Sunday, October 27, 2013

Green Faith

I wrote this article a few years ago and thought I'd put it here. It was in Hamilton  Magazine:

Green Faith


By Beatrice Ekwa Ekoko     Illustration by Nancy Douglas
Listen. Church bells are pealing out “Joy to the World,” that joyous holiday standard. Now listen closer. They’re also ringing out a summons and a call to action. Faith organizations, long associated with the promise of the next world, are also grappling en masse with the environmental problems of this world. Worldwide demonstrations and interfaith summits in recent months have showcased the sort of in-it-to-win-it teamwork usually reserved for disaster movies, the kind where an alien invasion triggers world peace. It’s all leading up to the Copenhagen Climate talks in December. And the sound of bells? They’re alerting us that time is running out for a sustainable planetary future. 

Faith organizations are feeling the heat to take action. The Archbishop, the Pope, the Dalai Lama and other religious leaders are sayingwhat was said universally in all teachings long ago. Acting on behalf of our environment is a core part of being faithful stewards. The impact of their words is palpable. The Dalai Lama’s well-publicized anti-fur exhortations in 2005 – an environmental message couched in Buddhist teachings – jolted the Tibetan people awake. The message resulted in countless bonfires across Tibet, where the skins of endangered animals were burned by the tens of thousands. The country is now all but free of fur or fur-trimmed clothing, despite festive seasons that were once synonymous with ostentatious displays of animal skins. 

But it’s not just in sermons and faith teachings, but also in their institutional influence as property owners – by some estimates, faith communities control more than 7 percent of international financial investments, own between 7-8 percent of the planet’s habitable land, are somehow involved in half of the world’s schools – that organized religion is able to express its clout. There’s never been a more daunting time, a more exciting time to walk the talk. People of faith are in a unique position to change the way we think about our relationship to the planet.
“For a long time, many people took the ‘dominion’ edict of Genesis the wrong way, as opposed to ‘stewardship’,” says thoughtful and jovial Reverend Ted Vance of Millgrove United Church. “A lot of times religion’s influence can supersede countries, but this is a global problem, and it supersedes even religion… the entire planet needs to get involved in this if we’re going to survive. That message is frequently there on Sundays – we have to consider creation in all that we do. It has certainly come to the fore. We realize now that it’s not just dominion over the earth, that it’s stewardship over creation, where it’s now part of our 2006 creed A Song of Faith, which deals with living in harmony with the environment. We’re trying to be much more conscious and responsible in the church, just as we are at home.”

Reverend Vance notes that Mardi Tindal, the new Moderator of the United Church of Canada, is strongly geared toward environmental stewardship, so it’s likely to be a focus for the church in the coming years. “I am deeply committed to [a] right relationship with creation, in and beyond our faith community,” she said upon her election to the position. “I will be inviting the church to imagine new ways of caring for creation.”
Between prayers, meditations, petition signing, promoting eco-walks and marches, many are taking on a long-overdue activist role and making sure the call is not going unheeded.When a group of seven churches band together under the name of Eco Churches of West Hamilton (and the square but memorably poppy acronym ecoWHAM), you know that the spirit of change is blowing across our local communities too.

St. James Anglican in Dundas is one of these churches setting the pace. Sue Carson is one of the bell pullers who rang the church’s bells 350 times this past fall in support of a global campaign that would see carbon dioxide emissions come down from 390 parts per million (ppm) to a sustainable 350 ppm. In the past year alone, she has been responsible for organizing blue bin demonstrations, taken part in an energy audit of the church, contributed to plans for using non-toxic cleaning products and helped host two large and delicious “celebration of local foods” brunches.

The types of things she’s doing are reflective of a new kind of person of faith, though she herself admits to being an old hand at this. A self-proclaimed “ultimate green baby since the ’60s,” Carson’s own personal influence is far-reaching: “Our rector, Jim Sandilands told me I was the one who made him go get a rain-barrel to conserve water,” she laughs. 

