ST. JAMES, La.—The brown brick Roman Catholic church that sits here near the Mississippi River, next to dozens of large oil storage tanks, rose in 1930 amid the sugar cane fields of a former plantation. Twenty-two years later, Sharon Lavigne was born and baptized within its pale blue plaster walls pierced by the light from bright stained glass windows.
Now 70, Lavigne steps into St. James Church on a late January morning, dipping her fingers into a vessel of holy water. She makes the sign of the cross, takes a seat in a pew and pauses for a silent prayer.
It’s in this church, in the industrial corridor between New Orleans and Baton Rouge known as Cancer Alley, that Lavigne found the strength and inspiration to take on multiple chemical plants, including a Taiwanese-based global plastics manufacturing company.
“It was a calling from God,” said Lavigne, a retired special education teacher and grandmother of 12, of her decision to leave her comfort zone and fight the plants and the pollution they would emit into the air or water. “This wasn’t something I planned to do, or something that I wanted to do.”
With a network of allies near and far, Lavigne also stood up to the petrochemical industry in Louisiana and to local, state and federal officials. Most of her efforts are channeled through a faith-based environmental justice group she founded five years ago, Rise St. James, and the coalition is now on a winning streak.
Formosa Plastics has been stopped in its tracks—blocked, at least for now, from building a massive $9.4 billion manufacturing complex on 2,400 acres in Welcome, Louisiana, less than two miles from Lavigne’s home. Last September, a state judge sided with Rise St. James and other environmental groups and rejected the rationale for some 15 air permits that the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality had issued for the complex, which would have been allowed to emit more than 800 tons per year of toxic pollution into a predominantly Black, low-income community.
The Formosa Plastics complex would also have sent as much as 13.6 million tons per year of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, roughly equivalent to the emissions of 3.5 coal-fired power plants. In 2021, the Biden administration halted the project by deciding, after another lawsuit brought by Rise St. James and other environmental groups, that the project needed a full environmental review by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The company has appealed the state court ruling and has said it plans to continue pushing for the plastics manufacturing complex, a project that has also been backed by Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat.
Beyond the Formosa victories, Lavigne and Rise St. James took part in community opposition to the China-based Wanhua Chemical Group’s plans to locate a $1.25 billion plant for making plastics feedstock in St. James Parish. The company withdrew its project in 2019. The group was also part of a coalition that defeated a plan by South Louisiana Methanol to build a petrochemical complex in the community last year.
“God chose me,” said Lavigne, settled into a high-back leather chair in a corner of the church, where she regularly sings with the choir. “God chose me. I used to question God, and I’d say, ‘Why did you choose me?’”
Since that divine calling around four years ago, Lavigne has led marches, organized rallies, been a plaintiff in lawsuits, pressed local officials, worked with other local, state and national environmental groups including Earthjustice and the Center for Biological Diversity, challenged local elected leaders, and met with the administrator of the federal Environmental Protection Agency. A happy warrior quick to offer a smile and words of certainty about the coalition’s ability to block Formosa, Lavigne also helped reveal the presence of slave graves on the site of the planned manufacturing complex. In 2020, her group organized a service in which Bishop Michael Duca of the Baton Rouge Diocese blessed the fenced area where the slaves are buried.
Over time, Lavigne says, she has stopped asking the “Why me?” question about doing what she sees as God’s work. “Now I tell him, ‘Thank you for choosing me.’”
While Lavigne gives much credit to the attorneys and others who have been part of the alliance fighting the chemical plants, including the grassroots group known as the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, there is no doubt in her mind about why the cause has gained an upper hand. “We put God first,” she said. “We start off our meetings with a prayer. We end our meetings with prayer. When I go somewhere, I tell him to come with me.”
Firm Roots in the Civil Rights Movement
Since the environmental justice campaign took hold in the early 1980s, it has uncorked record federal spending on major initiatives, inspired climate justice globally and animated a decades-long quest for environmental equity in communities along the fence lines of petrochemical plants like those in Louisiana.
Early champions of the cause note that they drew directly on the civil rights movement, in which faith was also a core feature.
