United Methodists Take 'Going Green' to New Levels
November 25, 2009
A UMNS Report
By Linda Bloom*
United Methodists are "going green" at levels far beyond recycling church bulletins and eliminating Styrofoam cups at coffee hour.
In California, the United Methodist Church of Santa Cruz is constructing a new building that it hopes will achieve the highest rating from the U.S. Green Building Council.
In Massachusetts, students and people of faith are sleeping outside on crisp fall nights to bring attention to the need for clean electricity inside buildings.
In Virginia, congregations can commit to a "Green Church Initiative Covenant" as part of the conference's Caretakers of God's Creation ministry.
Throughout the country, congregations and communities are setting new standards of stewardship, said Tyler Edgar, assistant director of climate change and energy for the Eco-Justice Program of the National Council of Churches.
"Over the past few years, local churches have begun to practice what they preach on eco-justice and sustainability," she said. "Churches are supporting huge local gardens that donate the produce to low-income families, erecting wind turbines reminiscent of the three crosses, and engaging in local energy and sustainability initiatives that have the potential to define their communities in the coming years."
The new environmentally friendly 20,000-square-foot Santa Cruz church, led by the Rev. Mike Harrell, will be home to a congregation created from a previous merger of three congregations.
"For us, it's a manifestation of what we believe," said James Campbell, the church project manager.
The building will use solar thermal and ground source heating and photo-voltaic solar energy collectors for its renewable energy sources. Windows are designed to capture as much daylight as possible. A living water roof will insulate the building while reducing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and low flow fixtures will limit water consumption. A cistern system will collect rainwater.
Church members are sharing their vision with the denomination and through the National Council of Churches as a way to inspire others. "The congregation as a whole believes in a transformed life for all and they embrace the values that a green building can offer over time," said the project description.
Financial considerations had stalled the building project after the initial groundbreaking two and a half years ago. But a Nov. 7 "earth moving ceremony" marked a new start. Campbell projects a two-year timeline.
The project ties the church into its Santa Cruz community in other ways as well.
Located in the Live Oak neighborhood, the new United Methodist building will serve as a designated Red Cross shelter; provide space for a free medical clinic through RotaCare, a program of Rotary International; and offer afterschool child care and English as a Second Language classes.
More than just an ambitious building project, the people of Santa Cruz UMC see this as an opportunity to fundamentally re-think what it means to be the Church today. "This is all a part of a larger process of rethinking church," said Harrell. "We need to go beyond patting ourselves on the back because of the high commitment to environmental sustainability involved in this project. We need to continue to think in terms of what kind of tangible difference this facility and congregation can make in the everyday lives of people in this community."
A justice issue
On the opposite coast, Marla Marcum is making a public witness to help generate the political will for change on environmental policies.
She took a year's leave from her doctoral studies at Boston University School of Theology to become coordinator for faith community outreach with the Leadership Campaign, a student-led coalition organized by Students for a Just and Stable Future, the Massachusetts Council of Churches and the Somerville Climate Action Network.
She believes that global warming is a justice issue. "It's always been really clear to me that my faith calls me to look around (to see) who benefits and who suffers under the conditions we've created in our society?" said Marcum, chairperson of the climate change task force for the United Methodist New England Annual (regional) Conference.
The target of the Leadership Campaign, which has spread to 24 campuses, is 100 percent "clean electricity" in the state by 2020.
The Rev. Jack Johnson, a United Methodist who leads the Massachusetts Council of Churches, backs that goal and is encouraging action by the council's 1,700 member churches. "We have the opportunity to adopt this progressive measure that could model for other states, as well as Congress, in making an impact on climate change," he said during a fall press conference.
Burning fuels like coal and oil emit too many heat-trapping gases like carbon dioxide and the buildup can result in global warming or climate change. Leading scientists say the safe upper limit for carbon is 350 parts per million, but the concentration in the earth's atmosphere today is 380 ppm and rising.
One way of calling attention to the problem is "refusing to sleep in our homes and dorms that are powered by dirty electricity," Marcum said.
She had slept outside more than 20 nights by Nov. 20, including two nights a week on the brick street in front of the Boston University student center, where Mary Elizabeth Moore, theology school dean, joined them one night.
Marcum also spends Sunday nights with others in tents on Boston Common, which, technically, is illegal. The police, she said, usually offer people the option of leaving before issuing citations, but many stay. On Mondays, the campers lobby legislators at the nearby Massachusetts Statehouse.
In Virginia, a ministry linking biblical theology and a sense of responsibility toward the Earth encourages church members to become "Caretakers of God's Creation."
About 25 churches have signed the conference's Green Church Initiative Covenant, according to the Rev. Pat Watkins, a church and community worker from the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries, who is the ministry's director. "We haven't revolutionized the conference, but we feel pretty good about the participation we're getting," he said.
Drummondtown UMC in Accomac developed a creation-related Vacation Bible School program reflecting its Eastern Shore location, allowing participants to travel from "seaside to bayside" at the church and view different habitats and animals.
River Road United Methodist church in Richmond had water conservation in mind when it remodeled the education wing several years ago. One visitor was so impressed to learn that the waterless urinal in the men's room was saving up to 40,000 gallons of water a year that he and his family decided to join the church.
"I call that my waterless urinal evangelism story," Watkins said. He's heard similar stories "from churches that have attracted people because they have creation care ministry teams."
The Green Church initiative currently is being revised, he added, to include options and goals in five categories – mission, evangelism, stewardship, discipleship and workshop. A point system will allow congregations to achieve different levels of "greenness."
During their 2009 annual conference in Norfolk, Virginia United Methodists called attention to the ecosystem of nearby Chesapeake Bay by setting up a large outside exhibit of baptismal fonts from 18 districts.
"We called that whole display the baptismal water of the Chesapeake," Watkins said.
[Join in the conversation - click here to post a comment on the Cal-Nev Communications Facebook page.]
*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in New York.