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Unitarian Universalist congregations celebrate Earth Day

Growing environmental awareness leads to activism year-round.
By Donald E. Skinner
4.28.08

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Unitarian Universalist congregations marked Earth Day last week with events ranging from composting games to the dedication of a bike rack to the adoption of bluebird houses.

Earth Day was Tuesday, April 22, but many congregations chose a recent Sunday to hold events. The Neighborhood UU Church in Pasadena, Calif., got down and dirty with a “Crazy Cool Compost Sunday” on April 20. The congregation’s Seventh Principle Group (named after Unitarian Universalism’s Seventh Principle affirming “respect for the interdependent web of all existence”) had previously installed a compost bin on the church property and on Sunday children and adults learned all about composting.

In addition to its compost bin the church has a three-foot diameter composting ball, designed to mix compostable items together as it is rolled across a yard. Neighborhood Director of Religious Education Sara LaWall said the children and youth of the church used it in a bowling game knocking down garbage can “pins.” The church began using compostable coffee cups a year ago and on Sundays the composting ball is rolled out onto the coffee patio.

All Souls Church, Unitarian, in Washington, D.C., declared Sunday, April 20, to be “Green Transport Sunday,” and encouraged friends and members to share rides to church or use public transportation. More than 100 people did. “We’re very happy with that,” said Alex Hirtle, cochair of the congregation’s Seventh Principle Committee, also known as the “Green Souls.” The congregation also implemented a permanent ride-share program Sunday—about 40 signed up for it—and held one of its occasional “zero trash lunches.” Begun a year ago, the lunches strive to create no waste by using washable plates and napkins and composting kitchen waste.

The UU Church of Arlington, Va., dedicated a new bike rack on Sunday. Its UU Pagans group, MoonFire, held a children’s Earth Day ritual, followed by writing letters to Mother Earth. The UU Fellowship of Winston-Salem, N.C. held an Earth Day fair with exhibits on a wide range of environmental topics.

All Souls UU Church of Greenfield, Mass., marked Earth Day on Sunday, April 13, with lay speakers on environmental issues. Friends and members were invited to bring a “symbol of Earth Day” to create an altar. At a workshop that followed the service, members explored the possibility of becoming a Green Sanctuary congregation.

The Green Sanctuary program, which supports congregations in working toward a sustainable way of life, is a program of UU Ministry for Earth, an affiliate organization of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Administration of the Green Sanctuary program will be transferred from UU Ministry for Earth to the UUA in July.

Several other Greenfield congregations were invited for a discussion of interfaith cooperation in environmental works. Pamela Kelly, a member of the congregation who is active in a “Greening Greenfield” campaign, said, “Our hope is to look at Green Sanctuary as a program we might do in our own congregation, as a way to develop more collaborative efforts among churches in the town.”


Earth Day has long been an important date on UU calendars. There was a time when Earth Day was the main opportunity for a congregation to engage in environmental activities. But no more, said the Rev. Katherine Jesch, programming and Green Sanctuary coordinator for UU Ministry for Earth. “Most congregations are taking environmental actions all year long now.”

She attributes that to a growing awareness of climate change, to Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth, and to the Statement of Conscience adopted at the UUA General Assembly in 2006, on the threat of global warming. “The Statement of Conscience was a real tipping point for our congregations,” she said. “There were lots of conversations about it before GA and then at GA we could see that people were really wanting to make a commitment to this issue.”

Environmental projects are everywhere, she noted. “What I’m seeing is congregations paying attention to specific issues, such as climate change, sustainable food, and protecting water supplies. And I see people finding ways to celebrate environmental occasions throughout the year. Some congregations celebrate Rachel Carson’s birthday, for example, and lift up other environmental heroes.” [Rachel Carson, the author of Silent Spring, was a Unitarian Universalist.]

Jesch added that many congregations do multiple environmentally focused worship services throughout the year. And most of them couple that with work in their communities, on stream cleanup, removing invasive plant species, planting trees, recycling, energy conservation, and other activities.

The Green Sanctuary program, one of the highlights of environmentalism within the UUA, has grown dramatically in recent years. In 2002 there were five congregations certified as Green Sanctuary congregations. Today there are more than 60.

Here are some of the other ways that congregations are responding to environmental issues:

  • The UU Fellowship of Visalia, Calif., wanted to do something about global warming, and also to address poverty. It did both by donating 1,000 fluorescent light bulbs to residents of nearby London, Calif., where many farm workers live.
  • At the UU Congregation of Frederick, Md., youth adopted bluebird houses on the UUCF grounds. A wildflower meadow has been established, and members recently helped restore a stream bank by planting trees.
  • The UU Church of Fresno, Calif., built a “green” building in 2006, including a solar system that generates most of the church’s electrical needs. The UU Fellowship of Fredericksburg, Va., is planning a Fellowship Hall using green practices.

Jesch encourages congregations to do more than donate money to environmental causes. “Donating money is important, but I always hope that congregations will also find ways to do environmental work themselves rather than paying someone else to do it.”

It’s important, says Jesch, for people of faith to take on environmental issues at church, rather than to simply work through secular groups. “It’s important for our faith to be the place where we work on these issues. Some of these issues can be scary and we really need our faith to counter the fear and the despair.”


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