Churches going green

Excerpting the book Greening Our Built World and more communities of faith””including Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, and Quaker groups”” are embracing green design and green building. While beliefs, traditions, and practices vary in many respects, care for the earth is a value that transcends religious distinctions and emerges as a common motivation for incorporating environmentally friendly designs into construction projects. Belief in a higher being, respect for creation, and a mandate to care for one’s neighbor are at the core of many faiths. Many religious traditions call upon members to be good stewards of the earth and its resources.

The results of a more qualitative survey in Greening Our Built World of 17 faith-based institutions that have built green buildings reveals a common sense that building green is a way of committing an entire community to the moral imperative to care for the earth and help all people share in the benefits of a healthy, sustainable environment. For a growing number of religious institutions, building green has become not just a cost-effective investment but, more importantly, a way to embody and demonstrate a religious and moral commitment to care for the earth and for life. The process of learning about and undertaking greening, in turn, commonly reinvigorates the religious community. According to Rose McKenney, a faculty member at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma Washington, the presence of the green building on campus is a major recruiting tool for new students.

That’s an excerpt from a fact- and chart-filled book, “Greening Our Built World: costs, benefits and strategies(Island Press) by my long-time friend and former DOE colleague Gregory Kats.  Greg is director of climate change at Good Energies, a multi-billion dollar global clean energy investor, where he leads the firm’s investments in energy efficiency and green buildings. Greg is a founder of the American Council on Renewable Energy (ACORE). He is founding chair of the Energy and Atmosphere Technical Advisory Group for LEED, and was the principal advisor in developing Green Communities, the national green affordable housing design standard. Previously, Greg served as the director of financing for energy efficiency and renewable energy at the U.S. Department of Energy.

Felician Sisters convent and school in Coraopolis, Pennsylvania, just outside of Pittsburgh recently built green. Sister Mary Christopher Moore, one of the community’s members noted that the more the community learned about green buildings, the more they began to realize that renovating their building to be LEED certified had a moral dimension: “building green was the morally right thing to do, because it not only considered the sustainability of our community but also the sustainability of our world.”

The Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation (JRC) in Evanston, Illinois completed its synagogue in 2008 as a LEED Platinum building. In both cases, the decision to build green began as a grassroots effort, driven by interest from within the community and guided by leadership of the rabbis. According to Temple Rabbi Rosen, environmental concerns are inherent in the Jewish principles of bal tashchit, meaning “do not destroy or waste,” and tikkun olam, which means “healing the earth.” Rabbi Rosen observed that  “it goes back to the Torah, a value we’ve inherited in our own spiritual tradition . . . energy efficiency, not destroying natural resources. The world does not belong to us. . . . We’re reminded repeatedly of that in the Torah”.

At Calvin College, a Christian institution in Grand Rapids, Michigan, the decision to construct the Vincent and Helen Bunker Interpretive Center as a LEED Gold building

Stemmed from the biblical concept of stewardship of the earth within various departmental curricula. The Department of Geology, Geography, and Environmental Studies Web states that: “faculty, students and staff: analyze Earth’s environmental systems and foster the commitment to serve God in their care and preservation.” According to Frank Gorman, college architect, this focus on the integration of Christian principles and academics is at the heart of Calvin College’s Statement on Sustainability, which declares, “Our purpose is to infuse Calvin’s vigorous liberal arts education with thoughtful, Biblically based practical guidelines that lay a foundation for living in away that honors the Creator and his beloved creation.”

The Washington DC-based Quaker Sidwell Friends School (attended by the Obama girls) found a similar congruence between green building and institutional values. Michael Saxenian, Assistant Head of School and Chief Financial Officer at Sidwell comments that; “Building green substantially altered our culture. Environmental stewardship is now seen as one of the pillars of the school philosophy, along with academic excellence and diversity.” The Sidwell Web site states: “With the decision to construct a new Middle School, Sidwell Friends chose sustainable design as a logical expression of its values. We believe that a ‘green building’ provides an opportunity to achieve an outstanding level of integration between the curriculum, values and mission of the school.”

Green renovations significantly reenergized community life at the Muslim Khatri Association in Leicester, England. The process of planning the renovations and becoming educated as a community on green features, such as solar panels and energy efficiency, brought together younger and older generations of the community. While interest and energy from younger community members inspired and drove initial inquiries into green design, the older community members were able to provide guidance and education on Islamic values and stories dealing with issues of sustainability. Use of the center increased by more than tenfold after the renovations, from 150 users per week to 2,000 users per week.

The cost-effectiveness of green building among a wide range of faith groups represented in this study had a significant impact on broadening the potential spiritual and material contributions each faith community could make.

