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.

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