Churches are learning, living the complexity of 'going green'

Churches are learning, living the complexity of 'going green'

March 31, 2008
Written by Daniel Hazard

Beyond aluminum cans

The Rev. Lindsay Fulmer and her congregation at First Church of Christ (UCC) in Mansfield, Conn., did not set out to become a green church. They just wanted to be better stewards of creation. In 2004 they created environmental stewardship guidelines for the church and began doing one simple thing at a time.

Momentum grew. By 2006 they reviewed their guidelines and realized all they had done. "Hey, maybe we'd qualify as a green church," Fulmer says. In March 2006, in a special service, the Connecticut Conference recognized Fulmer's congregation as a Green Church, the first in a Conference of 248 churches.

"The Mansfield church really meets anything we would ask of a church to be a green church," says the Rev. Gordon Bates, chair of the UCC's national Environment and Energy Task Force, and a  retired member of the Connecticut Conference staff. "They'd be dark green."

A ground swell of grass-roots concern for the care of creation is growing throughout the UCC, from New England to Hawaii.
"The church needs to join together to address the environment, especially climate change and global warming," says the Rev. John Thomas, the UCC's general minister and president. "There is also growing consensus across religious traditions."

On March 10, Southern Baptist leaders spoke out against global warming. Last September, Pope Benedict XVI challenged 500,000 worshipers to say "'yes' to care for creation."

Thomas sees this is an opportunity for different faiths "to begin to come together around a shared concern, to develop partnerships and build bridges."

On April 8, the UCC is publishing "And Indeed it is Very Good," a pastoral letter on faith and the environment. It calls the UCC to "robust advocacy ... to become good stewards in God's ever evolving creation."

The pastoral letter, written by Thomas, as well as the other four members of the UCC's Collegium of Officers and members of the Environment and Energy Task Force, asks the church to respond with "its gifts of faith and nurture."

The document says some may want "to decrease our use of energy and fossil fuels." Others, the letter suggests, "may have a passion to address the placement of hazardous waste sites in the communities of people of color and/or poverty ... One thing is certain: for the love of the earth and one another, we may not remain indifferent ... Our faith is bold to respond."

A church goes greeen

Those who were at worship in the UCC church in Mansfield, Conn., on Feb. 24, already know about the four-minute shower. That was the "Green Tip" of the week in the church bulletin. "Unless you've been sprayed with a skunk and need a tomato juice bath, you can get mighty clean with a four-minute shower," advises the tip.

Green Tips, an educational tool that has been used for about two and a half years, has proven so popular that the church is considering gathering the ideas together and publishing a book.

Instead of paper products for coffee hour, the church bought mugs with the church's logo on them. That became a fund-raiser as people bought the mugs and gave them back to the church.

"The most effective thing we did was attend a series of six classes called 'This Old House of Worship,'" Fulmer says. The classes, taught by Wilson Education Services based in Cheshire, Conn., offer an energy management program specifically for churches. A small team from Mansfield participated, joined by several other faith communities in the area. Each class was held in a different sanctuary allowing special needs of the different churches to be addressed.

"We found out there some very simple changes that were effective," Fulmer said. Put a fan in the sanctuary over the thermostat and keep it running at a low speed to circulate the hot air that rises. The savings is about $400 per year on the heating costs versus the $2 per month to keep the fan running at a low speed.

But some changes come with a big price tag, like insulating the ceilings or changing the furnace. So Mansfield is prioritizing its lists.

There's concern about the cost, Fulmer acknowledges. "But we recognize that we're a green church ... Those needs — to be more green — are a top priority. Down the road, to implement some of these things, we'd need a capital campaign. In the long run it will save money. But it will help the environment."

As Mansfield grew more green, church members began advocating  for environmental issues and working to change  public policy. A member of the congregation facilitated meetings on diesel-emission retrofitting of school buses with a state representative, Denise Merrill, chair of the house appropriations committee. Merrill later told the church that it was this small group of concerned citizens that compelled her to find the funds in the budget to buy the filters necessary to solve the problem, Fulmer says.

After being designated a green church, Mansfield adopted a Green Church Mission Statement.

"Being faith-filled and responsive stewards of God's creation," the statement reads, "we are committed, through education and action, to the environmental well being of our planet."

"God is not only still speaking," Fulmer says, "but earnestly calling us a people of faith to 'grow green.'"

The Rev. Davida Foy Crabtree, Connecticut Conference Minister, calls Mansfield "truly an extraordinary church."

Bates, the chair of the national task force, says, "Mansfield is a model for all of us, in Connecticut and across the UCC."

'LEED' by example

Sometimes this "old house of worship" cannot be saved. That was the case with First Congregational UCC of Washington, D.C. In planning their new building, members said this must be a green building, says Meg Maguire, a church member and chair of the site development task force.

So the church has worked to meet "LEED's standards." Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, a green building rating system, developed by the U.S. Green Building Council provides a set of standards for environmentally sustainable construction.

Instead of one big system, furnace and/or air conditioning, LEED advocates many small systems around a building. That allows for minimal loss from long ducts. "But it creates interesting architectural challenges," Maguire said.

LEED requires the use of natural light. So there will be lots of glass in the new church. And LEED mandates that materials in the new structure come from within a 500-mile radius of the construction. The church has a few exceptions, Maguire said. They are using some "exquisite double-glazed blue bricks from California and a bronze screen from China as a window adornment."

LEED also has demolition criteria. The church set a goal of recycling 90-95 percent of the material from the old church. All the metal, concrete and brick were recycled.

"We even recycled eight mature crape myrtle trees. They were dug up and balled and eight new owners were found," Maguire says.

