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Eco-spirituality: Utah faith groups ask question, 'Who do we think we are?' about environment

Published: Friday, Nov. 2 2012 5:00 a.m. MDT

The First Unitarian Church of Salt Lake City has recently added solar panels to roof of the church as a statement of its environmental commitment.

Courtesy First Unitarian Church of Salt Lake City

As far as the Rev. Tom Goldsmith is concerned, it’s all about humility.

“The earth and its limited resources are not there to satisfy our selfish demands,” said the minister of 25 years, who leads the First Unitarian Church of Salt Lake City. “Who do we think we are?”

The question is worth considering — especially for people of faith, says the Rev. Sally Bingham, the Episcopal priest who founded Interfaith Power & Light more than a decade ago as a faith-based effort at environmental stewardship.

“If we say we love God, we are required to save God’s creation,” says Bingham, who became a priest in her late 40s specifically because she wanted to have an environmental ministry. “How can you listen to the second commandment — which is to love your neighbor as yourself — and then pollute your neighbor’s air?”

Susan Soleil, executive director of the Utah affiliate for Interfaith Power & Light, agreed, adding that “creation care is in every single sacred text.”

“Whether your beliefs focus on creation by God or on some other Great Spirit,” Soleil said, “there are tenets urging believers to take care of what has been created.”

Interfaith Power & Light was formed in California in 1998 as a way of bringing all that belief together in a shared effort to care for creation by uniting faith with action.

“By getting the interfaith community involved, we hope that environmental issues will become de-politicized,” said Rev. Goldsmith, who recently led a successful fundraising effort to have solar panels installed on his First Unitarian Church. “Our human relationship with the earth needs to change drastically, and we see this as a spiritual issue."

Stewardship

“Good stewardship (of the earth) should be – and is – evolving into the premier religious issue of our time,” Goldsmith said. “By installing solar panels on the roof of the church, we hope this message is gaining clarity.”

In order to help that message gain clarity, Soleil and the rest of the 30-member Utah Interfaith Power & Light team are focusing on energy conservation, energy efficiency and shifting toward renewable energy in an to be better stewards of the earth.

“We offer energy audits of congregational buildings, workshops and speakers and we occasionally stage public events to heighten awareness of our mission,” Soleil said. “But what it comes down to is each faith group asking, ‘What are we going to do about this?’”

For the Unitarians, it was putting up those solar panels. Same for the Christ United Methodist Church in Salt Lake City, which also installed solar panels in 2010. The church raised $50,000 toward its photovoltaic array, and then received a Blue Sky grant for matching funds from Rocky Mountain Power.

Other congregations have chosen to go on an energy diet, through which they will lose 5,000 pounds of carbon output in a month.

“We do a workshop that shows how houses of worship and individual congregants can go on a low carbon diet,” Soleil said. “There are steps you can take, individually and collectively, that really make a difference. This isn’t just about recycling and composting. We look at how you travel, how you function as individuals and as congregations, eating vegetarian one or two days a week.

“If just one person does these things, it may not make much of a difference,” she acknowledged. “But if an entire community of faith comes together to take care of the earth in these simple ways, it really starts to add up.”

Harmony with the environment

Last year The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints dedicated a new meetinghouse in Farmington, Utah, that is LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified, which means it was built to the construction industry’s highest environmental standards. It is completely powered by its solar panels. It also has a high-efficiency heating and cooling system, landscaping designs and plumbing fixtures that cut water use by more than 50 percent, and Low-E Solarban 70 windows that block 78 percent of the sun’s heat energy.

“It’s about creating a place of worship that works in harmony with the environment,” said H. David Burton, who was at the time the presiding bishop of the LDS Church, responsible for the physical facilities of the church. “For decades we have looked for innovative ways to use natural resources in our meetinghouses that reflect our commitment as wise stewards of God’s creations.”

Like the solar panels installed at the Unitarian Church and the Christ United Methodist Church, the environmental elements of the Farmington meetinghouse came at a significant price. But Dean Davies, managing director of the LDS Physical Facilities Department, said “because they have lower operating costs and longer life cycles, in the long run they are better for us and better for the environment.”

The solar panels on the Farmington LDS meetinghouse save an estimated $6,000 in energy costs annually, Davies said. That is consistent with Goldsmith’s findings at the Unitarian Church. He said “having solar panels is like having a $500 contribution every month.”

Caring for the needy

In addition to reducing the financial strain on churches, thus allowing them to spend more money on other elements of their respective ministries, wise environmental stewardship also helps faith groups in one of their most vital responsibilities: caring for the poor and the needy.

“So much of what happens as a result of climate change affects those who are least able to respond,” Soleil said. “The poor, the elderly, the sick — every faith feels responsibility for them. As the world experiences the harmful impacts that surely result from climate change, what are we going to do about those who are already struggling to take care of themselves?”

She referred to a pastoral statement from the U.S. Catholic Conference, indicating that “it is the poor and the powerless who most directly bear the burden of current environmental carelessness.”

“Global climate change is one of the largest and most-important issues facing all people,” said the Most Reverend Katherine Jefferts Schori, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, who was trained as a scientist with a doctorate in oceanography before she entered the ministry in her 40s.

“If we take seriously our own tradition’s teaching about interconnectedness, we cannot fail to see that poverty and hopelessness is intimately linked to climate change,” she continued. “We must challenge the world to do what we can to minimize its effects on the least of us.”

And that is the essence of Interfaith Power & Light’s mission and objective: challenging the religious world to do what it can — faith group by faith group, and individual by individual.

“What I focus on in my ministry is that every single one of our behaviors counts,” Rev. Bingham, the organization’s founder, said. “The electricity we’re using, the coffee we’re drinking, the car we’re driving. At the deepest level, we matter — and our behavior matters.”

Especially when those behaviors can be altered and shaped by bands of believers who care about creation and about their stewardship for it.

“I believe in my heart of hearts," Soleil said, "that people of faith can help move us to where we need to be in order to save this planet from ourselves.”

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