Greening isn’t easy when you’re dealing with a congregation on the older side and often set in its ways. So it’s a welcome break when the young step up and lead their elders. The Youth Representatives of the Niagara Diocese (a group of 85 churches, of which St. James is one) put forward a motion at the 2007 Synod to ask that every Anglican church in the diocese be accountable for the amount of GHG it was emitting. Carson is part of the working group that came out of this process. The group, supervising a greening pilot project at nine churches, will be asking the other churches of the diocese to implement the accreditation program they’ve designed based on what they learn along the way.

“The whole thing is not rigid, but they'll be expected to do their best to fulfill some of the requirements over the next five years even if not all are completed,” explains Carson, who gracefully leads by example. “Not everybody is at the same level,” she allows. “As with walking the journey with Christ, we are at different stages. We have to give that respect. Besides, it’s just sensible: “Who can argue with the value of turning off the lights to save money?“
Saving money becomes particularly pressing when you could be using it for important programming rather than funnelling it into running an antiquated boiler and heating a drafty sanctuary.

Matt Xagoraris of Hamilton’s Melrose United Church is working on making changes. “It’s a moral imperative,” he insists. “There’s the idea that we walk into the ‘house of God’ where we’re supposed to be its stewards – yet look at all this waste and overconsumption.”

Stately Melrose proudly takes up a whole city block. Built in 1929 to house a thousand souls, it now receives about 150 on a regular Sunday. The standing joke? Back then, they didn’t need to heat the sanctuary because of all the bodies. 

“We believe in ministering to the community and setting an example,” Xagoraris says. “How can we do that if we ignore the building?” You often have to spend money to save money, but this is one faith group that’s exploring innovative ways to get around the problem. Calling on Greening Sacred Spaces Hamilton, a joint collaboration between Environment Hamilton and interfaith network Faith and the Common Good, the church was able to get assistance for an energy audit that qualifies them for government rebates after retrofits.

Looking to cut retrofitting costs further, they're bringing in a contractor who will provide a teaching environment as part of the deal that allows interested persons to learn skills in exchange for labour. “So it’s good for the community too,” Xagoraris exhorts.

Melrose prides itself on having a practical approach to programming events that are in alignment with what’s going on in the world. “We’re a hands-on ministry,“ Ian Brisbin, Chair of the Office Board, explains. “It’s one of the ways we stay relevant to the community, drawing in a remarkable diversity of age and participation.” Some activities include a monthly breakfast with speakers, regular film screenings and most recently a farmers’ market. Counting on the strength of the community and the kindness of its members, “You open the doors, set an environment so things can get done and people rise to the occasion.”
Just as often, the decision to do things differently is fiercely challenged. When the greening team at Denise Neutel’s church started thinking about building their new faith home using a geo-thermal system, architect, builder, congregation, virtually everybody questioned the idea. Opinions changed when naysayers saw the spectacular results. Completed in 2005 and the largest installation of its kind in North America, Meadowlands Christian Reform Church is heated and cooled entirely by geo-thermal energy, drawing its heating and cooling power directly from the Earth. You can’t get any closer to the Mother than that. Thanks to grants for building with alternative energy, they ended up spending only $4,000 more than a regular system (the system normally costs $60,000 more than a regular system). Sensor light switches, zero paper cups and plates and waterless urinals are the church’s other claims to green.

A congregation of largely young, first-generation Canadians, the frugality of their upbringing combined with their Reformed theology means they work hard at a challenge but know how to have fun too.

Winners of Greening Sacred Spaces’ friendly interfaith Worship Without Your Car competition this past summer, the church had the highest number of participants arriving to worship on bikes, on foot or carpooling. Future plans include planting a vegetable garden bound to draw the community closer.