The Green Recycling Network made sure, as the old building was demolished, that anything with potential use would be used.
Community Forklift, a recovered building-material store in the Washington, D.C. area, salvaged all sorts of things from the building. "They took the pews," Maguire says, "and the wood batten paneling."

The church moved out of its building at the end of January 2007. It took a year to get the permits "to do the kind of demolition we wanted to do," says the Rev. Barbara Brown Zikmund, a church member and retired president of Hartford Seminary. "We are doing a 'green demolition.'

"The organ is in storage for our new building. The windows are in storage to be sold... Our steel girders, copper pipes, aluminum railings, wood pews, exterior bricks and flagstone walkways are all being recycled. The building has been dying over the past 13 months...

"It will live again, however, not only in our new building, but as recycled elements in many buildings. In essence this 'body of Christ' is donating its 'organs' for other buildings."

An earth-care covenant

Those who ride their bikes to worship at First Congregational UCC of Sonoma, Calif., located in the Napa Valley, are in for a treat.

The church school "kids leave notes on the bicycles," says the Rev. Nancy Taylor, pastor. A note might say, "We know who you are, and you're a rock star."

Through its Earth Care Committee, the Sonoma church is encouraging people to drive less.

The church voted an Earth Care Covenant in December. Before formally adopting the covenant, the church was concerned for the environment, but in a more ad hoc way, Taylor says. "The intentions needed to be named and embraced."

The covenant passed unanimously. Taylor was delighted by the ease of it. It's as though people thought, "It's a different way of doing things, but we like it."

The covenant now provides a lens through which all decisions of the church will be made. Before, if a refrigerator was broken, the problem was not necessarily evaluated with the environment in mind.

"Now we have an orientation. What is the environmental impact, when we consider purchasing appliances, hiring contractors or buying things for coffee hour? That has not happened before," Taylor says.

The new covenant, it says, "will help the church adopt sustainable living practices: making sure we are recycling all we can; developing landscaping that does not use water; lighting; how the church cleans; minimizing the use of air conditioning."

In her personal life, Taylor finds it easier to make changes. She walks to church; she wears used clothing and buys local food. She tries not to be in the stream of commerce that travels a long way to market. These are major life changes for Taylor, who, before attending Harvard Divinity School, was a practicing attorney.

At the church, change is more difficult. Parts of the building are rented; a preschool is on site. "There are so many people to educate in a way that is not scolding. How slow the process needs to be to have it become a part of people's hearts, to convey God's love."

The congregation is trying to go solar.

"The church wants to do it. Period," Taylor says. "We're investigating it. There are grants out there. One member is talking to banks about a loan. We may get people to sponsor a solar panel.

"Another Protestant church in town is also going solar. That's a good incentive for us," she says, before pausing. "Because we'd like to be first."

Taylor gives full credit to church member Hugo Steensma for the ease with which the church has adopted and moved into its covenant. He believes strongly in faith-based programs to take care of God's creation.

For eight years, Steensma, whose business is sustainable asset management, organized events with the church's earth stewards committee. They sponsored community forums and discussions on environmental subjects that were held with other faith groups.

"I'm very excited about the initiatives we've taken with members of the community," Steensma says  And he is proud of the new Earth Care Covenant at his church.

Steensma was the first chair of the national UCC Environment and Energy Task Force, which was formed in 2005 following General Synod in response to two resolutions passed that year that called for environmental education and action.

Robust advocacy

Charles "Chuck" Burrows believes in putting the concepts of stewardship of creation and care for the earth into practice. He has been working for years on the restoration of the 1,000-acre Kawainui Marsh, the largest remaining wetland in Hawaii, which provides habitat for four of Hawaii's endangered and endemic water birds. In 2006 Kawainui Marsh was named a "Wetland of International Importance."

Burrows is a member of Church of the Crossroads UCC in Honolulu and also a member of the national UCC Environment and Energy Task Force.

In 1994, he founded a group to care for the balance of the earth, Hawaiians for Conservation of Native Eco-Systems. Today there are 2,000 members. Burrows, a retired science teacher with a masters degree in earth science, works with groups who come out to the marsh to help out and learn.

Volunteers remove non-native plants, replacing them with native plants. They pull weeds and spread mulch.

There is also historical significance to the marsh. Hundreds of years ago, Burrows says, this was the "breadbasket" of Oahu, with fields of taro and a huge aquiculture fishpond.

One day, 80 fourth graders came for service and learning. The next day, high school and college students arrived. An at-risk group of students visited, and women inmates also help.

Early in March, he met with a Buddhist principal who wants his students involved in the restoration. But the principal doesn't want the students just to come out and work one day. The principal wants to make the work part of the curriculum.
Burrows also involves church groups in the marsh restoration. "It's not just talking about it but doing something," he says.

"Chuck is a wonderful presence in our church," says his pastor, the Rev. Neal MacPherson. The church has a task force on energy and global warming as well as a mission team focused on the stewardship of creation. Every year, his church has an Earth Sabbath sermon.

MacPherson says his church has studied the theology of stewardship and care of creation for years. The church recently renovated some restrooms and installed lights that use sunlight, like a skylight, so that they do not need to use electricity during the day.

The church has had an energy audit and is working on the recommendations, "so we don't leave such a fossil fuel imprint," MacPherson says.

MacPherson believes in being proactive with legislative issues at both the state and federal level. "We need to look at the state consumption of energy, encourage solar and wind energy. We (the church) show up at demonstrations, and we write letters," he says.

The church is making environmental changes step by step. "Once people get it into their outlook, it flows naturally. But it takes awhile."

Joanne Griffith Domingue, a freelance journalist from San Jose, Calif., is a frequent contributor to United Church News. 

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