The Rev. Leo Woodberry speaks at a Columbia event supporting clean energy. Provided/Sierra Club

FLORENCE — It was the fish that brought the Rev. Leo Woodberry into the world of environmentalism. 

The New York City native spent his childhood summers visiting family in Mullins and has long been an avid angler. One day, after he became a pastor in South Carolina in the 1980s, he got notice from state environmental officials, warning that eating fish from the waterways of the Pee Dee could lead to mercury exposure. 

“A lot of people, they live off the fish that they catch,” Woodberry said. “How many children are having learning and development problems because they don’t know about this?”

Since then, Woodberry has been on a crusade against coal-fired power plants and industrial facilities that release mercury into the atmosphere.

He leads a congregation of 20 at his nondenominational Kingdom Living Temple, housed in a former nightclub on South Irby Street in Florence. But Woodberry is also one of the state's foremost activists in environmental justice, a movement that argues polluting industries ultimately increase hardship in their communities, even as they come to town promising new jobs.

This summer, Woodberry helped the Sierra Club organize and lead an environmental justice tour of 19 cities in the South, and he encouraged the Pee Dee's largest electric utility to build a new solar farm. 

Activists organizing inside Southern churches, particularly those with mostly black congregations, are nothing new. Faith organizations were the backbone of the civil rights movement in the last century. 

“What other institution is there in the African-American community that reaches more people, that owns more buildings, that has as much financial resources and has the most transportation?” Woodberry said. "That's why it's always been the place where you really get traction organizing."

For years, climate issues were pushed by organizations led people who had faith but who also operated largely in the secular world. Today, Woodberry said he sees climate issues coming back inside church walls.

'Stewards of the Earth'

Questions of how to relate to the natural environment are far from settled in faith communities. Some Christians might argue that the Earth was given to humans as their domain, to do with as they see fit, including extracting and using fossil fuels at will.

But environmentally minded faith leaders share the idea that people are entrusted with a responsibility to maintain what God created. 

"If you believe there is a creator God, if you believe God created this world for our benefit, then we are called to take good care of that," said Jim Watkins, a retired Presbyterian minister and leader of Stop Offshore Drilling in the Atlantic. "Some folks think we’re called to dominate creation, and it's not so. It's hubris on the part of humanity to think the whole world revolves around us."

Connecting that principle directly to climate change has been the subject of a few high-profile moves by major religious leaders in recent years, including a 2015 encyclical released by the Roman Catholic Church, in which Pope Francis urged global action to combat global warming.

A year before, the World Council of Churches released an interfaith statement on the phenomenon and vowed to stop investing in fossil fuel companies. 

Woodberry argued that both moves have stoked the environmental consciousness of congregations. The bigger question is how much broad statements by church hierarchy trickle down to individual pastors. 

At the Circular Congregational Church in downtown Charleston, Senior Minister Jeremy Rutledge said environmental awareness is core to the church's teachings. The church has educational offerings on "living simply" — in other words, making choices that lead to fewer carbon emissions — and it takes educational trips to the beach to teach children about coastal ecology. 

"A deep part of our spirituality is caring for the natural world," Rutledge said. "Are we causing it harm? Are we aware of it?"

Woodberry usually starts conversations about the climate in practical terms, mentioning to congregants and Pee Dee residents that switching to solar energy might save them money on a power bill, for example. 

But he isn't afraid to point out similarities between Scripture and environmental devastation when he sees it, mentioning the echoes between a line in Revelation about rivers that "became blood" and the red tide of toxic algae that has plagued waters around Florida this year. 

“Once you explain it to people, you can show them those parallels in the Scripture," Woodberry said. "And if we’re stewards of the Earth, we’re supposed to be doing something about this.”

'Something larger'

Watkins' anti-drilling coalition, SODA, which is not religiously affiliated, took hold in the Grand Strand and has proven one of the most effective environmental activism groups in the state. It has helped push for near-uniform opposition to drilling by coastal public officials, at both the local and state levels. 

Arguing against drilling has worked well in a place that depends so completely on beach-related tourism. But Watkins likes to draw on his religious background from time to time, to keep the conversation in perspective. 

"A lot of concern folks have about the environment here on the coast of course is economic, and that's true, and I think part of my task is to broaden that," Watkins said. "Sure it’s about economics, but it’s about something larger, too."

Woodberry has fought against new polluting facilities around the Pee Dee. This year, he also cut the ribbon on a solar-share facility run by Duke Energy Progress near Nichols that will help power 1,200 households. 

The facility is named for Whitney Slater, the daughter of Woodberry's assistant, Loretta Slater. Whitney, a nursing student at S.C. State University, was diagnosed with an aggressive case of breast cancer at age 19 that proved fatal two years later. Slater can't help but wonder if the two industrial sites near Whitney's childhood home — a lumber mill and an oil plant — contributed to her illness.

Getting the solar farm opened and getting Duke to agree to waiving the connection fees for low-income customers took two years of negotiation, Woodberry said. 

When Duke Energy’s solar programs were approved by the Public Service Commission in 2015, the utility began meeting with Woodberry to help ensure that customers of all economic levels could benefit, Duke spokesman Ryan Mosier said. "He has been and continues to be a trusted partner," Mosier added.

Currently, Woodberry is focusing on growing his congregation, putting on educational events about energy efficiency and watching the moves of Dominion Energy, whose 600-mile gas pipeline is headed straight for South Carolina

Meanwhile, he said he'll always keep an eye on the environment of the Pee Dee. 

“That’s what real ministry is about, doing the work on the ground," Woodberry said. "The preaching part, the teaching part in the church, is for equipping people to go out and do work on the ground.”

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Reach Chloe Johnson at 843-735-9985. Follow her on Twitter @_ChloeAJ.