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Pope's environmental message inspires 'Climate in the Pulpit'

"We're not listening to the pope because he's the leader of our church, but because his message is relevant."

At St. Philip's Episcopal Church in Annapolis, a small but dedicated "green team" is helping the congregation become more environmentally friendly.

The members installed a rain garden to treat polluted stormwater runoff from the parking lot. Rain barrels are in the works to capture water from the roof.

And though the church members are Episcopal, they are heeding the call from Pope Francis — leader of the world's 1.2 billion Roman Catholics — to fight climate change.

A half-dozen church members gathered Saturday to learn more about the pope's message, which he outlined in an encyclical in June and has repeated during his visit to the United States.

"We are tied to the Earth and the Earth is tied to us," the Rev. Kip Banks, pastor of a Baptist church in Southeast Washington, told the group.

He gave a five-point summary of the pope's message: Climate change is real; humans are contributing to it; it disproportionately affects the poor; it is imperative to make things better; and people must persuade their elected officials to lead the way.

"It's our job to hold the politicians honest," Banks said.

The St. Philip's workshop on climate change was one of several "Climate in the Pulpit" events planned this weekend to coincide with the pope's visit.

Before Congress on Thursday and the United Nations on Friday, Pope Francis called on political leaders to take "courageous actions" to fight climate change.

"I call for a courageous and responsible effort to redirect our steps and to avert the most serious effects of the environmental deterioration caused by human activity," the pope told a joint session of Congress. "I am convinced that we can make a difference, and I have no doubt that the United States — and this Congress — have an important role to play."

Catholic, Protestant and Jewish leaders are working the pope's message into their sermons and discussions this weekend.

Each congregation is participating in its own way: A state delegate will visit a Baptist church in Prince George's County to discuss clean energy legislation, for example; a Unitarian Universalist congregation in Montgomery County will dedicate new solar panels.

The Climate in the Pulpit weekend has been organized by Interfaith Power & Light and the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, two local groups that advocate energy policies to address climate change.

Joelle Novey, director of the Maryland-D.C. chapter of Interfaith Power & Light, said the pope's message resonates among people of many faiths.

"We're not listening to the pope because he's the leader of our church, but because his message is relevant," she said.

Novey, who is Jewish, was part of a group that studied the pope's encyclical on the high holiday of Yom Kippur last week.

"I was surprised to be moved by the encyclical," she said.

Organizers say congregations are able to find common ground with the pope's message despite theological differences.

"Even though I'm Baptist, I love how he follows the footsteps of Christ," Banks said. "And climate action is part of that."

Banks noted that Pope Francis wrote the encyclical Laudato Sí in Italian, a common language, rather than Latin, the church's official language.

"All of us can cooperate as instruments of God for the care of creation, each according to his or her own culture, experience, involvements and talents," the pope wrote.

Banks referred in his presentation to the Bible's 23rd Psalm: "The Lord is my shepherd ... He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He refreshes my soul."

The members of St. Philip's joined in, as Banks put special emphasis on the words "green pastures" and "still waters."

"We've got to do our part to be green sheep so we can have green pastures to lie down in," Banks said.

The small group that met with Banks in Annapolis agreed on the need to cut the use of fossil fuels that emit greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change. They eagerly signed green papers to be sent to state lawmakers during the next General Assembly session to urge them to pass climate-friendly legislation.

Interfaith Power & Light will focus on two pieces of legislation during the 2016 session: A renewal of the state's Greenhouse Gas Reduction Act, which requires cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, and increasing the requirement for how much of the state's energy must come from renewable sources to 25 percent by 2020.

St. Philip's member Newton Gentry III said he has gradually come to understand that it is important for people of faith to be involved in the environmental movement.

"I always thought that the environmentalists were 'those guys' … They'll push the agenda. They'll make it happen," he said. "As time goes on, I realize it's really us."

pwood@baltsun.com

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