For the past 28 days, members of First Churches of Northampton (Mass.) have been actively engaging in ways to decrease their use of fossil fuels as part of the Annual Ecumenical Lenten Carbon Fast. Some people have been more diligent about turning off the lights. Others have dried their laundry on a clothes line rather than using the dryer, or turned down their thermostat a few degrees. And still others have been experimenting with alternate modes of transportation, like biking or taking mass transit. With 12 more days to go, these efforts no doubt align with the goal of the Carbon Fast. But the Rev. Todd Weir hopes they will last long after Lent and maybe even develop into changes in lifestyle and mindset.
"We're looking to go a little deeper," said Weir, pastor of First Churches of Northampton, a joint church of the United Church of Christ and the American Baptist Church. "Not just from a saving energy and recycling point of view, but in terms of thinking deeper and having a more spiritual and theological impact on the world."
The congregation kicked off the Annual Ecumenical Lenten Carbon Fast, initiated by the UCC in 2011, on Ash Wednesday with a public display of ashes in front of their busy downtown facility. Members printed bookmarks that explained what the Carbon Fast is and how to get involved, and handed out about 100 of them throughout the day. Weir said they had another 20 to 30 people stop by to get more information, and the local newspaper reported the event in a front-page story.
"It was an outreach opportunity for us to talk to people about why we were doing this and not just giving up chocolate for Lent," said Weir. "It gave us a chance to put out the message that the church isn't just focused on saving souls, but that we see saving the planet and God's creation as linked together."
This year's Carbon Fast has coincided with a large-scale energy audit the congregation is in the midst of conducting. They are looking into replacing the building's oil burner with a natural gas burner, which will not only cut down on carbon emissions, but also save the congregation an estimated $10,000 per year. The local utility company did a lighting assessment on the building and recommended a number of motion-sensor lights that would save about $900 per year. The congregation is also looking into replacing all of the thermostats with programmable units to maintain the temperature throughout the building, particularly when it's not being used.
"We have a fairly large facility and there are about 30 groups that use the building on a regular basis – I am forever turning off lights," said Weir. "Everything we're doing is to make sure we are as efficient as possible."
But in addition to all of the visual changes, Weir said the congregation is still trying to go further. For example, by taking the lead on actions such as an energy audit, he hopes congregation members will be inspired to bring environmental awareness into their homes and lives. He also wants to expand the congregation's efforts outside of Northampton, a progressive, eco-friendly town whose bike systems, farm co-ops and local restaurants make it easy to be green. Weir and his congregation plan to participate in Mission 4/1 Earth, the UCC's church-wide earth care campaign beginning Easter Monday, April 1, and he thinks the initiative sends an important message that eco-minded congregations are not alone and that their efforts are making a difference.
"We want to make a cultural and political shift," Weir explains. "This makes us think that we have to move beyond just buying local food and recycling and start thinking structurally about how we can make an impact. That is where our minds are going right now.
"We can be pretty self-satisfied in the town of Northampton," Weir adds. "But there is a bigger world out there and other churches are working on this. In some ways, it inspires us to do more and try harder, because if we‘re not alone, there is a bigger chance of having an impact."
The United Church of Christ has been working for environmental justice for almost 30 years, and recognizes the opportunity for a shared mission campaign to live out our faith — in unity, as one church — for the sake of our fragile planet Earth.
With the help of UCC congregations everywhere, Mission 4/1 Earth, which begins Easter Monday 2013, hopes to accomplish more than 1 million hours of engaged earth care, 100,000 tree plantings across the globe, and 100,000 advocacy letters written and sent on environmental concerns.
Here's a preview of Mission 4/1 Earth: 50 Great Days.
Visit ucc.org/earth for more information or join the movement on Facebook.