“When you look at the genesis of environmental justice, in terms of the grounding of the work, environmental justice actually grew out of the quest for racial justice,” said Robert Bullard, a former dean and professor at Texas Southern University who has been a leading voice of the movement for decades. Bullard has written 18 books on environmental justice and is widely referred to as the “father” of the movement.
Bullard traces a direct line from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s faith-based 1968 campaign for better pay and working conditions for Black sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee, to today’s robust movement. Protests in 1982 in North Carolina over the planned dumping of industrial toxic waste in Warren County were an early milestone. Warren County had the largest Black population in the state.
At the center of that fight was a newly minted Duke Divinity School graduate, the Rev. Benjamin Chavis, a former King aide and ordained pastor with the United Church of Christ who is credited with coming up with the term “environmental racism.” Five years later, as director of the church’s Commission on Racial Justice, he produced the landmark report “Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States.”
“Religion, civil rights and the fight for equal justice and fight against racism were all intertwined,” Bullard said. “What happened in North Carolina revived and woke up the fact that this is civil rights. It is the right to not be poisoned. It is the right to health and the right to breathe and not have your property destroyed.”
Bullard’s own groundbreaking research came a decade after King’s 1968 crusade in Memphis. He found that all five of Houston’s city-owned landfills and six of the eight incinerators operated by the city were in Black communities. Black residents made up 25 percent of Houston’s population but received 82 percent of its trash.
Inspiration for the Faithful, Especially Women
Inside the one-room Mount Triumph Baptist Church in St. James, the Rev. Harry Joseph, one of Lavigne’s colleagues in Rise St. James, sat next to a gas-powered heater glowing orange on a chilly afternoon. His church has fewer than 20 members. A sign above the door reads, “The Small Church with a Big Heart.”
Joseph helped lead a losing fight in Louisiana over the now-completed 163-mile-long Bayou Bridge oil pipeline from Texas to St. James Parish, but he says it was worth the struggle. To him, the motivation stems from a celebration of the gifts and responsibilities that he believes flow directly from God.
“He gave us clean air,” said Joseph, a board member of Rise St. James. “He gave us clean water. And he gave us clean soil. And when God gave it to us, he said, ‘Everything was good.’ And we can’t let someone like them come to destroy what God has already given us. We should be able to be good stewards.”
On a church wall hangs a black-and-white photo of King and his wife, Coretta Scott King, marching for civil rights. “King was one who wasn’t afraid, and I am not afraid,” Joseph said. “God blessed me. Wherever I am, I can speak out. I can look in your face. And not be afraid, because God is giving us a spirit. Not a spirit of fear, but a spirit of love.”
If faith has been at the core of the environmental justice movement, so have women, especially Black women of faith.
That’s particularly evident along Louisiana’s winding 130-mile stretch of the lower Mississippi, an industrial corridor with more than 200 facilities including oil refineries, plastics plants, chemical plants and other factories, many of them built on former plantations.
Within that corps of women was the late Florence Robinson, a biology professor and resident of East Baton Rouge Parish. In 1999, she won a prestigious environmental award from the Heinz Family Foundation in Pittsburgh for waging a “virtual one-woman war against toxic waste” by helping to shut down a hazardous waste incinerator and raising awareness of environmental justice issues nationally. In 2005, she told The Advocate newspaper in Baton Rouge that faith was always her motivation for fighting the incinerator and working for change.
“I really believe in what I am doing,” she said at the time. “I was raised to believe in the principles of America, and I was steeped in the Judeo-Christian concept of helping others.”
Then there was Emelda West, a St. James Parish resident who died at age 87 in 2013. Bullard eulogized her as a “take no prisoner Marine Corps-type leader who became a hero to thousands of environmental justice activists around the country” and “the proud mother of seven children, 19 grandchildren and 24 great-grandchildren.”
West helped found St. James Citizens for Jobs and the Environment, a group that blocked a polluting Shintech polyvinyl chloride plastics plant from being located in Convent, Louisiana, in the late 1990s. A cousin of Lavigne’s, West was also a person of faith and, according to Bullard, wielded that to great effect.
A trip she took to Japan to meet with representatives of the company has become part legend, part myth.
“The saying goes she put the cross on the CEO, and said, ‘In the name of Jesus, you will not locate in Convent,” Bullard said, emphasizing the word Jesus. “And then, because it’s Louisiana, they say she threw some dust on him. You know, African, Afrocentric, Voodoo, hoodoo, whatever. Now that is how the legend goes.”
