Face it: we're living in a consumer-driven society. Americans work long hours, own expensive cars, fill their houses with "things" and use countless gadgets and appliances to make life easier. Folks across the UCC are slowing things down and getting back to a simpler way of life, finding ways to treat the earth more kindly and, in the process, finding more time for their loved ones. And themselves.
The Rev. Cheryl Cornish of First Congregational UCC in Memphis, Tenn., encourages people to show up for Sunday worship all sweaty.
"Don't worry so much about appearances," says Cornish with a laugh. "Ride your bike!"
Thanks to Cornish and her Keep It Simple group, there already are a lot more bikes on the streets and sidewalks of Memphis. Their bicycle co-op has repaired and restored more than a hundred donated or scavenged bikes. Neighborhood children work beside church members in the shop, learning basic bike care and repair. After 20 hours, a child is entitled to take a bike home, for keeps.
From left: First Congregational UCC (Memphis, Tenn.) members Ramon "Little Ray" Jordan, Denny Henke, Anthony Siracusa and (in front) Jessica Sommer prepare for "Ride Your Bike to Church Sunday." First Congregational UCC (Memphis, Tenn.) photo.
But if bike riding isn't for you, the Keep It Simple gang has found endless ways of sharing and caring for each other without all the clutter of consumption.
Neighbors share lawnmowers and tools, or swap child care. Some folks have gone so far as to sell their home in exchange for a simpler one, or one closer to work. Others are discussing ways of sharing living space.
"We talk a lot about how much time goes into maintaining our things, either through working a lot more hours, or just literally having to maintenance 'stuff,'" says Cornish, "stuff that may not beget that much enjoyment."
The irony, Cornish says, is that "it's not easier to live simply. You get the idea that it's easier to free your life of all this clutter. In fact, it takes very deliberate choices." Cornish says these choices cut to the core of day-to-day living, changing the way you shop, the way you eat, work, and even the structure of family life.
"The more you look at the simple living issue, it pushes you to become more dependent on each other. You have to share more. It pushes a lot of community building to start sharing resources more."
Everyone can do something to simplify, says Cornish. The important thing is not to get overwhelmed. Find two or three areas of your lifestyle you're willing to change and focus on those first. And be patient.
"Try not to criticize yourself for not being able to revamp everything overnight," says Cornish. "After all, it's very against culture."
At First Congregational, the results of living simply have seeped into weekly worship. Even prayer requests reflect a more personal nature. "People are becoming a lot more intimate," Cornish says. "They're spending more time with each other, rather than just going and doing."
Living simply sets example
Mike and MaryAnn Terpstra, members of Ainsworth UCC in Portland, Ore., are leading by example in their efforts to spread the news of simpler living. For years, they had toyed with the idea of selling their only car and relying solely on public transportation. "We wanted to do it," says Mike, "but we were too frightened of being without a car."
More than a year ago, the decision was made for them. On his way to a Lenten class at the church, Mike was in an automobile accident which totaled his car. Today, the Terpstras are still without a car, with no intentions of buying one.
Instead, Portland's public transportation system, combined with Flexcar, a car-sharing co-op, keep the Terpstras on the go, for a third less than what they'd pay maintaining their own car. Through Flexcar, the Terpstras can borrow a car, van or truck for the times they need it, then return it to a predetermined place so someone else can use it. As an added bonus, MaryAnn appreciates the fact that Flexcar uses environmentally friendly hybrid and fuel-cell vehicles currently on the market.
To further save money and energy, the Terpstras signed on for an energy-saving program through their power company. These days, the Terpstras do their laundry late at night, not during peak daytime hours. They're more mindful about turning off lights and appliances and they recycle religiously. They grow their own vegetables or buy from local growers. And MaryAnn says others at Ainsworth UCC are growing more aware and making some lifestyle changes, too.
"Living simply isn't just doing without, but making the most of what you've got," says MaryAnn.
Helping companies help the future
Cynthia Figge feels an undercurrent of change in society, a slow awakening. Figge, a member of Samma-mish (Wash.) Congregational UCC, is co-founder of Ekos International, a consulting firm that helps corporations address sustainability—meeting the needs of the current generation in ways that also provide for future generations. Although Figge's firm is not about simplifying or cutting down on production, she does help companies close the manufacturing loop. For instance, says Figge, some products can be returned to the manufacturer so that parts can be recycled, cutting down on the amount of disposable automotive parts, appliances and gadgets filling our landfills.
For Figge, spirituality is the underlying reason for her work in promoting sustainability in businesses. But appealing to clients in a secular business world can be tricky. "Businesses resonate to some extent with doing the right thing," she says, "but they categorize that as either part of their foundation work, or part of a marketing or imaging work, or part of their compliance."
Churches can help, says Figge, starting by educating consumers about ecological issues.
"The accelleration of change is profound," says Figge. "Going from 6 to 10 billion people is profound. The implications of global warming are really a new phenomena for the modern time. Lot of things that we're heading towards we don't know about, we're not prepared for."
Churches are on the right track when they make energy-efficient choices when building or renovating their places of worship. Connecting with Habitat for Humanity, Bread for the World, or other faith-based missions also send positive messages about the environment. "We have to start with people's knowledge," says Figge, "and ask what we can do in our lifestyle and thinking."
Live simply through local growers
When Susan Hanson and her husband facilitated a class on living simply at United Churches of Olympia (Wash.), members showed great interest. The challenge was translating the ideas into action. "You can't just wake up and have a completely simple life," says Hanson with a laugh.
The solution? Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). Community members purchase a share of a local grower's harvest, then from April through October, the shareholder picks up a weekly dose of fresh, locally-grown produce. Hanson notes some of the growers use organic methods, an added benefit.
"This way, we feel a direct connection. We're eating well while also supporting local farmers," says Hanson. United Churches stands fast to its commitment to simplicity. Says Hanson, "It ties in with our view of creation and what God wants us to do."
In the end, it's love that matters most
Betsy Krogh of First Congregational UCC in Amherst, Mass., remembers reading "Living More With Less" by Doris Janzen Longacre. In it is the idea that perhaps Christian missionaries from Third World countries should be coming to the United States, to teach us how to live rich lives. Something about that rings true to Krogh, who has spent 10 years helping her church make a connection between faith and environmental concerns.
"We've lost our way, I think," says Krogh. "We've gotten out of touch with what's really important."
The road leading to simpler living comes several directions, says Krogh. Whether people are sparked by ecological or social justice concerns, the need for a more spiritually balanced life, or just looking for a way to save money and time, living more simply fills a void some may be feeling in their lives.
A good time to hook people into the idea of simpler living comes around Christmas time, says Krogh, when people are feeling stressed with the expectations and added pressures of the holidays. In her "Unplug the Christmas Machine" and "Simple Holiday" workshops, Krogh and her "earth sister," Carol Dick, share ideas on how to slow down the holidays and make them more enjoyable and more meaningful.
"A lot of it is about what you are expecting," says Krogh. "A lot of folks around us go on a lot of vacations and drive fancier cars and live in bigger houses. Those things cost more money. If you're satisfied with less, you can think less about the money."
Krogh and her husband find their inspiration from their love of nature, but also from their children. Their oldest son, Ben, has Down Syndrome, a daily reminder to Krogh about what matters.
"For me, it's just about values," she says. "On your deathbed, what do you feel is important? Is it important how good everything looks and how well we do and how much success we achieve? Or is what's really important just being here together with love?"
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