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Environmental Activism in Your Own Backyard

By Paul Chaffee


Coping with sexual abuse headlines, decreasing memberships, and financial difficulties has not made life in the local congregation easy. But the reality of environmental degradation and climate change may provide the kind of challenge that people in the pew can embrace and do something about.

On April 1 the United Church of Christ (UCC) in the United States, a progressive Christian denomination with 5,100 congregations, launched Mission 4/1 Earth. The project has three goals:

Fifteen members of First Congregational UCC in Berkeley, CA, gather to clean a portion of the San Francisco Bay shoreline. Photo: UCC.org

Fifteen members of First Congregational UCC in Berkeley, CA, gather to clean a portion of the San Francisco Bay shoreline. Photo: UCC.org

  •  To offer more than 1,000,000 hours of engaged Earth care, including clean up, advocacy, education, and behavioral changes that will impact the environment.
  • To plant more than 100,000 trees locally and globally in partnership with the National Arbor Day Foundation and the UCC’s denominational partners around the world.
  • To write and send more than 100,000 advocacy letters on environmental concerns to elected officials and local and national newspapers.

It all happens a few people at a time. The Durham Community UCC in New Hampshire is cooperating with the state Fish and Game to keep the cottontail rabbit from going extinct in the one habitat it has left. A member of Faith UCC in Williamsville, New York, organized a team to clean up one of the area’s few remaining natural habitats, the Great Baehre wildlife refuge. The UCC goals? So far, 568,683 hours of Earth care have been volunteered, 127,743 trees planted, and 50,197 letters written.

Tackling Climate Change in Thousands of Congregations

One of the earliest and most successful attempts to get congregations to take climate change seriously started 15 years ago with the Episcopal Power & Light project in San Francisco. Founded by Rev. Sally Bingham, it began as a coalition of 60 churches who made a commitment to purchase renewable energy. The project quickly grew, and in 2000, the California Interfaith Power & Light was born.

As the project went national, Interfaith Power & Light emerged. Visiting their website clarifies why they have become an international example of what local religious communities can achieve.

Bill McKibben, the foremost religious climate activist in the United States today, wrote in Rolling Stone two months ago, “Since launching the Interfaith Power and Light Campaign in 2000, Rev. Sally Bingham has organized 15,000 churches, synagogues and mosques into a formidable national network of faith communities who see climate change not as a policy or technical challenge, but as an issue of spiritual dimension.” In a brief video, Sally explains what inspires and drives her in this work.

Focusing on Food

Adequate food and access to clean water are near the top of the concerns over climate change. In a recent press release, the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) indicated that “Each year, an estimated one third of all food produced ends up spoiling in the bins of consumers, retailers, farmers and transporters. This 1.3 billion tons, worth around US$1 trillion, is enough to feed the 870 million people who go hungry each day several times over.”

A portion of the garden at the Sisters of St. Francis in Sylvania, near Toledo, a member of MultiFaith GROWs. Photo: MultiFaith GROWsWorshiping communities seem to understand this intuitively and are responding. Four years ago, the interfaith community in Toledo, Ohio, began collaborating with the local community gardening groups in MultiFaith GROWs. Today 60 congregations in Toledo have their own gardens, raising food, supporting urban farming (chickens, turkeys, and fish!), and sponsoring festivals, garden tours, and educational programs emphasizing good nutrition. In a new development, young people in trouble with the law are welcomed as garden workers, learn new skills, and take some of the food they grow home.

“Congregations tend soil and soul with gardens,” notes an article in Christian Century this month, surveying what is becoming a multifaith gardening movement across the U.S. The 31st Street Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia, planted its first garden in 2008. In one of several food programs it sponsors today, 250 youngsters who don’t have access to school lunch programs are fed.

In Chicago, the KAM Isaiah Israel synagogue enrolled two churches to join in a 5,000 square foot gardening program that donated 4,500 pounds of produce last year to six different hot-meal programs, four of them affiliated with houses of worship.

A year ago in Petaluma, California, the Interfaith Sustainable Food Collaborative was created. Last month they had their first ‘conference,’ with 75 leaders from 25 congregations attending. The Collaborative’s mission “is to advance the production of and access to healthy food produced in a sustainable, socially just manner by empowering faith communities with models and resources to impact local food systems and advance public policy.” The group's focus on sustainable food systems encompasses soil and water protection, social justice, market development, and access to governmental food aid programs.

Union Theological Seminary in New York has taken the initiative in creating a robust training program called the Edible Churchyard Project. It grew out of the seminary’s “visionary recognition that ecological justice is an integral and inseparable aspect of social justice.  The Edible Churchyard is growing into an experiential, place-based learning laboratory.” It is training hundreds of seminarians to incorporate food justice and growing into their future work as community and faith leaders and converting parts of the campus into models for urban growing. 

The Global Picture

Religious environmental activism is in no way limited to the United States. This year’s June 8 celebration of the United Nations World Environment Day was centered in Mongolia, where the theme of a week of activities was focused on reducing food waste. The theme is picked up internationally in Think.Eat.Save., a project to end food waste all over the globe, sponsored by United Nations Environment Program and partners, with hundreds of thousands participating.

By themselves, grassroots efforts by faith communities and others are insufficient answers to the serious environmental issues facing the 21st century. But the grassroots provide a critical constituency in the quest, not simply for the good that they generate but for raising the consciousness of us all, particularly our children.