He said it probably didn’t happen exactly like that. Nonetheless, Bullard said, West did take her religion from Convent “all the way to Tokyo, Japan, to carry the message that ‘We are believers. And because we are believers, we strongly have a sense and feeling that Shintech will not come to Convent, because Ms. West willed it so.’”
Two Black women of faith from Louisiana, Lavigne and Margie Richard, have been awarded the Goldman Prize, considered the premier award globally for grassroots environmental activism.
The prize jury recognized Richard, who also started her environmental justice meetings with a prayer, in 2004. She had waged a 13-year battle with allies to win voluntary buyouts, emission reductions and improved evacuation routes for people in her neighborhood, the Diamond community of Norco in St. Charles Parish, who were living in the immediate shadow of a massive Shell Chemical plant. Before Shell conceded in 2002, she took her case abroad to London to speak to Shell shareholders and to the Netherlands to meet with company executives.
After she received the prize, Richard told ABC News in a Person of the Week segment, “I knew that God had somebody there with a heart who would listen and who would in turn bring it to the attention of those locally that we needed to be taken care of in a proper way.”
All along the Gulf Coast, from Florida to Texas, Black women of faith have “stepped up” and done “a heck of a job in advancing our movement to where we are now,” Bullard notes. “They are the sheroes.”
The connection with faith makes sense to Anne Rolfes, founding director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, which has been campaigning for environmental justice in the state for more than 20 years. “Whether it’s Shell or Formosa or Exxon or Honeywell, the company creating the harm has billions of dollars in its arsenal,” she said.
“What do we have? If we are lucky, we have lawyers and cartographers and experts of all kinds. But at the base of it all is a group of women and their prayers, their unshakable faith that they can beat a multibillion-dollar corporation.”
Recalling the Bible story of the young boy David, whose faith enabled him to defeat a giant, Rolfes added, “How else can you believe you can beat Goliath?”
For US Catholics, Progressivism Is Hardly a Byword
Roman Catholics make up the largest branch of Christianity in the world, with more than 1.3 billion followers. They first established a presence in Louisiana in the late 1600s with the arrival of colonists from Spain and then France, with Lavigne’s St. James Church community dating itself to 1757. The imprint on the region remains, in place names—parishes instead of counties, for example—and traditions like this month’s Mardi Gras celebrations in advance of the Lenten season.
Yet the fact that Lavigne is both a Roman Catholic and an environmental justice activist is atypical for Americans, said Daniel DiLeo, a Catholic theologian and professor at Creighton University in Omaha who has researched Catholic social teachings, faith and climate issues.
“It is not very common in my experience for Catholics, generally speaking, to be motivated by faith and to be involved in environmental justice or climate justice,” DiLeo said.
He notes that the church was led by two politically and socially right-leaning popes, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, from 1978 to 2013, who appointed many like-minded bishops who are still serving in local and regional leadership roles. The papal focus shifted from the dynamic social ethics of the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s to personal piety rather than local empowerment.
DiLeo points out that Benedict’s successor, Pope Francis, has been working to buttress Catholic social teachings, as evidenced by his landmark 2015 encyclical underlining the importance of “justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.”
Still, DiLeo and two other researchers found in a 2021 study that bishops in the United States had on the whole been nearly silent on the pope’s climate encyclical and sometimes even misleading in their pronouncements, even as the Vatican has encouraged Catholics to divest themselves from investments in fossil fuel companies.
Yet the University of Notre Dame recognized Lavigne for her activism last year with the Laetare Medal, billed as the oldest and most prestigious honor for American Catholics. “Notre Dame recognizes her leadership and her courage as a champion of the environment, a voice for the marginalized and a steadfast servant of our creator,” Notre Dame’s president, Rev. John I. Jenkins, said in making the announcement.
DiLeo praises Lavigne’s environmental justice work as consonant with church teachings.
“In the Judeo-Christian tradition, the role of the prophet is to name the gap between the world as it is and the world as it ought to be,” he said. “The role of the prophet is to call the community to live up to its own standards, its own teachings. That is precisely what Sharon has done and continues to do. Sharon is a modern-day prophet.”
