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UU congregations take on the environment

Turning the UUA's Seventh Principle into a call to action.
By Donald E. Skinner
Winter 2006 11.1.06

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In the face of global warming, killer hurricanes, and government apathy, it's pretty clear that someone needs to save the world from impending environmental disaster. And who better to do it than Unitarian Universalists?

As a religious people, UU individuals have always been engaged in environmental work, from supporting the Endangered Species Act and Earth Day to the banning of DDT. Delegates to General Assembly have approved at least sixteen environmental statements and resolutions since 1961, covering topics as diverse as Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, population control, hazardous waste, and mountaintop coal removal.

And increasingly now, churches are getting into the act with environmental programs that involve the whole congregation. One of the reasons for that movement is the Unitarian Universalist Ministry for Earth (UUMFE), formerly known as the Seventh Principle Project (for the UUA’s Seventh Principle, which calls on Unitarian Universalists to affirm and promote “respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part”).

UUMFE, an affiliate organization of the UUA founded in 1990, has doubled its membership in the past year, from 200 to 400 people. UUMFE’s most visible program is the Green Sanctuary program through which congregations develop an awareness of environmental issues, encourage personal lifestyle changes, and work to heal environmental injustices. Right now, fifty congregations are accredited as green sanctuaries with another fifty working toward accreditation.

The Rev. Katherine Jesch, UUMFE’s director, attributes the organization’s dramatic growth to its efforts to increase the visibility of environmental issues within the UUA and to the increasing urgency of specific environmental issues such as global warming and Hurricane Katrina. “Four or five years ago no one knew how to find us,” she said. “But as we’ve become more visible and as other factors have risen to prominence such as global warming and Hurricane Katrina, I think we’ve reached a tipping point.”

No congregation exemplifies the new greening better than All Souls Church, Unitarian, in Washington, D.C. About four years ago, the acting church administrator, concerned about the amount of trash the church was generating, asked two members to begin a recycling program. From that small beginning, the impetus quickly grew to develop more environmental projects and form a Seventh Principle Committee.

Since then, environmental issues have become more visible at All Souls. The church has twice-monthly Zero Trash Sundays, with cloth napkins and china in place of paper products, dramatically reducing the amount of trash. They have also developed a “Talking Trash” curriculum for high school youth, hosted a city-wide fair trade fair, and produced an environmentally-themed original musical. All Souls is working on becoming a Green Sanctuary.

“We’re starting to open a lot of eyes in the congregation,” said Pamela Sparr, co-chair of the Seventh Principle Committee. Sparr said her group has been able to link environmental justice with racial justice in ways that help people understand that both are connected and important. “One person had this huge ‘Aha!’ moment when she realized that improving the environment was not just about trees and endangered species, but about people as well,” Sparr said. “We made a connection between toxic materials and Hurricane Katrina, explaining that part of the toxic sludge that Louisianans are having to deal with now came from factories that produced the raw materials for things like plastic plates and cups.”

In Minnesota’s Twin Cities, members of five UU congregations have created UU EcoMinds, a group that has joined with an interfaith organization to work on the issue of global warming. EcoMinds members knocked on doors for four weekends, generating 725 postcards to the governor and legislators, coming close to winning passage of a measure that would have reduced the state’s dependence on coal as an energy source and increased wind power and other clean, renewable electricity sources.

One of those congregations, the Minnesota Valley UU Fellowship in Bloomington, also was recognized by a local newspaper as an “Earth Hero” for selling energy-saving compact fluorescent light bulbs.

Lisa Herschberger, a Minnesota Valley member, said members of her congregation are much more aware of environmental issues than they were previously. “I wouldn’t say a wholesale transformation has occurred yet,” she said, “but I do think there have been broad incremental changes in many people especially around the issues of global warming and sustainable living.”

The 150-member Cedars UU Church in Bainbridge Island, Washington, used the Green Sanctuary program to become better known in the community. It sponsored an environmental film series and is planning four workshops on issues including home energy conservation and alternatives to gas-guzzlers. It was part of a coalition that organized Earth Day activities last spring.

“Leadership from a UU church is a natural on issues like this because these are moral issues,” said Barry Peters, chair of the Green Sanctuary Steering Committee at Cedars UU Church. “For a church to step forward and say ‘Will you join us in focusing on these issues?’ people feel a greater comfort than if the invitation came from a political party or other secular group.”

Harold Wood concurs. He had been a member of the Sierra Club for thirty years when he discovered and joined the twenty-five–member UU Fellowship of Visalia, California, two years ago. It was the Seventh Principle that drew him in: “When I found out about the Seventh Principle I said, ‘This is what I have always believed.’ It’s a different way of working on environmental issues. I love it and it has changed my life.”

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