Congregations use religion to emphasize environmental awareness

For St. James Episcopal Church, environmental activism is a religion.

The church, nestled in Parkton's lush farmland and rolling hills, has received a Maryland Energy Administration grant to install a wind speed indicator, the first step in what church leaders hope will eventually lead to a wind turbine on its premises.

Members are preparing to host an environmental sustainability open house on Oct. 16, and the church is hoping to create a program with the University of Maryland that uses its buildings as working models for green design.

The Rev. Elizabeth Orens, who has led the almost-100-year-old church for four years, said looking outside her office window at the tree-lined sky reminds her to spread the gospel of environmental awareness.

"This is something that comes from Genesis, the whole idea of being good stewards of the earth," Orens said.

Other local churches are also heeding the call, seeking to tie activism to spirituality and faith.

Faith-based environmentalism isn't new, but it is becoming more relevant, local leaders said.

A handful of regional Jewish, Muslim and Christian leaders formed the Chesapeake Covenant Community, an interfaith environmental action group, last year.

This summer, nine leaders participated in a covenant signing in which they pledged to support environmental efforts in the Chesapeake Bay watershed area and the larger global community. The organization plans to launch a home energy reduction project in Baltimore with 20 congregations to expand its work with the Baltimore Watershed Alliance.

Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin, the group's program chair, called such efforts "an essential and integral piece of who we are as human beings and partners with God."

In 2006, she formed the Baltimore Jewish Environmental Network, a coalition of 11 congregations that aim to be "green synagogues." The group educates agencies, schools, and family and youth groups about reducing energy consumption, buying locally-grown fruits and vegetables, and even celebrating bar and bat mitzvahs in an environmentally friendly fashion.

"This is the ark that is protecting us," Cardin said, referring to the earth. "If we damage our ark, we will perish."

St. James' work aligns with broader goals established by the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland. The diocese hosted its first Greentober Fest this weekend, which focused on ways to evaluate sustainability efforts, explore the aftermath of the Gulf oil spill, and review the progress of initiatives at various churches.

The Right Rev. Eugene Taylor Sutton, known around the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland as the "Green Bishop," said he became more aware of the need to be eco-friendly through his global travels. His motivation is rooted in a social justice philosophy that seeks to eliminate disparities between poor and more affluent communities.

"An increasing number of people most affected by environmental degradation are the poor and people of color. We need to address that," said Sutton, who sits on the board of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and belongs to the Chesapeake Covenant Community. "We're all connected."

Sutton formed an environmental steering committee to work with parishes. He said that he would like for several parishes to launch model programs for the diocese to follow in building design and maintenance.

Approximately 150 people from the diocese's 115 churches are expected at the Greentober Fest.

"We're looking at ways to help bring environmental education to people in the pews as well as eventually a major project that the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland can get behind," Sutton said. "The project at St. James is the most ambitious, but more are coming."

Doug Harbit, who is in charge of the St. James environmental initiatives committee, said he's not surprised to see other congregations making environmental strides.

"It is found in the roots of every single faith — a belief in caring for creation," he said. "It is definitely an aspect of faith that has become increasingly urgent as we grapple with climate change and global warming."

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