The Green Initiative for Environmental Evangelical Renewal (GIVER) is being launched as a partnership between the Evangelical Environmental Network, the National Association of Evangelicals, and the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference. The founding document for GIVER states that

Energy efficiency offers the largest potential opportunity to slow global climate change and limit global warming. A broad consensus of scientific experts warns that avoiding the worst effects of climate change will require that we sharply reduce emissions of greenhouse gasses. The most important of these is CO2, caused primarily by burning fossil fuels. Cutting energy waste in buildings is one of the largest and most effective potential ways reduce greenhouse gasses.[1] GIVER will rally the Evangelical Church around this potential.  Greening churches and other religious buildings has recently been demonstrated to be cost effective and to provide large financial and other returns to church communities and to society at large. [2] We believe an average 30% to 35% reduction in energy and water use in religious buildings is achievable and cost effective and represents a morally and financially compelling opportunity for religious groups to improve their facilities while reaffirming their mission and social commitments.

For more information please contact: The Rev. Mitchell C. Hescox, President/C.E.O. The Evangelical Environmental Network;

[1] World Energy Outlook, International Energy Agency, Paris, 2009.

[2] Greg Kats, Greening Our Built World; Costs, Benefits and Strategies (Island Press, Washington DC, 2009)

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7 Responses to Churches going green

  1. adelady says:

    Where feed-in tariffs are available from an energy supplier my dream is that every school, religious and sports facility would have maximum solar panels on their extensive roofs. Most have very uneven power use and would often be feeding in at times when there is high demand in the rest of the system while they themselves have little or no power demand.

    After school hours or summer holidays on hot days? The schools are feeding into the grid when home airconditioners and cookers are being used.

    One day.

  2. mike roddy says:

    This is a really positive sign. Religious schools are actually the best equipped to implement true green standards. These days, public universities have all kinds of sticky relationships with dirty industries, and have become timid. Organizations like FSC and LEED also appear to have drifted from their missions. Instead of brownie points employing difficult methodology, it’s time for common sense and integrity to govern. That means starting from scratch, and refraining from developing specifications based on business as usual suppliers.

  3. Adrian says:

    Thanks for posting this. Love the emphasis on green religious buildings as a way to build community and demonstrate values.

    We hear way too much about religious fundamentalism and its repressive agenda–which leads to religion-bashing among some progressives–and not enough about faith communities’ life (on earth) enhancing beliefs and activities. And this is great news on the evangelical front!

    Another good book about powerful, faith-based environmental action is A Greener Faith: Religious Environmentalism and Our Planet’s Future, by Roger S. Gottlieb.

    A further plug for Quakers: Friends Committee for National Legislation headquarters in Washington DC is also green. Members of Congress have toured it. Quaker Earthcare Witness gives mini-grants to help Quaker Meetings engage in green projects. (Disclosure: I’ve been helping on a QEW-funded trial green roof project this year.)

  4. Dan B says:

    A few years ago I served on the steering committee for a group of local religious leaders who put on a four day interfaith conference on “care of creation”.

    I’m a long time non-religious activist and I was moved. The poetic language and rituals of all faiths stirs somewhere deep. It’s a means of communication that makes secular language seem dry, similar to the difference between Obama on the campaign trail in 2008 and most of his current speeches. The poetry stirs a place that provides the emotional and spiritual motivation for concerted and enduring action.

    I had the chance to speak with Rich Cizik from the Evangelical Environmental Network, when he was still the point person for evangelicals in DC. It was obvious then that he was on a quest to promote the best in his faith. He’d grown tired of conservative Christians dislike and attacks on science and the way evangelicalism had been co-opted for right wing religious purposes. He’d found a community of people who were hungry for a strong bridge between their faith and the wondrous world of knowledge. There are many scientists who quietly practice their faith – quiet because “religious” has been branded with right-wing attacks.

    In order to heal the earth we’ll need to reclaim a faith that’s remained in the wings, been ignored by the media, and nearly lost its way. We need a restoration of a healing faith, healing in the broadest sense of the word.

  5. Jim Prall says:

    This is an excellent route through which to move forward with positive responses to the “civilizational challenge” of rising CO2. Churches can initiate collective actions which will both set an example and raise awareness among their whole congregation. While some churches are caught in the unholy alliance of prayer and right-wing politics, with all its cynical playing to the loyal “base” for the benefit of the politicians (and not for the real values the church represents, I’m afraid), many other churches are not.
    Here in Toronto I came across a project being organized by a Unitarian Universalist church near me as part of their greening efforts (along with improving insulation and other building upgrades):
    Their installation qualified under the feed-in tarriff of Ontario’s new and very progressive Green Energy Act
    They were looking for investors to buy a debenture that pays a good interest rate out of the proceeds of the FIT – I liked their plan enough that I bought a couple of debentures, so now I “own” a small patch of working grid-tied PV. (I’ve looked into doing the same on my own roof, but haven’t decided yet. The larger church roof system had economies-of-scale advantages.)
    Many churches are built to face East, and often have a nice steeply peaked roof, so there are loads of great south-facing, elevated, ideally pitched roofs on churches everywhere just waiting for a project like this.

  6. I appreciate the topic and the book, which I ordered. The built environment is the largest single source of GHG. Religious groups have a responsibility to lead in “Caring for Creation”. Individuals who don’t understand this are abusing the planet, as illustrated in this idle-free Calgary advertisement:

    The ad is about vehicles idling, but waste is waste, whether in transportation or leaky buildings and incandescent lighting.

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