“Reformed believers profess that God is in everything – God created the world and found it good. This means that the Divine is revealed in Nature,” Neutel explains. “Traditionally, the focus has been on love: how you feel. Our denomination has been caught up in the ‘me and God.’ This is really individualistic. With sustainability we have the opportunity to converge again.”
You can choose to see it as an evolution or a revolution, as does Faith and the Common Good’s Executive Director Ted Reeves, who says that “a paradigm shift is occurring of how we see ourselves in relationship to the Earth.” And while the Christian community makes up the majority in the movement, there are many more non-Christians joining in. Temples, gurdwaras and synagogues are actively greening their faith homes. Reeves’ plans for the future of FCG include to actively green about 10,000 places of worship across Canada by 2012. “From there the hope is that greening places of worship will have become the norm and the rest will green as a matter of course.”
From these examples we can draw hope. In the darkness of apocalyptic proclamations of disaster, they serve as a ray of light.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Eco-Theatre: Oct 29th. Come one come all!

Local Food, Global Peace and the Green Sacred Spaces Awards 2013

Thanks to Kirsten Pedersen for writing this wonderful depiction of the evening:

Greening Sacred Spaces Awards and Celebrating World Food Day with a talk on Local Food, Global Peace. 
Kirsten Pedersen
On World Food Day 2013, Greening Sacred Spaces/Environment Hamilton and United Nations (Hamilton) invited the community to celebrate the presentations of the 2013 Green Sacred Spaces Awards and listen to a talk on Local Food, Global Peace by keynote speaker Hannah Renglich. 
I celebrated with many others listening to an engaging talk on international and local food issues and met the faces of people really doing great work for our community and food systems.  

The Green Sacred Spaces Awards 2013 were presented for outstanding leadership in greening public or sacred spaces.  The Awards were presented to the First Unitarian Church of Hamilton and Victory Gardens. The First Unitarian Church of Hamilton had a group of volunteers who have worked to incorporate native species in their organization’s gardens and help educate others about these species. Adding solar panels and improving CO2 emissions in the building, allowed the First Unitarian Church to be recognized as leaders in “greening” a sacred space.  
Hamilton Victory Gardens is an organization that converts urban spaces into productive gardens and engages volunteers in learning about food production. All of these recipients are such active people bettering our community and deserving of these award. 
Following the Awards came an informative entitled  Local Food, Global Peace: Connecting environment, health and security. The keynote speaker, Hannah Renglich, involved with Organic Food Co-operatives Network, and Peace Meal Projects, gave a thought provoking talk.  Renglich is quite knowledgeable and effective at engaging the audience in thinking about these ideas. We began with discussing the words Food and Global and interacting with others around us. Reinforcing the concept that food is a shared and universal experience.    
To engage the audience, Renglich, invited us to participate in a mindful-eating activity. If you have not participated in a mindfulness activity I suggest you to do so. I had done a mindful-eating activity before, but this was a new experience.   In our large group everyone was given raisins, only a small handful.  Most people held them in their hand, I received mine and after mindfully looking at them I plopped them in my mouth! I mindfully chewed and swallowed them, yummy, done. Then the activity began!  
As this mindfulness activity was taking place, it was a lesson for me in how unmindful we can be of the food we eat.  
Renglich lead us to consider the how the raisins grew, where did they come from? How many hands had been involved in getting them to us tonight? What was the soil like? Then when tasting the raisins, she discussed the sun and rain that grew these raisins, these are the taste of the sun, rain and soil. This appreciation for food, seen often around this time of year, reached a new level of appreciation for farming and our food system.
Seeing food as a cycle was a theme discussed by several of the speakers. Learning or knowing where food comes from, and then composting food and how farmers are directly connected to food as they replant into the soil.  As consumers, we are often so disconnected from food as a part of cycle. It is interesting to be reminded of this throughout the presentations, and to learn how others connected to food in its cycle.  

