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Up from the Ashes: Faith Grows from Activism

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When a leaking, massive coal ash retaining pond in Eden burst in 2014, discharging roughly 39,000 tons of ash and 27 million gallons of wastewater from a nearby coal-fired Duke Energy power plant into the Dan River, Stokes County native and environmental advocate Caroline Armijo answered the call to action.

Although she’d recently moved back to North Carolina from Washington, D.C. with her family, Armijo had grown up in Germanton. So to her, the spill was crushing not only environmentally, but personally.

“When (British landholder) William Byrd was trying to persuade other people to come here from England in the 1700s, he talked about how beautiful the area was, how rich the land was, how easy to farm,” Armijo says. “There’s a town downriver that’s literally called Eden. And yet, so much exploitation has happened on this land. We have to break the cycle.”

Originally home to the Saura (Cheraw) Native American Indian tribe, who were encroached upon by Spanish explorers and moved south by the 17th century, the area was later the site of the slave-holding Sauratown (Hairston) Plantation in the 18th and 19th centuries before becoming the site of the Duke Power plant in the 20th . Coal ash is not officially considered a hazardous material, but it contains elements of arsenic, selenium, hexavalent chromium and other chemicals that threaten health and water quality. Many of the communities that line the river are small, and politically powerless.

Acting on her affinity for the area, Armijo joined two environmental groups who were working to give the citizens a voice and call for a permanent coal ash solution. But for Armijo, who is also a mixed-media artist, advocacy took a personal and creative turn.

In 2017, she applied for a $350,000 federal grant from ArtPlace America to use coal ash in making a public art display near the controversial Belews Creek power plant. The artwork would depict lilies and would honor composer-arranger Jester Hairston, who created the music for the 1963 Sidney Poitier movie “Lilies of the Field.” Hairston was born in Belews Creek. The decorative lilies would be made of encapsulated coal ash, rendered harmless.

“The Moravians used lilies all the time on pottery,” Armijo says. “They’re a symbol of restoration. That’s what I hoped this project would help spark in the Belews Creek area.”

Lilies and flowers are a recurrent theme in Salem pottery, depicting rejuvenation and the frailty of life.
Photo Credit: Old Salem Museums and Gardens

Armijo won the grant, and began the project. She didn’t realize that, along the way, she would find connection after disparate connection, like unraveled threads coming back together, that would link issues of social justice, Moravian history and personal experience, and ultimately spark her own faith resurgence.

“The Moravian spirit is here,” Armijo says. ““I feel like I’m being led, and it does deepen my faith, because of all these connections. I see God all over this project.”

Armijo is a descendent of Bethabara brick mason and master builder Johann Gottlob Krause, whose trademark oversized bricks and Flemish bond bricklaying style adorn most of the buildings in Old Salem, many of which he built. Armijo knew of this connection.

Johann Krause, Caroline Armijo’s ancestor, was the brickmaker who built most of Salem.
Public domain image

But she didn’t know much about the Moravian church until she moved to Greensboro and began visiting First Moravian. There, she was struck by the liturgy, with its calls for social justice and emphasis on God’s love.

“It’s very radical, with all the references to justice for the disenfranchised,” she says. “I thought immediately about Belews Creek, Walnut Cove and all the small communities along the river whose health threatened by high levels of coal ash. I looked around at the congregation during the liturgy and I thought, ‘They don’t get how unique this is. This is amazing.’ ”

The liturgy’s frequent mention of the Holy Spirit as an active, intentional presence also moved her.

“You don’t hear this in just any church,” Armijo says. “Other churches I’ve been a member of may mention the Holy Spirit as something that may possibly be involved. In the Moravian church, it’s a present entity. I feel that spirit guiding me with this project because one thing ties to another in a way that I’d never have foreseen. I don’t completely understand it yet, honestly.”

And then, there’s Oliver.

Johann Krause owned a slave, christened Peter Oliver. Oliver, a master potter, lived, worked and worshipped with the family, eventually owning his own farm in the area of the Winston-Salem Kaleidium children’s museum. The northeast side of the farm, coincidentally, was bordered by Belews Creek Street.

At a family Christmas gathering, Armijo, then pregnant with her son, was looking through names when her uncle suggested “Oliver.”

Armijo and her son, Oliver, age 5, at Paint Night at his elementary school.
Photo courtesy of Caroline Armijo

“Oliver was not on my list, but when my uncle said, “What about Oliver?’ the baby kicked me really hard,” she says. “I had great-uncles whose middle names were Oliver, but I never felt that connection. When I heard about Peter Oliver, I thought, ‘That’s it.’ Is Oliver named after Peter Oliver? Maybe.
There’s definitely a connection.

“Maybe it’s my Moravian DNA, but I try to journal every day, and I try to envision what a coal ash cleanup looks like, what giving a voice to these politically powerless communities so close to the river would be like,” she says. “The Moravians were very justice-oriented, very creative in their love of art, planning, documentation. And I do feel like heavenly spirits are guiding me now in a way, through Peter Oliver, Johann Krause. These stories want to be told, and they’re important.”

Armijo marked the fifth anniversary of the spill, February 2, by holding a Day of Prayer beside the river.

Armijo casts a lily on the water of the Dan as a symbol of restoration. Her Lilies Project has sparked an environmental empowerment and artistic resurgence in the area.
Photo Credit: Meredith Branscome

Some members of the arts fund were skeptical of her choice, saying that only people would ‘only be interested if they were religious.’ But to Armijo, the need for bringing faith into action was clear.

“We have a God-sized problem, and we need a God-sized solution,” she says. “We need to clean the ash up, not cover it up. We need justice for the voiceless.

“I believe that we can break the cycle of atrocities on this land. That’s where the faith comes in.”

Find out more about The Lilies Project at www.theliliesproject.org.

About the Author

Photo via Lydian Averitt

Lydian Bernhardt Averitt is a freelance writer and editor, an amateur musician and a lifelong Moravian who attends First Moravian Church in Greensboro, NC. Contact her at [email protected].

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