Faith Groups Bring New Voices to Climate Change Discussion: Social Justice, Health Are Key Messages
Krisberg, Kim, The Nation's Health
EVERY DAY after the credits roll, moviegoers shuffle from dark theaters, bringing with them empty popcorn buckets and feelings of romance, sadness, laughter, fright or plain disappointment at wasting another $10. Two years ago, the Rev. Gerald Durley left a movie theater so inspired he began walking down a new and unexpected path.
A longtime civil and human rights activist, the senior pastor at Providence Missionary Baptist Church in Atlanta had been invited to a presentation of "The Great Warming," a documentary about climate change. While Durley said he was reluctant to attend at first, he left the film with a new mission to bring environmental stewardship to his congregation and help his congregants make the connections between environmental justice and the many social and health concerns facing the black community. Today, Durley preaches on the responsibility of spiritual leaders to protect "God's creation," encourages church members to take action in their own lives to reduce their environmental footprints and is helping amplify a fairly new voice in the fight against climate change: people of faith.
"Our role has always been to make something exciting--we do it every Sunday," Durley told The Nation's Health. "Now we have to take the scientific and make it come alive in people's lives."
Issues of environmental degradation and climate change have been gaining ground within faith communities for some time, and often fit into religious teachings that promote helping impoverished communities and upholding justice. "A Religious Agenda on Poverty and Global Climate Change," released by the National Religious Partnership for the Environment last year, calls on national policymakers to make protecting vulnerable populations a central focus of climate change legislation and urges that at least 40 percent of funds generated from climate change programs be set aside to assist low-income families in facing an uncertain environmental future.
In 1993 when the National Religious Partnership for the Environment was forming, Paul Gorman, the partnership's executive director, said he was talking with a Catholic bishop who wondered why he never saw images of people on environmental posters. That observation, Gorman said, "spoke a lot because it heightened the view that religious people look at these questions less as just issues of wilderness, wildlife and wetlands, but of people and poor nations and communities." For many in the faith community, climate change is a "profoundly moral issue," Gorman said.
"We're not just about having the religious community be one voice in the chorus, but about having the chorus sing songs that really come from the heart --that's the way you reach people," he told The Nation's Health. "Nobody will come to a church basement for a meeting on (carbon dioxide) emissions, but they will come to hear about the well-being of their children."
The effects of a changing climate on the most vulnerable is at the heart of the Catholic Coalition on Climate Change as well, which is working to integrate the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' statement on climate change into church life. In 2001, the conference of bishops declared that "global climate change is not about economic theory or political platforms, nor about partisan advantage or interest group pressures. It is about the future of God's creation and the one human family." Like the partnership, the two-year-old Catholic coalition advocates public policies that help the poor in withstanding climate change and assist developing nations in adapting to shifting environments, said coalition Executive Director Dan Misleh, who noted that the world's top greenhouse gas emitter--the United States--has a "special obligation to help."
"We're all in this together," Misleh said. "As climate change unfolds, more and more groups will look toward the faith community to help motivate people to act."
As part of that motivation, many faith groups are offering resources and programs for congregations that want to take action. During the last two years, the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life has been promoting its "A Light Among the Nations" campaign to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and encourage energy conservation. Among the campaign's programs is "How Many Jews Does It Take to Change a Light Bulb," which ramps up during the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah. Hanukkah celebrates the story of the miracle of light, when one drop of oil lasted eight days, said Liore Milgrom-Elcott, the coalition's program manager, and presents the perfect opportunity to talk about caring for the Earth's limited resources.
The light bulb campaign encourages Jewish congregations, institutions and individuals to switch to compact fluorescent light bulbs, which like the eight nights of Hanukkah, last eight times longer than regular light bulbs. Since 2006, about 80,000 compact light bulbs have been purchased through the campaign, meaning about 30,000 tons of carbon dioxide will be kept out of the environment, according to Milgrom-Elcott. Also as part of its ongoing climate change campaign, the Jewish coalition is offering Earth Aid Kits, which contain simple tools that reduce energy consumption, and helped with a New Jersey-based pilot project in which a handful of synagogues worked to make their houses of worship sustainable. The coalition is now looking into using the pilot project to launch a nationwide effort.
