Greening the faith

Religious leaders from various faiths gathered last weekend to talk about ways to merge faith with environmental stewardship. Clockwise, from the top: The Venerable Dr. Zundui; Rev. Mary Ann Macklin; Rev. T. Wyatt Watkins; Rev. E. Anne Henning Byfiield; K. P. Singh, member, Sikh Satsang of Indianapolis. Photo by Mark Lee

When Jodi Perras wanted to

start a group focused on environmental stewardship at her church in 2006, there

was little resistance. The proposal passed unanimously in the church council.

But problems arose when it came to implementing changes.

When the church did an energy

audit of the four buildings it owns, Perras' team discovered a seldom-used

meeting house was using twice the amount of energy as the pastor's house, which

was occupied by four people.

The meeting house badly needed

insulation, but there were some in the church who didn't think the job was

worth the money. Eventually the church moved forward on the upgrade anyway;

turns out, it made a big difference.

"Through different things

that we did — we really saw the energy bills drop," said Perras, chair of

the Green Team at Epworth United Methodist Church, on Indianapolis' northeast

side. "And then people said, 'Oh, this is saving money. This is helping. What

we're doing is actually helping.'"

The church has since become

something of a meeting point for environmental activism and spiritual

sustenance. It hosts environmental film nights, recycles, has cut its energy

use and has been active politically, writing to Sens. Richard Lugar and Evan

Bayh about climate change — an issue its leaders view as a moral one, not

political.

It's the kind of awakening a

new organization hopes to bring to more congregations throughout Indiana.

Change of faith

Last Saturday, leaders from

16 Christian denominations, along with Buddhist, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, and

Unitarian leaders, gathered at First Baptist Church of Indianapolis to

celebrate the inauguration of Hoosier Interfaith Power & Light. The

organization is an affiliate of the national Interfaith Power & Light (IPL)

organization, founded in 1998, which considers itself the "religious response

to global warming."

Its goal is to educate

religious congregations on energy efficiency, renewable energy, and

conservation.

"The first goal of Hoosier

Interfaith Power & Light is to reduce our carbon use, our energy use,

within our places of worship," explained Luke Gascho, board chair of the new

organization and director of the Merry Lea Environmental Center at Goshen

College, to the gathering of about 200 Indiana church leaders.

But Gascho said it shouldn't

stop there. He wanted to see worshippers take that idea home and to the

workplace, as well.

"We have goals that relate to

education, relating to energy use, climate change," he said. "We also believe

that it's important that we practice timely sharing of information in advocacy

networks across the state, so that we can have change occur in our policies."

Gascho and other religious

leaders like him have their work cut out for them. Historically, Indiana hasn't

had much to cheer for when it comes to the environment, and this year has been

no exception.

Indiana is the 4th

largest emitter of carbon dioxide in the U.S, and with "Right-to-Work,"

education, gay marriage, immigration, and myriad other issues atop the

statehouse priority list, legislation to improve Indiana's environment hasn't

received much attention.

This year environmentalists

might have to rely on faith for some good news — people of faith that

is.And there's reason to believe

that Hoosier Interfaith Power & Light isn't just a feel-good gesture.

"[Indiana] is going to be one

of the most important IPL programs in the U.S.," Rev. Sally Bingham, IPL's

founder and president, told Saturday's crowd. "The fact that you all are living

in a purple, sometimes red, state is important. It is precisely the people here

that need to understand that our issue is not about Republican, Democrat, Tea

Party people, or Independents.

"This is a spiritual issue.

And it's up to each and every one of us to make decisions that will be helpful

in deciding the future for our children and our grandchildren."

Before she got involved with

IPL, Perras said she had seen the success a church congregation could have with

educating people about environmental stewardship.

"I've been working in the environmental

field for a lot of years, and it was really when I started working in my

congregation that I felt like I could really have an impact on people's lives,"

she said. "Because it's not the government telling you what to do, it's not

some environmental group telling you what to do, it's your own faith community

saying we do this because it's right, because we shouldn't be treating the

earth this way, and that's what our faith tells us."

Neighbor's success is

something to love

Hoosier Interfaith Power

& Light is in its infancy as an organization, but it is already providing

guidance for churches that want to save energy. For example, the group has

devised a "Task of the Month" program, which gives congregations one

energy-saving task to complete each month — making an otherwise

overwhelming task seem more manageable.

But perhaps most important:

the organization acts as something of a support group for faith communities

that are interested in sustainability. The hope is that those interested won't

have to feel alone in a state where the issue isn't necessarily a popular one.

As an affiliate of a larger

nationwide organization, Hoosier Interfaith Power & Light has plenty of

successful examples to look to. And it need not look further than the Illinois

affiliate, Faith in Place.

The Illinois organization has

been around for 12 years and currently partners with over 700 congregations in

the state. Part of its success, according to executive director, Rev. Dr. Clare

Butterfield, is its ability to reach communities with which environmentalists

have otherwise failed to connect.

"Our group of participants

doesn't look like the usual suspects when you think of what an environmentalist

looks like," she said. "It's much more diverse geographically, racially,

religiously, even in age."

One of Faith in Place's

programs trains African-American youth in Chicago to install low-cost

weatherization kits — which include energy saving tools like door strips

and window plastic — in the homes of elderly people in their

neighborhoods.Last year they

installed over 700 kits.

It's this ability to combine

the message of the environmental movement with faith that allows IPL

organizations to reach a larger community than the environmental movement has

been able to traditionally reach.

The connection was difficult

for people to make at first, said Rev. Butterfield.

"I think [the connection]

happens much more easily now," she said. "Many more denominations are making

this an active part of their ministry, but I think it takes people who are

committed people of faith, who are from within the faith community and not

simply trying to deploy the faith community to serve an environmental agenda."

Illinois's example is a

powerful one. But as committed church leaders move forward here in Indiana,

they ultimately need look no further than their own faith — which asks

practitioners to care for the Earth as a core part of their spiritual duty.

"Every mainstream religion

that I know of has a mandate to care for the earth," said Interfaith Power

& Light's founder Rev. Bingham. "For Christians who are commanded to love

God and love our neighbors, it could not be clearer... If you love your neighbor,

love one another, you don't pollute your neighbor's air and water."

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