Parishes are investing in eco-friendly techniques to save money and the earth.
On a cold Saturday morning last December, Father Charles Morris showed just how far he was willing to go to raise awareness of global warming. Lake Erie was a bone-chilling 36 degrees when the Michigan priest ducked underwater for a "polar bear swim" organized by two nonprofits working to alleviate climate change.
"Anything for the cause," says Morris with a laugh.
During 20 years of environmental activism, Morris, pastor of St. Elizabeth Parish in Wyandotte, Michigan, has indeed enlisted many different strategies "for the cause." His energy conservation efforts have included everything from launching an interfaith network to installing a wind turbine on the rectory roof.
Until January Morris was the founding director of Michigan Interfaith Power and Light, a statewide network of nearly 250 congregations that mobilizes a religious response to global warming by promoting renewable energy, energy efficiency, and conservation.
Since the group formed in 2002, the coalition's faith communities have collectively offset more than 18,000 tons of carbon dioxide and 80 tons of sulfur dioxide, saving more than $2 million in energy costs.
"We're seeking to live the truth that we speak, that we are stewards of creation," Morris says. The coalition's efforts have included arranging professional "energy audits" for member congregations, which help them develop a plan that includes purchasing Energy Star appliances and installing energy-efficient windows, solar panels, and compact fluorescent lightbulbs.
Morris estimates that his own congregation, a 230-household parish in a working-class suburb of Detroit, has reduced its peak energy demand by 60 percent over five years. St. Elizabeth has saved $20,000 per year following several energy-efficient upgrades to the parish and school buildings. Conservation efforts included installing a wind turbine and 12 solar panels on the rectory, adding weather stripping around doors to block the wind, and installing extra window panels inside the church's stained glass.
Many such efforts are practical, fiscally responsible nuts-and-bolts changes that can help poorer parish communities in inner cities or rural areas, which often inhabit the oldest, most inefficient buildings.
"It has saved our butts in a very practical way," Morris says. "The money saved is the better part of someone's salary. But the real blessing with this journey is that it's good stewardship-a way you can save money without cutting back programs or personnel. It's also justice-the dollars saved on energy are dollars you can feed a hungry person with."
It's important to be attentive to the spiritual roots of care for creation, too, he says. "In the Catholic tradition the divine is as much immanent as transcendent. We are not apart from creation. When you get that, everything else follows. It has to be woven through the fabric of our lives, and we ignore it at our peril."
Other parishes across the country are also finding that care for creation saves cents and makes spiritual sense, too.
At St. Philip Neri Parish in Portland, Oregon, deep concern for the welfare of the nearby Columbia River led to the creation in 2004 of a bioswale-landscaping around the parish parking lot designed to remove silt, oil, and pollution from rainwater before it is released to a watershed or storm sewer.
Inspired by the local bishops' 2000 pastoral letter on the Columbia River, parishioners applied for a grant from the city to help fund the bioswale, which cost approximately $25,000, says Kevin Gorman, a parishioner who worked on the project.
Forty or 50 parishioners worked side by side digging, weeding, and planting native plants (with the help of a master gardener parishioner). Now a garden of vine maples, wild strawberries, sedge grass, and other plants does the work of purifying rainwater before it flows back to the river.
During the flower-growing season, St. Philip Neri parishioners have access to beautiful cut flowers as well, thanks to a partnership with a local farmer who sells them after Masses.
"It's a wonderful relationship and a remarkable opportunity for the community to be educated from the ground up," says Sister Pat Nagle, I.H.M.
A series of bulletin inserts described how purchasing flowers locally reduces the global warming caused by long-distance transportation (most cut flowers are grown in South America), and how it reduces support for the many labor violations that plague the cut-flower industry.
In Minneapolis parishioners at St. Joan of Arc Parish have formed an eco-spirituality team to study a variety of environmental issues and educate the parish on water, the food supply, and global warming.
Some of the parish's more successful efforts thus far have included producing a 20-minute DVD called Stewards of the Earth, which includes short snippets of speakers from a local diocesan environmental conference.
By stepping up efforts to recycle and compost materials used for parish events (such as paper plates), St. Joan of Arc is also working toward making large-scale events "zero waste," with the eventual goal of becoming a zero-waste facility.
In addition the parish is the leading Minnesota congregation participating in a nonprofit-sponsored "Minnesota Energy Challenge," which helps individuals and businesses calculate their carbon footprint and learn how to save energy. To date the 400 parishioners who have signed up have saved more than $200,000 in energy costs and have kept more than 3 million pounds of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.
"We need to be aware and care," says parishioner Dana White, a longtime member of the eco-spirituality team. "We can turn this around if we can gain enough awareness."