flooding, he said, "isn't that unusual."

At the Virginia Beach Vineyard Church that Sunday, as the tides quietly rose in swamped neighborhoods, a parishioner told me that God "won't send us what we can't handle." A divinity student at Regent gave the morning's sermon. "Father," he prayed, "we thank you that you have spared us from Hurricane Joaquin."

Again and again, people would shrug their shoulders, and say something like "maybe it's an issue, but what can I do"? As one man told me, in a Pentecostal storefront church in Virginia Beach, "Nobody's going to control the weather. Nobody." What's most striking about the Hampton Roads is not that flooding is a part of life. It's the degree to which such a perilous situation can come to feel normal.

Nevertheless, the region's future is fraught. Climate change may involve land, water, air, and weather—the stuff of nature—but there's no question that it will affect the lives of people. Many political leaders in the area—including Virginia Beach U.S. Representative Scott Rigell, a Regent alumnus—have been hesitant to address the issue.

Mason Alexander lives in Ghent, within sight of the Hague. Alexander grew up in Norfolk—her father served as mayor—and trained as an architect. Now she focuses on climate change adaptation. "I think there's a fair amount of deer in the headlights about this," she said of locals' responses to the threat of rising seas. "I was one of them. I didn't know how to fix it. I didn't want to think about it—just wanted somebody to come in and make it better."

Alexander now works to help neighborhoods plan adaptation strategies. The anti-flooding work is lot-by-lot. She focuses on specific, small changes—building cisterns, for example—that, taken together, can help the city weather the water. One day, perhaps, the Hampton Roads region will look more like the Netherlands, with pumps, cisterns, berms, and other strategies to survive alongside water. "It's absolute politics at its most basic," Alexander said. "Getting a list of shovel-ready strategies, I think, starts to make the decision-making less something involving a dartboard and a prayer."

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