Churches Turn over New Leaf as They 'Go Green'

Article excerpt

BEHOLD THE CABBAGE.

Where most would look at this leafy vegetable without much thought except perhaps how to serve it for dinner, Rob Kenned), sees in it a deep connection to the divine.

"Just to hold a cabbage, with its colour and shape, that you've seen grow from a seedling that then you're going to serve, that's really special," said Mr. Kennedy. "It's connecting with God's creation."

Mr. Kennedy is one of several parishioners at St. Thomas Anglican Church, Toronto, who helped construct the parish garden. During its first harvest last fall, the 45-square metre garden yielded 800 servings of fresh produce that served the church's Out of the Heat meal program.

"It's such a consumer society these days that you think more holistically, in a way, when you get connected with the garden and with green initiatives," said Mr. Kennedy.

"The guests of our program got very excited about the vegetables and it's different for them because they get access to fresh produce that they don't normally have access to. So it makes them think more about food and growing food. It's environmental justice in a way," said Suzanne Brooks, another parishioner.

She adds that parishioners are using the garden as a springboard for projects to turn this church, nicknamed "Smoky Tom's" for its liberal use of incense and known for its music and high church liturgy, into a green, sacred space.

"We're increasing our composting and looking into harvesting rainwater," said Ms. Brooks. The formation of a "green team" is being considered and interest is high. The garden has about 30 volunteers; recently, an anonymous donor gave St. Thomas $45,000 to fund green initiatives.

As concerns about global warming and the fragile environment grow, more and more faith communities are acknowledging that they are part of the problem.

"Combating climate change, for example, you have to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. You can't just tell people to do it, you have to work with them, "said Rory O'Brien, of Faith & the Common Good (FCG), a national organization that encourages inter-faith action on social and environmental concerns.

Faith buildings (30,000 of them across Canada) are among the biggest wasters of energy. An FCG study of about 150 faith communities found "quite a lot of inefficiency" in their buildings, said Mr. O'Brien. Many are old, use a lot of heat in winter, are not well maintained and have boilers that are at least 50 years old.

There is no data on the collective energy expended by houses of worship in Canada_ But in the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency has estimated that if 300,000 congregations cut back on their energy use by 25 per cent, invest in more efficient heating and lighting systems, and adopt other environment-friendly practices, they would save more than $500 million annually. The efforts would also prevent more than five million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions from polluting the air, or "the equivalent of taking one million cars off the road," estimates the agency.

Aware that while faith communities may want to "go green," many do not know where to begin, the FCG, with some funding from the Toronto Atmospheric Fund and the Ontario Power Conservation Fund set up the Greening Sacred Spaces program more than a year ago.

"Greening is, of course, much more than energy conservation. It's the entire range of changes. In particular, we wanted to develop an attitudinal change such that the decision-makers within the faith community would put the environmental considerations much higher up in their priorities," said Mr. O'Brien, who co-ordinates Greening Sacred Spaces.

The program provides information packages and offers grants that offset the cost of energy audits. (An energy audit can tell a church where energy is used and how it can conserve by changing behaviour or structural systems. Audits cost between $2,500 to $3,000 for small to medium-sized buildings and for larger ones, between $5,000 and $8,000. …