Contents: UU World Back Issue

Greening liberal religious communities

by David Cockrell

Imagine for a moment a church community that had a fundamental commitment to living in harmony with the earth.

The program of such a church would be continuously infused with environmental ideas, actions, and spiritual ceremonies. There would be at least one children's religious education curriculum taught each year on the environment. The adults in the church would carry on a simplicity circle to help each other take actions in their lives that minimize their footprints on the planet. There would be field trips to sites of environmental concern and to places of great natural beauty. Community meals would emphasize locally grown, sustainable foods, free of biocides, with nothing wasted.

Worship would normally invoke elements of the earth and our human connectedness to it. There would be environmental prayers, music, altar objects, and readings. There would be services outdoors. On a regular basis, the minister and congregational leaders would focus sermons on the community of life and the challenges faced by this ecological community.

Imagine the building such a church would own. It would be accessible by human-powered and public transportation and would enhance rather than detract from wildlife habitat. It would capitalize on solar, wind, and water energy to the fullest extent possible. The building would be built with native materials, well insulated, naturally lit, cooled by breezes, and heated by the sun. Every appliance would be energy efficient.

Imagine the grounds of such a church. Recognizing the importance of living well in one's particular place, the plant community would reflect native and well-adapted species for the ecozone of the church. Water levels applied to landscaping would be relatively consistent with those occurring naturally. Chemicals would be avoided, shading for the building would become important, and vegetables would be grown with compost produced through community meal preparation.

In such a church, the administration would be mindful of conservation in all its policies, such as using recycled paper products, reusable dishes, cloth diapers, and nontoxic cleaners, soaps, and art supplies. Church programs would include mending bees, swap programs, work parties, and recycling of paper, glass, metal, and plastic products used by the church and its members. Church investments would emphasize socially and environmentally responsible funds.

Finally, such a church would embrace a leadership role in the larger community by modeling environmental responsibility, especially in relation to issues of ecojustice. The church would recognize that poor people and people of color tend to be the first victims of environmental poisons and natural disasters. The church would undertake environmental projects, perhaps on an annual cycle: impeding irresponsible industry or governmental action, developing appropriate land use planning, protecting critical habitats, cleaning up environmental atrocities of the past, distributing environmental degradation equitably, reducing unneeded consumption. The church would participate in teaching the community that it exists not only in space but also in time-extending backward through memory and tradition, and forward through vision and legacy.

Such a church program exists

Does this vision of a truly "green" church sound too idealistic to ever exist? Many of our Unitarian Universalist churches actually do engage in some of the practices I have described. Other actions sound almost beyond our grasp. The UU Seventh Principle Project believes that this vision of ecospirituality is implicit in living the seventh of our UU principles-respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. For too long UUs have paid lip service to this ideal or attempted to implement piecemeal actions that gesture toward environmental responsibility. There is a need for a road map toward a new church lifestyle, a coordinated program of environmental stewardship that all UUs can buy into. Green Sanctuary is designed to be such a program.

When I was working with others in the Seventh Principle Project to develop the Green Sanctuary Program, the UUA already had a successful program to serve as a model: the Welcoming Congregation. The Welcoming Congregation Program invites congregations to educate themselves about homophobia and take specific steps to welcome people of all sexual orientations. It invites churches to organize a developmental committee, to request candidacy status as a Welcoming Church, and then to engage in a series of simple steps outlined by the program over the course of a candidacy period.

Now in the third edition of its manual, the Seventh Principle Project's Green Sanctuary Program asks a church to engage in twelve actions over a candidacy year, organized into four areas of church life:

  • Worship and celebration
  • Religious education
  • Environmental justice
  • Sustainable living

To obtain recognition as a Green Sanctuary, a church must follow through on five steps and submit an application for accreditation after completing an action plan.

A congregation that undertakes to become a Green Sanctuary examines every area of church life-outreach, social concerns, religious education, buildings and grounds, social events, church communication, and church administration-to see that its activities reflect respect for the interdependent web. It's walking the talk in a big way, and it gives the church a real sense of following through on its commitments in tangible, outwardly visible ways.

Currently twenty churches across North America have completed the accreditation process to become a Green Sanctuary, and thirty-eight more are candidates. Two new resources were published in 2004 by the Seventh Principle Project to support the work of greening: Nurturing the Spirit-Nature Connection, a religious education resource; and Honoring Earth, a worship resource. During 2005 an adult religious education program will be forthcoming.

At home, an ordinary person can take action toward environmental soundness with a reasonable hope of success. The buildings and grounds that serve as home to a faith group likewise are space in which that group can have meaningful influence. Congregations can increase use of reusable and sustainable resources, recycle, avoid using toxic substances, and reduce their use of all resources. As the religious space becomes imbued with social and spiritual meaning, the culture of the church can take on a pervasive connectedness with the earth. People of faith can make their values on ecojustice issues known to the larger community. Their advocacy and examples can influence business, industry, policymakers, and political leaders. A Green Sanctuary is an ideal starting point, a physical and spiritual center for ongoing environmental activism.

All of the religions of the world have something in their teachings and traditions that encourage people to take care of the environment. Religious and spiritual groups are perfectly placed to encourage people to take actions for and to have faith in the earth. Religious buildings and religious groups, by persuasive inspiration and examples to members and visitors alike, can serve as centers from which green homes, workplaces, schools, social institutions, and entire green communities grow. Unitarian Universalists can be in the forefront of this movement, and Green Sanctuary provides a vehicle to do it!

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 Contents: UU World Back Issue
UU World : PAGE 14-15

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