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The greening of our churches

Congregations find ways to live the Seventh Principle.
By Donald E. Skinner
November/December 2001 11.1.01

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It seems overwhelming—and lonely—to save the environment one aluminum can at a time. But many UU congregations are now discovering a way to come together to better live out our seventh principle, "respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part."

The Green Sanctuary program, which generated great enthusiasm at General Assembly 2001 in Cleveland, invites congregations to demonstrate their commitment to the seventh principle by taking action in six areas: energy conservation, recycling, communicating with members about environmental practices, religious education, worship, and community environmental justice.

The program was launched in the fall of 2000 by the Seventh Principle Project, the UUA-related environmental organization. So far, one congregation has completed the program while seven have formally announced themselves as candidates. Forty-five to 50 congregations are actively exploring participation.

"It's time to recognize the environmental crisis as a faith issue," says Katherine Jesch of Arlington, Virginia, who is beginning an environmental ministry as coordinator of the Green Sanctuary program. "The Rev. David Bumbaugh Jr. reminded us at General Assembly this year that 'no concept of justice is complete or adequate which does not extend to all of creation—all beings whose lives are shadowed by the burdens imposed upon them by the inappropriate, unsustainable, and destructive lifestyles of others.'"

Jesch continues: "Becoming a green sanctuary recognizes a congregation for putting its environmental values into practice just as becoming a welcoming congregation reflects a congregation's commitment to welcome gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people. When we go public with our commitments it encourages others to take a stand as well."

The 220-member First Unitarian Church of Hamilton, Ontario, has completed work in three of the six Green Sanctuary requirements. Margaret Reid, the coordinator, said that the congregation undertakes a social action issue every year and that this program is a perfect fit.

First Unitarian's property committee did an environmental audit of church facilities. The congregation traded disposable cups and plates for its gatherings and coffee hour for nondisposables. A column on environmental issues appears in each issue of the newsletter. Church youth have set up a battery recycling program and environmentally friendly landscaping is being installed.

The religious education committee is interested in an environmental curriculum and a tour of organic farms is being planned. The church is cooperating with 14 other groups (including only one other church) to encourage the city council to reduce pesticide use and to do educational programs for residents. The church hopes to become a Green Sanctuary in about a year. "Pretty much everyone in the church is doing something," says Reid.

At First Unitarian Church of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, former president William Bennett read an article in World magazine in 1999 about UUs' responsibility to conserve. He contacted one of the organizations listed, the Northwest Earth Institute, which promotes voluntary simplicity. He presented a course in voluntary simplicity, and then someone followed with a deep ecology course. "I was amazed at the intensity of interest in both of them," he said.

A sustainable living committee was formed. It learned about the Green Sanctuary program and thus far the 369-member church has done an energy audit, environmental sermons and Sunday morning "green minutes" announcements, as well as newsletter columns. It also adopted a mile of city street for cleanup and explored buying recycled paper. A trip to Europe, where reusable cloth grocery bags are common, prompted Bennett to make 50 bags for church members. He estimates 60 members of his congregation are involved in some way in Green Sanctuary work.

Jesch notes that some denominations are well ahead of Unitarian Universalism in environmental issues. The National Council of Churches has an Eco-Justice Working Group that sponsors national conferences on environmental justice. It has also developed a video, "God's Creation and Global Warming," and other educational materials clarifying the theological and spiritual basis for action.

The American Jewish Congress held a public policy forum last spring called "Creating a Sustainable Environmental Policy: How Can American Jews Respond?" Episcopalians have started "Episcopal Power and Light" as a way to encourage congregations to take responsibility for their energy usage.

One of the places where Unitarian Universalism is ahead is the Green Sanctuary manual itself. Jesch says several other denominations are using the book to inspire their own programs. The 85-page book, which contains resources for congregations as well as steps for getting started, can be ordered from the Seventh Principle Project through Jesch at PO Box 1523, Arlington, VA 22210. More information is available through the Seventh Principle Project Web site or from Jesch.

An interim minister, the Rev. Jackie Ziegler, inspired the Unitarian Church of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to try the Green Sanctuary program, says John Childe, program chair. "She taught a course in process theology that really piqued my interest in tying together the spiritual needs of the church and the environmental needs of our world," Childe says. "We've always had many members who are committed to environmental issues and so we got to work on Green Sanctuary as soon as we learned about it."

The church has monthly Green Sanctuary projects, newsletter articles and an information table after church. "Many people have really welcomed the project, and have jumped in with both feet," says Childe.

At the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Ann Arbor, Michigan, work on the Green Sanctuary program has been under way about a year. Zita Riesterer, the assistant director of religious education and advisor to the program, says efforts started with a class on environmental issues. Many of those who attended formed the Green Sanctuary committee.

The 626-member church has offered other classes on environmental issues, as well as forums, sermons, and voluntary simplicity study circles. On RE night, every first and third Friday, children learn about recycling and other environmental issues. An alternative Christmas program this year will help children look at needs and wants and provide an opportunity to donate money to charity rather than buy unneeded gifts. The children's worship service sometimes has environmentalism as a theme. "We're going strong," says Riesterer.

"When we go public with our commitments it encourages others to take a stand as well."

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