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More UUs choose simplicity over conspicuous consumption
By Donald E. Skinner

There may not be a better place than Las Vegas for a thoughtful examination of responsible consumption. The city's neon-lit gambling strip never closes. The city itself, in the middle of a desert, depends on water and power from the dammed-up Colorado River. The area's rapid growth is threatening desert wildlife. When the local newspaper set out recently to find religious groups involved in environmental issues, it came up empty-handed -- except for one.

"They kept striking out until they reached us," says the Rev. Gail Collins-Ranadive, interim minister at the UU Congregation of Las Vegas. She was able to tell the reporter that, yes, UUs did care about the environment, that their respect for earth-centered traditions leads them to believe in living responsibly upon the earth, and that many UUs look to nature for first-hand experience of the sacred.

She could also tell the reporter about the 100-member congregation's seminarium program, designed to help participants decide what was important in their lives, then decide how they want to live given the realities of the earth. Further, she told the newspaper, "We're going to explore simple living and how one does that in Las Vegas, where over-consumption and conspicuous consumption are all around us."

The congregation began the program in preparation for calling its first-ever settled minister. It was a matter of serendipity that at General Assembly 1999 in Salt Lake City, delegates selected responsible consumption as a study/action issue and urged congregations to study and act on it in their own communities.

Responsible consumption and sustainable living present a large opportunity, the UUA's Commission on Social Witness said in its GA presentation: The United States and Canada are among the most materially wasteful societies in the world -- for example, the US is home to 5 percent of the world's population but is responsible for 40 percent of global resources consumed.

Since 1999, and earlier in many cases, North American congregations have been studying this issue and putting what they've learned into action. In Las Vegas, the seminarium program, the newspaper article, and the UUA initiative have inspired the congregation, Collins-Ranadive says.

"People are beginning to see they have something to offer here," she says. It's "a unique opportunity to invite visitors and residents alike to explore and experience the desert's spiritually nurturing values." Here are some stories from some other congregations:

One of the most active is the UU Church of Riverside, California, which is sponsoring courses on ecology and sustainable living, promoting use of nondisposable items at church functions, recycling, promoting Buy Nothing Day and Take Back the Holidays campaigns, publishing a Green Corner newsletter, networking with community groups, and hosting a women's conference on social change and voluntary simplicity.

Organizer Denise Brennan says, "We had nine at our first meeting and from there it just grew. Now we keep each other on track and out of the malls and provide a light at the end of the tunnel." Everywhere she goes, she says, she finds UUs in the center of the responsible consumption movement. "It's so nice to discover that I'm not the only one who feels this way," she says. "I get bolstered by all these little beacons of light that others provide."

The UU Congregation of the Upper Valley in Norwich, Vermont, has so much going on -- discussion series, buying recycled paper products, making and encouraging handmade gifts, teaching children about advertising -- that it created its own sustainability e-mail group and Web site: www.uucuv.org/sustainability.html. It is also working on becoming a Green Sanctuary through the UUA-affiliated Seventh Principle Project (www.uuaspp.org). Action is required in many areas of church life, including energy conservation, waste reduction, recycling, worship, and environmental justice.

A number of congregations are exploring the voluntary simplicity movement. Many adherents join simplicity circles, often in UU congregations.

The First UU Society of Burlington, Vermont, studied voluntary simplicity last fall and will take up deep ecology this spring, says the Rev. Gary Kowalski. The congregation has viewed the documentaries Affluenza and Escape from Affluenza as lead-ins to discussions. The congregation is also trying to create a services directory encouraging people to buy, shop, and barter locally.

Consumerism was also the focus of the Burlington children's religious education program last spring, says Lisa Rubin, director of religious education. "The program helped the kids determine what had value in their lives," she says. One class figured out what kinds of resources were taken from the earth to create a T-shirt and keep it clean. Another used Saturday morning television commercials to make their own commercials explaining the untruths and sexism they saw.

The Skagit UU Fellowship north of Seattle, Washington, joined with three other congregations -- Episcopal, United Methodist, and Presbyterian -- for a seven-session course on "Food, Faith, and Sustainability." The next goal is interfaith simplicity circles, says the Rev. Barbara Davenport.

At the UU Fellowship of Kamloops, British Columbia, Anne Neave placed two ads and was swarmed with 24 people who formed three simplicity circles. Her own group met for months and now comes back together occasionally to measure progress and provide encouragement. The Orange Coast UU Church of Costa Mesa, California, gained several church members when it opened its simplicity circle to outsiders.

The Foothills Unitarian Church in Ft. Collins, Colorado, buys coffee grown in an environmentally responsible manner, sponsors a vegetarian luncheon (with recipes), promotes local organic farms and food cooperatives, is sponsoring a Responsible Consumption Day at Colorado State University, encourages members to ask retail stores about conditions under which their products were made, and is researching alternative energy sources and environmentally-conscious office and cleaning supplies.

The Hopedale UU Community in Oxford, Ohio, works with a group called Earth Connections, providing courses on simplicity and ecology. It holds monthly church services on green topics, says the Rev. Kathryn Hawbaker. She also works with the UU Young Adult/Campus Ministry in Bloomington, Indiana, which helps put on a community Simply Living fair.

Members of the UU Church of the Verdugo Hills in La Cresenta, California, founded Seeds of Simplicity, a voluntary organization aimed at helping children commit to living simply. It has produced a video, Kids Speak Out on "Stuff." For information, www.seedsofsimplicity.org.

At the UU Congregation of Milford, New Hampshire, member Judy Zambroski took part in discussions about reducing consumption and spending time wisely. "I know that I really look closely now at how I use my money and my time," she says. "I need less to make me happy."

UU World XV:2 (May/June 2001): 56-57.

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