Going Green From the Pulpit
Green-tinged sermons peppered with wise-use and conservation endorsements might seem unusual, but the movement is growing as religions begin to see resource management as mercy works no less blessed than feeding the hungry or clothing the naked.
And while it's one thing to urge the faithful into individual action, religious leaders are seeing--and taking--opportunities to put their money and time where their mouths are.
Rabbi Daniel Swartz has been at the front of that line for years. When he took over at Temple Hesed in Scranton on Aug. 1, 2006, he had already spent time in Maryland as the founding coordinator at a local chapter of Interfaith Power and Light, a cleverly named inter-religion organization that promotes energy conservation among its congregants and lobbies for political change with the influence of its affiliated organizations, which include the 11th Hour Project, Natural Capitalism, Inc., and the National Religious Coalition on Creation Care.
"I think most folks in congregations get the ethical questions, which is, 'It's not the right thing for me, because I'm wasting (resources), to hurt you,'" Swartz says. "And the 'you' who gets hurt is almost always the people with the fewest resources, when eating prices go up, or when disease spreads from milder winters. Those are the people who get hurt more, and who don't have the resources to put their lives back together."
Until Nov. 15, Pennsylvania didn't have a chapter of the national group. In the aftermath of an environmental ethics conference at Penn State University's Rock Ethics Institute in State College, however, religious leaders from around the state voted to create one.
Swartz became part of the steering committee. He says the group will have a presence in Harrisburg, but also in communities throughout the state. It will "be both an inspirational thing, but also a practical thing," creating tangible results like product discounts through group buying.
"Just as we would advocate for (early childhood development) funding or feeding the hungry, that you would see a religious voice come out for renewable energy. I've been sort of talking this idea up with people for a few years, but this is first time we've had a substantial buy in," he says. "Pennsylvania will be a challenge. Being the size of a state that we are, we're going to have to be clever about Web resources."
It's certainly not a new concept. Judaism already has "tikkun olam," a Hebraic term for "repairing the world." And Swartz isn't stumbling around out of his element; he has degrees from Brown University in geological sciences and environmental policy.
His experience will help other religious leaders. "The folks who run religious institutions tend not to be the most engineering and technically minded," he says. "The more you can hold their hand, the better. For congregations who want to do the right thing but don't know how, it's a big help."
Swartz's temple is ahead of the process. "We got sort of the first line of the stuff done, and now we're looking at more ambitious stuff," he says.
Incandescent lighting has been replaced with efficient compact-fluorescent bulbs; exit signs are now lit with higher-efficiency light-emitting diodes, or LEDs; bathrooms and the kitchen have been outfitted with occupancy sensors to turn off the lights when the room is empty; and an energy audit is being planned to address heat loss and the building seal.
From there, Swartz envisions a power-supplying wind turbine. "We're at the top of a hill; it's a great place for wind in our area," he says. "It's still my fantasy if we could get enough people involved, we could be the first congregation to get off the grid."
By "off the grid," he means not relying on the electric utility for any power, and he hopes the congregation's celebration of its 150th anniversary next year will spur people into action and donating.
Swartz says more state funding and loans for conservation projects should be available to nonprofits, though some congregations have been able to capitalize. St. Jacobs Lutheran Church in York County received $31,200 in state alternative-energy funding for the $2.2-million facility it's building in Codorus Township. The money will help to buy and install a $307,872 geothermal heating and cooling system for the facility.
The religious argument for environmentalism boils down to three elements for Swartz. They are explained thusly:
– Respect: the Earth, as God's creation, should be celebrated as he is. "We should celebrate it and find the wonder in it," Swartz says. "I think it's especially easily to resonate to that in an area like ours where the area is so beautiful."
– Injustice: When richer people seek greater wealth, it often creates environmental harms that hurt people with the least power first. Power plants get built in the poorest communities; landfills get cited where the governmental infrastructure is the weakest; environmental regulatory enforcement is more lax where the public isn't looking.
"When we misuse the environment, when we don't act in an environmentally responsible fashion, there are some injustice issues that come up," Swartz says. "If you believe in a God of justice, this is just a very natural extension to that, and isn't really a new thing but a new application of old ethics--loving your neighbor."
– Red ink: As prices continue to rise, conserving energy makes sense for both the environment and the pocketbook. "Boy, wouldn't you rather give less money to the utility and give more to education and a homeless shelter?" Swartz asks.
The concept isn't foreign to other organized religions, either. Obviously, nature-based faiths such as Hinduism and Buddhism intrinsically embrace environmental awareness, but other religions are coming around, as well.
Interfaith Power and Light was created by an Episcopalian in California. Kathleen McGinty, a Catholic who headed the state Department of Environmental Protection for years before recently leaving, was actively involved in environmental issues through her church. Both the current pope and his predecessor have advocated for the issue, and the head of the Orthodox Church, Patriarch Bartholomew, named it his top moral issue.
Perhaps the most popular combination of environmental awareness and religion has been the "What Would Jesus Drive?" campaign.
"I would definitely say (the issue) is moving up. For a lot of people, I would say it's at the bottom of the Top 10, but if you go back five years ago, I don't think it would be in the Top 10," Swartz says.
However, the plan risks foundering if it can't smooth out the politics.
"Condemning someone as an environmental sinner never struck me an effective technique because they're not going out of their way to hurt the environment," Swartz says.
What works, instead, is helping them understand the damage they cause. "When you toss a lead battery in the river, there are real children who are hurt, whose learning is cut back for the rest of their life by what you did," he says. "The notion of loving your neighbor is not a particularly radical part of religion, and we need to realize that this is now part of being a good neighbor. When you think of it in terms of that, it takes a little bit of the political edge off and focuses on how you can help people."
Similar organizations have found traction in other states, from the IPL to faith-based objection to natural-gas drilling and the National Religious Partnership for the Environment.
Whether Pennsylvania is able to foster similarly effective campaigns will rest largely on Swartz and the other religious leaders who unanimously voted to create a state chapter of IPL.
In a letter to prospective contributors before the vote, organizers solicited monetary donations, highlighting Jonathan Brockopp, religious history professor at Penn State, and the Ethics Institute, who have each pledged $1,500 over the next three years to jumpstart the organization.
"Voices from places such as Huntingdon, Lancaster, and Johnstown had been laboring in the 'wilderness' alone and were desperate for a sense of community," the letter states. "Others were tired of pious talk and wanted to DO something; many expressed the desire to preserve the interaction of scientists, community and religious leaders that we achieved at the conference (in October)."
Swartz is confident that will happen. "There are thousands of congregations across the state. If we could even get a few hundred of them to join in this, you would see both the changes in those institutions, you would see the families involved," he says. "When all this turns from theoretical to actual (isn't known), but we're on the way!"
Rory Sweeney writes on energy and the environment when he's paid to and sits around talking about them when he's not. Send feedback here.
The synagogue relies more on natural light and smaller lights instead of the old large spotlights.
Rabbi Swartz shows off the Temple's energy efficient menorah.
A digital thermostat has been added to the Temple for better temperature control.
Rabbi Swartz hopes that the Temple Hesed can install solar panels on the large amount of roof space.
All Photographs by Aimee Dilger