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At bay: Baltimore County congregations link spirituality to watershed projects

Charlie Conklin and Jessica Krueger in the intergenerational garden at Towson Presbyterian Church on March 2. The church was awarded $35,509 to design a cistern system and two rain gardens to reduce stormwater run-off and pollution from its building and parking lot,
Charlie Conklin and Jessica Krueger in the intergenerational garden at Towson Presbyterian Church on March 2. The church was awarded $35,509 to design a cistern system and two rain gardens to reduce stormwater run-off and pollution from its building and parking lot, (Brian Krista/Baltimore Sun Media)

For a number of local congregations, building a rain garden or planting a tree is just as much an act of faith as attending a weekly worship service or praying.

Desiring to be good stewards of creation, some congregants have made it their duty to protect and restore nature to create a healthier environment.

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Towson Presbyterian Church and Catonsville Presbyterian Church are among 17 congregations in Baltimore County participating in the One Water Partnership, a program supporting local watershed projects at religious institutions across the region.

The program, an initiative established by Annapolis-based Interfaith Partners for the Chesapeake, is a collaboration in which religious institutions restore the watershed to improve the water quality of the Chesapeake Bay.

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Partnering on projects like rain gardens, stream cleanups and tree plantings, the program aims to encourage congregations to be good caretakers of the shared watershed with an eye toward benefiting future generations.

Bonnie Sorak, senior outreach coordinator at Interfaith Partners for the Chesapeake, said the program, which has existed for five years, supplies congregations with information on how they can carry out the projects.

She said the projects have brought a sense of community at a time when many congregations are unable to meet in person due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“Probably the most favorite [project] congregations have done are the tree plantings,” Sorak said. “I think in it of itself planting a tree is an act of hope and looking to the future and something [congregations] can involve a whole family in.”

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Under the program, which piloted in Baltimore’s Jones Falls Sub-Watershed, congregations are taught about the harmful effects of stormwater run-off and how they can mitigate the problem.

“As congregations, very often they are contributing to the problem because, by nature, churches, mosques and synagogues tend to have large parking lots, and that means that anytime it rains, you are making run-off,” Sorak said.

“Once they become aware that they are a part of that problem, we would set up an appointment with a technical partner who would do a site assessment to [identify] the things that are causing run-off and recommend [solutions] to alleviate the problem.”

To fund the projects, the program awards Chesapeake Bay Trust Watershed Assistance grants to congregations.

The grants support congregations through varying stages of their projects.

In December, Towson Presbyterian Church was awarded $35,509 to design a cistern system and two rain gardens that will help reduce stormwater run-off and pollution from the church building and the parking lot, according to a press release.

The installation of the rain gardens will allow rainwater to percolate through the ground in a natural way to prevent sediment and other pollutants from running into the Chesapeake Bay, thus degrading the water quality.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s 2020 State of the Bay Report remained a D+, but declined overall by one point from 2018.

Efforts must be accelerated to achieve the Chesapeake Bay Clean Water Blueprint goal of implementing practices by 2025 that will reduce pollution sufficiently to restore water quality in local rivers, streams and the bay, according to the foundation. The blueprint emerged following a 2010 lawsuit settlement with the Environmental Protection Agency involving the foundation, six bay states and the District of Columbia.

Practices that could be taken on the local level to improve the bay’s health include driving less, installing a rain barrel to downspouts and replacing hard surfaces with pervious pavement.

Through the One Water Partnership, Towson Presbyterian underwent a site assessment identifying a variety of green infrastructure opportunities on its campus.

Sorak said she believes it is important for her organization to help congregations in this way.

“When we would ask congregations [about the projects] they would often say that they have a core group of members who are interested in doing this kind of work, but they just don’t know where to start and they don’t know where to find the resources; we fill that gap for them,” she said.

Charlie Conklin, 84, of Glen Arm, has attended Towson Presbyterian Church for more than five decades. He said he was attracted to the church because of its opportunities for community outreach.

One of the projects the church has implemented, he said, is an intergenerational garden in which organic vegetables are grown and donated to the Assistance Center of Towson Churches, a consortium of churches providing emergency help to the needy in northern and central Baltimore County and northern Baltimore City.

Since he has attended, the church has made an effort to reduce its environmental footprint to protect the church and the community, he said.

“We recognized that the parking lot would flood and a lot of water would [carry] whatever existed on the parking lot into the storm drains,” Conklin said. “The other reason is that our courtyard became a real problem, particularly with the increased volume of storms, and we literally had flooding within our church as a result of that.”

The church is currently in the design stage of its cistern system and rain gardens, which are expected to be completed sometime next year.

Jessica Krueger, 30, of Towson, who has attended the church for six years, said she was attracted to the project because she wanted to help find a way to better use the property surrounding the church.

The property sits in an impervious area and lacks vegetative growth, she said, adding, “The main focus is bringing some green space and bringing the focus to stormwater management within that small area.”

Krueger said she hopes the project results in better stormwater management to protect the neighborhood.

“As a church we’re trying to make a lot of really small steps, and one of our bigger steps is trying to install stormwater facilities,” she said. “[We want] to be an example to others and take care of creation.”

Similarly, Catonsville Presbyterian Church is adapting to improve its community.

Ron Gunderson, 75, of Ellicott City, who has attended the church for about a decade, said the house of worship first partnered with Interfaith Partners for the Chesapeake about five years ago after the organization held a half-day workshop educating congregants on environmental projects and how the church could accomplish them.

Through their partnership, the church received a Chesapeake Bay Trust Community Engagement Mini Grant for its meadow project, as well as a grant through Trees for Sacred Places for its tree-planting work.

Additionally, it has been able to install a rain garden and transform a woodland area nearby into a community space for the entire neighborhood.

Gunderson said his desire is for the community space to bring people together.

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“We hope it will provide a space for families to bring their children and enjoy being together in a nice, safe environment,” he said. “We hope to provide a positive resource for the congregation and for the community, and we’re excited to continue to do that.”

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The following is a list of other Baltimore County congregations taking part in the One Water Partnership program:

• Bazil African Methodist Episcopal Church in Cockeysville;

• Chizuk Amuno Congregation in Pikesville;

• Christ the King Episcopal Church in Woodlawn;

• Christian Temple Church in Catonsville;

• Eden Korean United Methodist Church in Baltimore;

• Faith Lutheran Church in Baltimore;

• Islamic Society of Baltimore in Catonsville;

• Maryland Presbyterian Church in Towson;

• Mount Olive United Methodist Church in Randallstown;

• Saint Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church in Parkville;

• Saint Francis Episcopal Parish — Epiphany Community Center in Lutherville-Timonium;

• Saint Gabriel Roman Catholic Church in Windsor Mill;

• Saint Pius X Catholic Church in Towson;

• Saint Thomas Episcopal Church in Owings Mills;

• Sherwood Episcopal Church in Cockeysville.

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