A Stubborn Battle in St. James Parish
In St. James Parish, state Highway 44 winds along the Mississippi River between a large levee and the sugar cane fields, tank farms and industrial plants run by companies such as Koch, AmSty, ExxonMobil and Mosaic. A sign in a field near a water tower tank emblazoned with the town name of Welcome identifies Formosa’s so-called Sunshine Project, the plastics manufacturing plant that Rise St. James has been fighting.
Construction has stopped pending the outcome of the company’s appeal in the state’s 19th Judicial District Court, Janile Parks, a spokeswoman for Formosa’s U.S. affiliate here, said in a written statement.
Parks described the Army Corps of Engineers’ decision to reevaluate the project as “unprecedented” and “surprising given FG had participated fully in each step of the regulatory process and responded to every request from the Corps.”
“FG is disappointed by the delays but confident the project will prevail,” she said. “We think local, invest local, listen to our neighbors and work to meet real needs in the community. Those opposed to this project are determined to rid Louisiana’s economy of all industrial development and the benefits it brings, and we will not let them win.”
In this case and others, much of environmentalists’ criticism is directed at the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, or LDEQ, whose permits for the Formosa plant were tossed out in September by Judge Trudy White of the state’s 19th Judicial Circuit.
White ruled that in issuing the permits, the regulatory agency had failed to meet the state’s own definition of environmental justice, which calls for avoiding “even unintentionally discriminatory effects” through its actions.
In her decision, the judge quoted Lavigne’s description of the area’s lands as “sacred,” having been “passed down to Black residents from their great-great-great grandparents who worked hard to buy these lands along the Mississippi to make them productive and pass them on to their families.”
A spokesman for the state environmental agency, Greg Langley, acknowledged the sometimes close proximity of industry to minority communities, which he attributed to history, changing economics and an evolving access to infrastructure.
“The large plantations that dotted the alluvial plains bordering the Mississippi River needed a large workforce,” Langley said. “In antebellum times, that workforce almost exclusively comprised African slaves.”
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A large Black labor force remained after emancipation, he noted, adding that with regional access to raw materials like salt, gas and petrochemicals, and access to river transportation, plantations gave way to industry.
“LDEQ works with the facilities to make sure their emissions do not exceed protective standards set by state and federal regulations,” Langley said.
But researchers at Tulane’s Environmental Law Clinic recently found a more purposeful cast to state decisions greenlighting industrial plants near Black communities. In a study published last month in the journal Environmental Challenges, they suggested that state environmental regulators helped to create pollution inequities in the way they applied rules set down in the federal Clean Air Act.
“We found that, depending on the pollutant, you’re talking about communities of color with industrial facilities having seven to 21 times higher emissions compared to white communities with industrial activity,” Kimberly Terrell, a research scientist and director of community engagement at the law clinic, told Inside Climate News. “Yes, industry clusters around infrastructure. But that doesn’t explain why it clusters in predominantly Black neighborhoods within that group of neighborhoods that have infrastructure.”
Last fall, in a preliminary response to two civil rights complaints filed about the state agency, the EPA said there was “significant evidence” suggesting that LDEQ’s “actions or inactions have resulted and continue to result in disparate adverse impacts on Black residents of St. John the Baptist Parish, St. James Parish and the industrial corridor.”
Seeking Support From Priests
Langley said that the head of the state environmental agency, Chuck Carr Brown, and his staff met in December with representatives of the Louisiana Conference of Catholic Bishops “to discuss areas of mutual concern, including environmental justice.”
As a state agency, LDEQ “is not a religious organization, but our management deeply respects all religions and their leaders and is always open to dialogue with them,” the agency spokesman said.
Lavigne said she wanted to attend that meeting but was not invited. “I would have told them, “Please, pray that we get rid of the air pollution that’s giving us cancer,’” she said.
But Lavigne said she did meet in early December with Duca, the bishop who oversees the Diocese of Baton Rouge, and raised concerns about “industry poisoning people.”
“He wasn’t 100 percent on board with us, but at least he listened to us and talked to us and said he would bring it up with the priests,” she said.
