New Mexico UCC adapts to unique environmental challenges
Written by Emily Mullins
March 5, 2013

The sanctuary at the United Church of Santa Fe UCC is made with adobe walls, and also has an acequia that keeps the room cool enough in the summer that they do not need to use air conditioning.

In Santa Fe, N.M., the "green movement" would be better known as the red, brown or yellow movement, as those are the colors most often seen in the desert area's landscapes. But in a part of the country where water is scarce and needs to be conserved, that is the way it should be, said the Rev. Talitha Arnold, senior pastor of the United Church of Santa Fe UCC. In such an environmentally unique area, she says adaptation is key. 

"One thing about the Southwest is you have to get over the color green," Arnold said. "You have to see the beauty in browns and reds, gold and yellow and not try to recreate where you came from. Green-grass lawns and golf courses are not sustainable lifestyles here."

Water conservation is just one of the many environmental issues Arnold and her congregation have been concerned with since the church was established in 1980. Its original covenant has detailed sections about the congregation's commitment to being stewards of the earth, and that commitment is more alive than ever as environmental issues take center stage. Just about every aspect of the United Church of Santa Fe reflects the congregation's environmental awareness, as well as its unique ecosystem. The congregation is in the midst of completing a two-year green certification program through GreenFaith, an organization that inspires, educates and mobilizes people of diverse religious backgrounds for environmental leadership. And with Mission 4/1 Earth, the UCC's church-wide earth care initiative, beginning April 1, new ideas are popping up every day.

"For nearly 35 years, we've had a commitment to caring for the environment and acknowledging that we do live in the desert southwest," Arnold said. "It's been at the very heart of the congregation from the start."

To conserve water, the congregation has drought-tolerant landscaping that needs little to no water to survive and cisterns placed around the facility to collect rainwater. It has a partnership with the Santa Fe Watershed Association, an organization that aims to protect the long-term integrity of the Santa Fe River, and adopted a portion of the river which they take responsibility to keep clean and maintain. A resolution adopted by the UCC's Southwest Conference in 2011 asks that its congregations and members demonstrate wise use of the Southwest region's resources, particularly water.

The Santa Fe congregation also works toward reducing its carbon footprint. Its sanctuary is made with adobe walls, which help maintain the temperature, and also has an acequia, or an irrigation ditch, that runs through the room and keeps it cool enough in the summer that they do not need to use air conditioning. A portion of the proceeds from an upcoming fundraiser to celebrate Arnold's 25th year with the congregation will go toward purchasing solar panels for the roof, and the remainder will go toward planting olive trees in Palestine. Members replace incandescent light bulbs with their LED counterparts as they burn out, and conduct many of their worship services outdoors when the weather permits.

"We are focused on reducing our carbon footprint, living lower on the food chain," Arnold said. "We are trying to get the conference as a whole and the local churches to think about things they can be doing around issues like water conservation and also ideas for adopting a whole earth covenant."

While the list of United Church of Santa Fe's eco-friendly activities could go on and on – such as the "It's Not Easy Being Green" adult lecture series, youth ministries garden and green janitorial services – perhaps what Arnold is most concerned about is getting people to understand the importance of these efforts. She recalls some pushback from people who were not entirely on board with the 2011 conference resolution, many of who came to the Southwest for its golf-course lifestyle and take pride in their green lawns. A recent group conversation debated the difference between advocacy that simply requires time or effort, like volunteering, and environmental advocacy that requires conscious behavioral changes, like bringing reusable bags to the grocery store. Arnold noticed that these behavioral changes can be difficult, even for people who are engaged and aware.

"It's one thing to volunteer at a homeless shelter," said Arnold. "It's a whole other thing to make lifestyle changes."

But Arnold is optimistic about the future, as she sees more congregations and individuals starting to do their part. She thinks Mission 4/1 Earth is a great step in the right direction, with the UCC and the faith community being a leader of this important cause.

"If the church can stay ahead of the curve on this, people of younger generations are already invested in it," said Arnold of the future of the environmental movement. "The church needs this to be central to our mission."

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.

Editor's Note: The United Church of Santa Fe UCC reported 74 hours of earth care during the first week of Mission 4/1 Earth by planning an intergenerational mission trip to a Navajo reservation for a week of learning about the people and land and working on a community garden, having an initial meeting of a landscape planning team to make their site more xeriscapic, repairing their cisterns so they hold more rain water, and doing the initial planning for Earth Day worship.

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