Chicagoland

‘All the fights are long term,’ says environmentalist

By Julio Rangel | Católico
November 22, 2017

Environmentalist works for justice

For Celeste Flores, protecting the environment is the best way to express her Catholic faith. Flores, 26, is the outreach director of Faith in Place in Lake County, an interfaith organization that works on environmental issues. Its mission, she said, is for people of faith to develop an ecological conscience so that they work to improve the environment.
Celeste Flores stands near the coal plant she hopes will close after adopting a plan to clean up the toxic waste. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Celeste Flores talks to members of her group from Waukegan near the exhibits during the Faith in Place annual Green Team Summit at the Field Museum on Oct. 15. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Celeste Flores stands near the exhibits during the Faith in Place annual Green Team Summit at the Field Museum on Oct. 15. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)

For Celeste Flores, protecting the environment is the best way to express her Catholic faith. 

Flores, 26, is the outreach director of Faith in Place in Lake County, an interfaith organization that works on environmental issues. Its mission, she said, is for people of faith to develop an ecological conscience so that they work to improve the environment. 

“We try to start groups, they can be [at] Christian churches, parishioners’ houses and synagogues,” she said. 

Faith in Place is working with 15 to 20 faith-based groups. Flores and her team visit them and talk about topics such as various forms of alternative energy, how to start a garden with native species or how to start a vegetable garden.

Her work is especially important in Waukegan, she said. Residents there have been trying to close a coal plant, owned by the energy company NRG, for years.

Flores believes the plant closing is inevitable, but her group wants the company and the city government to have a transition plan, because the burning of coal creates toxic ash waste known as coal ash ponds. That waste needs to be cleaned up.

The coal-burning plant harms not just people’s health, but the economic health of the community, she said.

“We haven’t been able to develop as we should, the way you can see in Highland Park or Lake Forest,” said Flores, who attends Most Blessed Trinity Parish in Waukegan. “They also have the lake, but they have a lot more economic resources and more jobs.”

Some Waukegan residents are worried about losing tax revenue if the plant is dismantled. An option that has often been mentioned is developing the lakeshore as a tourist destination, Flores said.

“Every mayor, every alderman always says they want to revitalize this location next to the lake,” she said. “They want to build apartments or condos. So people are going to see the lake, which is beautiful, but they also are going to see this coal plant. Who would want to see that?”

Flores has stressed the importance of making sure that once the coal plant is removed, people who live in Waukegan now can continue to live there.

“Because it sounds nice to say we are going to have those condos, but who will be coming to live here? And the people who are already here, where are they going?” she asked.

Flores was born in Libertyville and has been working in ministry since she was a child, because her parents were involved in the church. 

“They went to meetings and I could not go home, so I stayed at the meetings and I said ‘OK, there is a need, I can help,’” she said.

She has been working on environmental issues for the last three years as part of the Clean Power Lake County coalition, the Sierra Club and most recently at Faith in Place. 

For the past four years, Flores has been participating in meetings and organizing marches to advocate for the transition of the coal plant. 

“But all the fights are long term,” she said.

On Nov. 10, she received the Gaudium et Spes Award at Noche de Gala, an annual dinner recognizing leaders in Hispanic ministry in the Archdiocese of Chicago.

She was pleasantly surprised at how much Pope Francis covered in the encyclical “Laudato Si’,” because it discusses the role of big corporations as well as the role of a consumer society on the environment. 

“Now with Faith in Place I am going to be able to use the document more,” she said. 

What strikes her the most is the way Pope Francis emphasizes that poor people are the ones who usually carry environmental burdens. 

“In neighborhoods where minorities and poor people live, it is easier to establish coal plants, nuclear plants or oil refineries, because the companies think that people are not going to say anything,” she said. “The time to take action to fight climate change and establish social justice is today, not tomorrow.” 

Topics:

  • enviromentalism

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