Faith Communities Unite for a Healthy Planet
Even among environmental advocates, nature is largely discussed in terms of its utilitarian or monetary value. Diverse religious congregations are now reaching into their rich traditions, engaging their members, and speaking to the moral imperative for environmental protection. Faith communities represent an important part of the environmental movement and Joelle Novey talks about them in this guest post.
Novey is the executive director of EarthShare Mid-Atlantic member organization Interfaith Power & Light (MD.DC.NoVA), a nonprofit that works with hundreds of congregations of all faiths in Maryland and the DC area to save energy, go green, and respond to climate change. The local IPL is part of a network of more than 40 Interfaith Power and Light groups across the country, working to build a national religious response to the climate crisis.
One of the challenges of the climate crisis is that we’re not going to be able to solve it unless we all work together. But one of the blessings is that it challenges us to recognize that our common humanity and commitment to this planet are more important than any of the divisions and identities that may have gotten in our way in the past. So I see working on an interfaith basis as an incredible opportunity that the very difficult problem of climate change presents us with.
I’ve seen in my work that every congregation of every faith tradition has at least one person who feels like the “green sheep” in their community. They are passionate about finding connections and taking action, but often feel a bit lonely or don’t have the support of the clergy or fellow congregants. The value of this work is bringing together the green sheep from the church and the green sheep from the mosque and the green sheep from the synagogue, all of whom have a lot in common. They share similar struggles and can inspire each other.
Our work at Interfaith Power and Light has three big categories: education, greening congregational facilities, and supporting religious communities in speaking out and campaigning on environmental issues.
We're all trying to find ways to gather in fellowship with less waste. We have a listserv where green leaders from congregations can ask each other questions and share encouragement and resources. For instance, lots of congregations have boilers in the basement that could be replaced with more efficient models. Lots of congregations have land that could be used to grow vegetables or have phased out Styrofoam cups for coffee. In the end there’s wonderful interfaith cooperation that takes place though our work—not dialogue for the sake of dialogue, but conversation for the sake of solving a problem together. It’s beautiful to see.
We are learning a lot from the first nine local congregations to put up solar panels. They have been pioneers in figuring out some of the financial obstacles and in educating themselves about renewable energy. We’ve put out a booklet telling their stories and encouraging all the congregations in our area to learn as much as they can from these pioneers. We look forward to the day when every congregation in our community gets their power from the sun.
Putting up solar panels has been incredibly transformative for the congregations that have done it already. St Alban’s parish in northwest DC calls the panels their new “stained glass windows.” It’s a very powerful thing when congregations lead the way by embracing clean renewable energy.
We’re also talking a lot about the blessing of wind. Many different faith traditions, from the Hebrew and Christian Bible to the Qur'an, describe the wind as God’s breath and a reminder of God’s graciousness, so we are working alongside coalition partners to speak out in support of groundbreaking offshore wind legislation in Maryland.
And we’re trying to bring the message of climate change—the science and also the question of what it means to our traditions—to more congregations. We have a Speaker’s Bureau that offers guest sermons and I speak almost every weekend to a different congregation. We talk about what’s happening to our world, why it’s happening, and what we can do about it.
When people hear messages about the environment in their faith community, they listen differently: they listen with their moral ears. It’s the place they come to think about taking their own values seriously and pushing themselves and their communities to live those values. So when you have a conversation about climate change in someone’s faith community, they hear that as a conversation about how to do right in the world. I deeply believe in the value of simply having these conversations in the buildings where we pray—that by itself is extremely transformative. We bring new people to this work who would not have heard these messages in any other setting.
I also believe that when people speak from a moral, spiritual place about why they support cleaner energy, they get heard differently. It transforms environmental coalitions when there are rooted, articulate faith voices that speak from a moral perspective. It also gets political attention in a way that the mainstream environmental groups sometimes cannot. I believe deeply in the unique value of what we’re doing. We are bringing people to the work and also transforming how that movement is heard when we speak.
We can’t offer an easy or quick fix to the challenge of global climate change—but we can offer a community in which religious folks can respond to this challenge together.