Duca “is aware of the national recognition” of Lavigne’s work and has helped publicize her efforts on the diocesan website, diocese spokeswoman Kelly Alexander said in a written statement. The bishop has said that “caring for the earth is about caring for our brothers and sisters in Christ. They have a fundamental right to participate fully in the processes that consider not just industrial, but all forms of development, and for their voices to be heard.” Alexander said.
In an interview, a pastor who oversees three Catholic churches in the diocese praised Lavigne as “an inspirational leader” while also expressing empathy for people whose livelihoods depend on the petrochemical industry.
“I have parishioners who are affected on both sides,” said the Rev. Vincent Dufresne, who was part of the 2020 service in which the church blessed the slave graves on the Formosa property. For decades, he has observed the tension between the local economy and environmental justice in the region.
“I have people who need jobs and are hired by these plants and industries,” Dufresne said. But he added: “We need industry to be responsive to their neighbors as well as their employees. My belief, of course, is that God created the world and placed humanity in shared responsibility with God.”
Dufresne said he believed Lavigne had been inspired by “the Holy Spirit to speak out and that she has found courage in being heard.” He added: “I know that she has done it as selflessly as possible. She has not sought any kind of personal gain or attention in this except for what it will bring to the consciousness and to the decision-making of individuals. So I’m very proud of her.”
‘Following in Jesus’ Footsteps’
The environmental justice group Inclusive Louisiana was founded in 2020 by three Black women with “deep beliefs in our Christian faith,” according to the group’s website. One of its founders and executive directors, Gail LeBoeuf, a lifelong member of St. Michael Catholic Church in St. James Parish, was part of a delegation of Black elders from Louisiana to speak last summer before UNESCO.
In a January briefing in New Orleans organized by the environmental group Beyond Plastics, Le Boeuf said: “We are fighting to preserve our culture and our burial grounds. We have been targeted by people with money and power.”
Another founder and executive director of Inclusive Louisiana, Barbara Washington, is a former gospel radio announcer and retired Walmart pharmacy technician who fought the Wanhua plant as part of Rise St. James. She introduced herself as a born-again Christian, or, jokingly, a “B.A.,’’ with no advanced degrees. The plant would have been a mile from her home.
Washington was part of another victory last year when South Louisiana Methanol dropped its plan to build a petrochemical complex in the area. “I just want to pause and give God glory for strengthening our hands to do his will for protecting the environment and for his continuing guidance,” she said.
Jo Banner, a co-founder of the Descendants Project with her sister Joy Banner, envisions a community made up mostly of slaves’ descendants, with a new economy that is not based on polluting industries. Her group is suing to stop a large grain elevator and river terminal from being built next to homes and a cafe that the sisters own in Wallace.
As a Black Catholic, Jo Banner said she was frustrated by some of the church’s more conservative stances, including those on abortion and what she sees as a narrow view of what it means to be “pro-life.” The church “has been a blessing in my life that I’m not going to abandon,” she said. “But I want to see more acceptance. I want to see respect for life as far as Black health and Black mothers and better health care for women and just a different way of looking at the life issue.”
Jesus, she said, would be on the side of helping people who are getting sick from exposure to environmental ills. “I look at Jesus, and he’s a hippie, right?” Banner said. “He’s a liberal hippie, and I mean that in the most respectful way. He was a person who was open to people of different faiths and different lifestyles, so I am following in Jesus’ footsteps. This is what I read in the Bible.”
When God Said ‘Yes’
Sitting in her church, Lavigne said she clearly remembers the prayers that led to the first meeting of Rise St. James in her living room in October 2018. She had just come home from a community meeting where the Formosa project and other plants had been discussed.
It was a Sunday, around 5 p.m., and bright red cardinals were flying from tree to tree in her yard.
“It was so pretty,” Lavigne recalled. “They were flying, looking like they were having fun and that they were trying to tell me something.”
She said she sat down and prayed, asking whether it was time to move out of her home, away from the proposed plants. “‘No,’ he said,” she recalled, adding in a whisper, “That was his voice.” She said she asked again and heard the same answer: “‘No.’”
“And my Lord, the tears came down my face like from a faucet,” Lavigne said. “I said, ‘I don’t know how to fight.’ I said, ‘What do you want me to do? God, you want me to fight? Me?’”
She took the answer she heard as a “yes.”
“Then after that, I called the meeting at my house.”