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Light bulb program a bright idea

Pennsylvania UU congregation is a model of environmental activism.
By Donald E. Skinner
4.14.06

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Churches don’t get much greener than Main Line Unitarian Church in Devon, Pa. For starters, it does the little things like recycle paper products and batteries. And on Sundays it sells shade-grown coffee. A while back it did an energy audit of its buildings to determine how to conserve energy.

Oh, and it also derives all of its energy needs from wind power. And after coffee hour, using non-disposable cups, the coffee grounds go into the church compost pile, which in turn feeds the children’s garden, which is used to teach kids about nutrition and ecology.

The thing that has the suburban Philadelphia church’s parishioners excited at the moment is light bulbs. What started as a plan to encourage members to buy and use fluorescent bulbs because they last 10 times as long as incandescent bulbs and use 75 percent less energy, has now grown into the 3-2-1 Bright Idea Program that has donated hundreds of fluorescent bulbs to people in low-income communities. The bulbs’ high initial price is prohibitive to people with low incomes, and users benefit from lower utility bills over the bulbs’ long life.

Here’s how it works: Main Line Parishioners who participate in the 3-2-1 program agree to install three compact fluorescent bulbs in their homes, adjust their thermostat up or down by two degrees, depending on the season, and drive one mile per hour below the speed limit, all to save energy. About 40 households in the 690-member congregation have pledged to do this. Profits from sales of the bulbs by the church to participants and others help buy bulbs for low-income communities.

The program’s first donation, about 600 compact fluorescents, was distributed to about 200 low-income families through a community center in Philadelphia’s inner city. The idea has now spread to Chester, a low-income community south of Philadelphia, where a Baptist church is partnering with Main Line to distribute the bulbs to several hundred more households.

The program is led by Alan Silverman and Max Walker and administered by Main Line’s ECO Task Force. The task force grew out of a group called the Earth Concerns Organization that formed while the congregation was meeting in a neighboring church after a 1991 fire destroyed its building. According to an ECO founder, Mary Kane, environmental ideas began to flow after the congregation moved back to its rebuilt church. When the congregation applied in 2003 to become a Green Sanctuary as part of the Seventh Principle Project (now Unitarian Universalist Ministry for Earth, an affiliate organization of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations), it found it was already meeting many of the requirements.

All of the electrical energy used by the church comes from wind turbines across the state that feed into a statewide electrical grid. “It costs us $2,200 more a year to do that, but it’s the right thing to do,” said Don Kane, another ECO Task Force founder. Replacing inefficient appliances and switching to compact fluorescents light bulbs, he said, saves almost that much. “For example, we have 42 exit signs. Each one had two incandescent bulbs using seven incandescent watts each, and they’re on all the time. Just replacing those with light-emitting diode signs using only three watts per sign made a big difference.”

In April 2006 Main Line, joined by a local Baptist church, sponsored an interfaith energy cost reduction workshop and a panel discussion on green building. The goal was to share practical advice and solutions so local churches and businesses can reduce energy costs.

What prompted all this activity? Don Kane noted that social activism is part of the culture at Main Line and goes well beyond the ECO group: “We have a Latin American task force that is starting micro banks, helping pay for teachers in El Salvador, and bringing in speakers about the drug problem. Our visual arts committee includes art shows by blind artists, by prisoners, and by children and adults in low-income communities. Racial justice and peace and justice are other parts of a huge social action program here.”

In 2005 the church received a Creation Care award from the National Council of Churches for its environmental work, one of 20 awarded nationally. The Interfaith Coalition for Climate Change, a Pennsylvania group, is using Main Line as a model for other congregations. Don Kane carries Main Line’s message to about a dozen other churches annually, giving presentations on environmental responsibility. He believes that churches have no choice but to be environmentally active. “We live in one of the most polluted states in the nation,” he said. “We have to do whatever we can.”

The Rev. Katherine Jesch, UU Ministry for Earth’s director of environmental ministry, applauds Main Line’s activism. “With so much bad news about how human activities are damaging Earth’s systems,” she said, “it’s essential to remind ourselves that there is good news as well. The environmental activism at Main Line is truly inspiring. They are a wonderful model of the vision for Green Sanctuary.”

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