Greening the Pews

Even people of faith enjoy a good competition now and again. So when Texas Impact, a state-based ecumenical faith organization in Texas that works on environmental concerns, declared that it could sell more compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) than the Illinois-based Faith in Place, a faith organization dedicated to caring for the Earth, the makings of an interesting interstate contest began. By shopping online, congregants can purchase CFLs for their homes and houses of worship. Faith in Place has already declared that it will purchase 500 CFLs and donate them to food pantries across the state, and thus making a true connection between social and ecological justice.

This intriguing competition reveals that despite the differences within and between religious communities in the United States, we are also aware of what joins us together. We share, among other things, a desire and most importantly a religious call to protect all of God’s creation. And increasingly, because of its severe, sweeping potential impacts, we have seen the need to come together to address global climate change.

From a religious perspective, global climate change is a moral crisis. Not only because it affects future generations and those around the globe, but because it will hit hardest among the “least of us,” the vulnerable communities and people in poverty across the globe. As a community that strives for justice, then, it becomes doubly important that we put our concerted efforts into addressing global climate change.

How we address the issue varies as much as our methods of worship. From light bulb competitions to “greening” our sanctuaries to hosting bike-to-worship Sundays, the faith community is becoming more active, and more vocal.

The Little Church That Did

St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania started its journey to become more environmentally friendly when it had to renovate a historic church building after acquiring a nearby property in their urban setting. Instead of using traditional construction methods, St. Stephen’s, with its blossoming core of environmentally minded congregants, chose to follow theological principles of construction. It decided to build in ways that protect God’s creation and are less polluting, that provide healthy worship and sacred spaces for congregants, and that, most importantly, don’t harm vulnerable communities.

By utilizing energy efficient lighting and cooling, designing for multiple use, and using less toxic materials such as environmentally friendly flooring, St. Stephen’s was able to decrease their carbon pollution and become the first LEED-certified (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) church. Today, the church stands as a testament to the congregation’s commitment to protecting God’s creation by using less energy, cutting their carbon emissions, and relying on less toxic building materials.

Reverend Cory Sparks was similarly inspired and at a time of great difficulty no less. Hurricane Katrina destroyed or damaged 900 houses of worship in the Gulf Region. It also wreaked havoc on the United Methodist Church that Rev. Sparks served in New Orleans. But, it also provided an opportunity. Rev. Sparks, with a long-time interest in “greening” churches, used the opportunity of renovation and reconstruction in his congregation and other congregations in the area to push for energy-efficient design and materials. He recognized a need for pastors and church leaders to get more technical information on energy efficiency and was able to secure a small grant to help resource these interested congregations in New Orleans.

Now, with the help of a couple of AmeriCorp volunteers, churches in New Orleans are able to get energy audits and make needed repairs and changes to their existing structures. This not only helps reduce carbon emissions, but also helps reduce overall church operating expenses. And saving money can be critical to ministries that are struggling to get back on their feet after Hurricane Katrina.

Joining Voices for Justice

One way that religious leaders and people of faith are making a difference is by educating elected officials on the need to address global climate change and to do so in a way that helps protect vulnerable populations and people in poverty in the U.S. and abroad. Last December during the UN Climate Change Conference of the Kyoto Protocol, a record number of people of faith, coordinated by the World Council of Churches, descended upon Canada to voice their concern that the United States and the rest of the world address climate change with all haste. This gathering included three inter-religious events and the development of a religious statement that expressed the spiritual and ethical dimensions of climate change. The statement called for urgent action especially since vulnerable people and eco-systems have already experienced the impact of climate change.

Here in the United States, the faith community is speaking out to Congress, articulating four moral imperatives when addressing climate change: stewardship of God’s creation, sufficiency for all God’s people, justice for God’s people, and sustainability for all of God’s creation. In October 2007, the Evangelical Environmental Network, the Catholic Coalition on Climate Change, the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, and the National Council of Churches joined together to release a policy agenda paper to members of Congress that advocates for the need to protect low-income and vulnerable people in climate change legislation. This unlikely coalition was a reminder that these groups share a common concern for God’s Earth and for people living in poverty as they face the impacts of global warming.

No matter what region of the country you examine, you will find increased interest and action by the faith community to address global climate change. By taking action in their own houses of worship and in their own homes — living lives that use less carbon – people of faith become examples to the rest of the community. By speaking out — giving voice to the voiceless — people of faith become prophets and teachers to the world. As with any impending crisis, theological differences are often set aside as we strive to seek solutions and institute a more sustainable, just world as we believe God intended.

Cassandra Carmichael is the eco-justice program director at the National Council of Churches and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus (www.fpif.org)