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Taking care of God's Chesapeake Bay

I read with great interest The Sun's recent article about the reaction of churches that are protesting the soon-to-be instituted stormwater fee. The work being done by the churches named in the article is commendable — food pantries, assistance to the homeless, and the like — and their work to keep their ministries solvent in a difficult economy is certainly not easy. Having been part of the denominational church for my entire life, I understand that there's only so much money to go around, and that it's impossible to help every person in need, but that God commands us to try to do so anyway.

Were God not the creator of the world, including the Chesapeake Bay, I would agree with the religious organizations that protest the fee. But the Earth and all that is in it are the Lord's (Psalm 24), and since we are formed out of the Earth, we are part of it (Genesis 2:7) and are called to care for it (Genesis 2:15). Asking a church to pay a higher rate than a resident may be unduly burdensome, but asking a church to pay its fair share according to its amount of impervious surfaces is not unreasonable.

Churches shouldn't get an automatic exemption from paying for stormwater pollution — and it is pollution — just because they are churches and are already doing good things for the world. Impervious surfaces on religious property cause the same pollution as impervious surfaces anywhere else; the church is not immune to the science of stormwater runoff simply because it worships God and serves God's people.

All of us have contributed to the pollution of the bay, just as all of us have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). At the same time, though, all of us can contribute to making the situation right again through our shared contributions of time, talent and treasure.

Many churches, no doubt, will have difficulty paying the stormwater fee, having not planned and budgeted for it, and I recognize that struggle. This likely means that the church's stormwater fee will come out of the pockets of the people who financially support the church; and in some cases, many of these people may themselves struggle to pay the stormwater fee on their own properties. In cases like these, it's up to all of us to look out for our brothers and sisters in faith, regardless of denomination. If the present abundance of one person or congregation can assist another person or congregation in need, it becomes incumbent upon those that have abundance to help (2 Corinthians 8:14).

Poverty, hunger and homelessness are ancient problems, but for whatever reason, environmental stewardship hasn't caught on yet for many people as an integral part of a Christian life. The church has been the driving force for so many great social reforms throughout history, but it has lagged behind when it comes to environmental justice. This is not to say, however, that all churches are oblivious to matters of creation care. Religious activism and education organizations like the Evangelical Environmental Network, Lutherans Restoring Creation, Presbyterians for Earth Care, Interfaith Power and Light, and many others actively support greater emphasis on environmental awareness and justice by people of faith. Even Pope Francis has called for environmental justice, acknowledging in a June 5 address that "We are living in a time of crisis" and reminding us that "caring for creation … means nurturing the world with responsibility and transforming it into a garden, a habitable place for everyone."

We in the church shouldn't be protesting this fee — we should be supporting environmental justice in word and in deed. We should be educating our communities about environmental issues and helping them understand that the fee is a result of our culture of waste and our cavalier attitude toward energy and resource consumption that have burdened the planet and the bay with pollution. We should be cooperating with, not opposing, our local governments to promulgate rules that allow for fee offsets for individuals and organizations that reduce or eliminate their stormwater generation.

Most importantly, we in the church should be taking a stand in our own lives and congregations to reduce or eliminate waste and stormwater consumption; to reduce our energy use; and to speak out publicly and act faithfully for the health of God's people, God's bay and God's planet.

Kevin Philpy, an environmental engineer, is a member of First Lutheran Church in Ellicott City and a member of Lutherans Restoring Creation. His email is kevin.philpy@gmail.com.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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