A panel of volunteers, responded to the questions and discussion points. Panelists included:  Alvaro Venturelli (Plan B Organics), Dave Carson (Hamilton Food Charter), Lesley Davis (Hamilton Regional Indian Centre), Graham Cubbit (Mustard Seed Food Co-operative), Karen Burson (Environment Hamilton).  Each informed us of their missions and how they related to Local food, Global peace. 
Great things are happening here in Hamilton around food and our food system. Discussions like this open the conversation, so that we consider how local food can be accessible and affordable to the many in need here. It identifies what organizations are out there doing and where future needs might be met. Finally, many of these organizations want to be self-reliant, depending less on government funding and more on an accessible and affordable food system.     
This really was a  'food- for-thought'  event.  Terms, new to me, were discussed such as: food security, food sovereignty, food deserts etc. And I discovered the City of Hamilton is developing a Food Charter. All these concepts and organizations are vague to me, yet interesting to learn more about. I picked up a resource page, listing Web-sites, Films and Books lots to learn on the topic of food which is too often taken for granted. 

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Nurturing our Youth (United Church Observer).

Greening Sacred Spaces in the News!!

Hamilton Spectator
Bill Johnston a member of the Unitarian Church on Dundurn Street,with some of the trees have been planted around the church to help green the environment.Bill Johnston, a member of the Unitarian Church on Dundurn Street, kneels in one of the gardens that the church has planted around its building to green the church environment. The church has earned one of this year’s Greening Sacred Spaces awards for its efforts in promoting environmental sustainability.Bill Johnston a member of the Unitarian Church on Dundurn Street, in one of the gardens that the church has planted around their building to green their church environment.
First Unitarian Church of Hamilton board member Bill Johnston is modest when speaking about the Dundurn Street church's efforts to become a greener place of worship.
"We aren't unique. Are we greener than any other church community? I doubt it," Johnston said. "But we've never had any particular problem when we do promote things that we do."
However, First Unitarian has become a standout among several local religious communities on a mission to get green.
It has earned one of this year's Greening Sacred Spaces (GSS) awards for its efforts in promoting environmental sustainability.
Hamilton Victory Gardens is also being recognized for its seven community gardens, which give produce to local food banks.
Johnston's church is part of Faith and the Common Good, an interfaith network of religious communities formed in 2008.
The network is behind GSS, a provincewide program dedicated to helping faith groups get green. Locally, the funds for the program are dispersed through Environment Hamilton.
First Unitarian has taken several steps to update its building and make it more energy efficient.
The original flat roof was converted into a peaked shape and insulated. Reused fluorescent lighting was replaced.
Dropped ceilings were installed and walls were insulated.
Last April, it installed 10 kilowatts of solar panels.
"We decided we would only put up solar panels if people donated the money to pay for them. We raised a little shy of $45,000 to do that in a month," said Johnston, a former editor at The Hamilton Spectator.
Now, they're in the middle of a naturalization project in the church gardens.
Beatrice Ekoko is the project facilitator for GSS and says faith-based organizations get involved in many ways, from energy conservation, solar projects and growing food to using green cleaning products.
"Basically, the idea is to reflect your faith in a more sustainable way," Ekoko said.
"You'll find that almost every philosophy and faith teaches people that they should respect and take care of the Earth."
Transportation is a hot topic and, over the weekend, GSS put on its Get to Worship Without Your Car challenge. Ekoko thought it would be a fun way to encourage churchgoers to find ways to travel to centres of worship other than driving.
While many religious communities' green efforts are relatively recent, some have been around for decades.
Loueen Madill is the chairperson of SAGE, the Study and Action Group for the Environment, at Westdale United Church. More than 20 years ago, it started an organic garden that is still growing strong. All of its crops go to local food banks.
It uses a composter, a rain barrel and offers bicycle racks for parishioners. The church also installed sensor lighting and low-flow toilets. It raised money to purchase a commercial dishwasher that doesn't use as much power and, two years ago, installed solar panels on the roof. It also uses green cleaning and personal care products.
"The United Church has put into their mission statement … a line about caring for creation. For us, it's the responsibility, the stewardship of creation around us, what we've been given and our care for that," said Madill.
Westdale United also belongs to the Eco Churches of West Hamilton, a group started about four years ago to support its member churches through brainstorming, workshops and discussions.