"It's not just about actions, it's about fulfilling our obligation to the world," Milgrom-Elcott told The Nation's Health.
Bringing faith and environment together
Having shared values is an important way to illustrate the impacts of climate change and the reasons to act, said Sanjana Ahmad, one of the founders of Green Muslims in the District, a Washington, D.C.-based community group that gathers for environmental discussions and local projects. Starting a little more than a year ago with a handful of people, the group welcomed more than 100 attendees to their latest dinner gathering, Ahmad said. Besides coming together for discussions, the group also visits local mosques to talk about how environmentalism fits into the Muslim worldview and sponsors clean-up projects in local neighborhoods.
"Religion gives a deeper understanding to the issue," Ahmad told The Nation's Health. "There's a lot of places in our teachings that talk about the connection to nature, the importance of creation ... those shared values help us to explain a lot of these issues."
The social justice side of climate change is a big draw as well, she said, as Muslims in the United States consider how their actions can affect Muslims across the world--especially as a number of predominantly Muslim nations are particularly vulnerable to climate change and less equipped to face its consequences. Just recently, Ahmad noted, Green Muslims in the District began working with a mosque in northern Virginia to assess its carbon footprint through "Cool Congregations," a program created by Iowa Interfaith Power and Light. The program helps congregations and families lower their climate change contribution by saving energy, and along the way, money.
Green Muslims in the District is just one of thousands of groups to tap into the Interfaith Power and Light movement, and Iowa is one of 27 state chapters. Started in 2000 in California, Interfaith Power and Light was created as a "religious response to global warming" and now has more than 4,000 participating congregations across all Religious, environmental groups find common cause faiths, according to Susan Stephenson, the organization's executive director. Interfaith Power and Light aids all congregations in becoming models for energy efficiency by offering energy-saving products, connecting congregations to wind power suppliers, providing sample sermons on environmental stewardship, encouraging public policy advocacy and much more. Over the past two years, Stephenson said, there has been a huge increase in congregations wanting to get involved and realizing that "global warming is reaching a crisis and it's something that people of faith should be concerned with."
"It's important because people share moral values that, in large part, come from their religious faiths," she said. "If we as a nation are contributing more than a quarter of the world's greenhouse gas emissions but are only (about) 4 percent of the population, that's a moral issue and that's something we need to change."
One congregation making such change is St. Bartholomew's Episcopal Church in Yarmouth, Maine, which has done everything from creating liturgies on why climate change is a theological issue to hosting a Clean Energy Fair on church grounds to resurrecting an ancient holiday called Rogation Day in May, during which congregants celebrate the Earth, said Libby Moore, former chair of the church's Environmental Stewardship Committee. Over the years, St. Bartholomew's has made several changes to its building to make it more energy efficient as well, such as installing thermal exchange units that blow rising hot air back down to create more efficient heating and insulating their water pipes. As a member of the Maine chapter of Interfaith Power and Light, the church also purchases "green tags" to offset its electricity use and, in the process, helps keep green energy moving through the overall power grid, displacing nonrenewable fossil-fueled power.
"This is intrinsic to the entire Christian faith," Moore said. "If you're going to love your neighbor, then how can you trash the air, water and land that keeps them healthy? That was the theology that was the basis for our action."
For more information on climate change work in the faith community, visit www.nrpe.org or www. interfaithpowerandlight. org.…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Faith Groups Bring New Voices to Climate Change Discussion: Social Justice, Health Are Key Messages. Contributors: Krisberg, Kim - Author. Magazine title: The Nation's Health. Volume: 38. Issue: 4 Publication date: May 2008. Page number: 1+. © 2009 The Nation's Health. COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale Group.
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