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Sierra Club highlights UU environmental initiatives

National report on religious environmentalism honors Unitarian Universalist projects.
By Donald E. Skinner

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First Universalist Church members sort organic produce

Members of the First Universalist Church in Rockland, Maine, sort organic produce from the farm the congregation supports. (Courtesy First Universalist Church in Rockland)

The Sierra Club has singled out six Unitarian Universalist individuals or congregations for their leadership on environmental issues. Their achievements are reported in the club’s first-ever national report on religious involvement in environmental issues, “Faith in Action: Communities of Faith Bring Hope for the Planet,” which was issued in June.

The Sierra Club recognized one “exceptional faith-based environmental initiative” in each state.

In Maine, the Sierra Club recognized the First Universalist Church in Rockland for its advocacy of sustainable food production and consumption. The congregation organized a community-supported agriculture (CSA) partnership in 2005 with a young couple engaged in organic farming. Members of the congregation and others annually buy shares of the Hatchet Cove Farm’s produce.

First Universalist was the first church in Maine to organize and sponsor a CSA. Having a reliable source of income has enabled the farm couple to buy the farmland they were leasing. The couple also joined the church. This past winter the congregation started a similar project, a community-supported fishery, to support local fishermen by buying their catch.

Members of the congregation visit other churches and groups in Maine, explaining the two projects and encouraging them to start or join similar projects. They explain that buying food that is produced locally has environmental benefits because it reduces energy costs and pollution.

“This has been a joy for us,” said Lucie Bauer, former co-chair of the congregation’s Green Sanctuary program, a Unitarian Universalist Association-sponsored program that supports congregations in environmental initiatives.

“One of the incredible gifts to us has been the weaving of relationships between us and the people who produce our food,” Bauer added. “And now there is a critical mass of people within the church who really get it about local foods and sustainability and being mindful about what you eat and where it comes from. And it’s a joy to go around the state and talk about the ministry of local food.”

The relationship with the fishermen brings up historical connections, Bauer said. “Our church has been in Rockland, a fishing port, since 1820. I look at this new relationship as a reweaving of a historical relationship. It’s very precious to us. We’re helping this group of fishermen do the right thing in very difficult times for them.”

The Rev. Mark Glovin, minister at First Universalist, said, “The CSA has been empowering for church members. It is so easy to get overwhelmed by the scope of the issues we face. Eating locally is a simple tangible change that has a real effect on congregants’ lives and everyone involved, including the earth.”

“Participating in the CSA is praxis and spiritual practice,” Glovin added, “allowing us to put our faith into action and to have an effect in our real sphere of influence which is our own lives.”

The Sierra Club also recognized these individuals and UU organizations:

  • When retired scientist Dr. Chad Tolman organized a study group on global warming at his church, the First Unitarian Society of Wilmington, Del., the group quickly grew into an interfaith coalition that is working to identify and implement steps that people of faith can take to reduce global warming. The coalition was instrumental in the passage of a state renewable energy standard in 2005 requiring that 20 percent of the electricity sold in Delaware be purchased from renewable sources by 2019.

  • The Rev. Clare Butterfield was a cofounder in 1999 of Faith in Place, an interfaith organization in Illinois that works with communities of faith to make a connection between faith, caring for the environment, and social justice. Faith in Place has worked with more than 400 congregations of many faiths on ways to be good earth stewards, including making healthy food choices, supporting organic farmers and markets, and establishing a cooperative that features humane, locally-raised organic meat. It also operates the Illinois Interfaith Power and Light campaign, which helps religious organizations promote energy conservation.

  • The Rev. Fred Small founded Religious Witness for the Earth in 2001, when he was minister of the First Church Unitarian in Littleton, Mass., because he felt religious groups were not doing enough for the environment. In seven years the group has led a number of interfaith prayer services calling for climate action, circulated a petition to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and testified at state and federal hearings on energy conservation. In March 2007 RWE participated in an interfaith worship and rally that drew thousands, culminating in the largest global warming demonstration in U.S. history.*

  • All Souls UU Church in Kansas City, Mo., organized a Green Sanctuary committee that initiated a churchwide recycling program, created a native plant garden, and conducted classes on global warming and fair trade organic coffee, tea, and chocolate. It has also educated church members about sustainable food consumption, including holding frequent “Eat Your Values” lunches with local organic fare. Through the use of real dinnerware and composting, a recent lunch generated only a one-pint bag of trash.

  • In East Middlebury, Vt., the organization Spirit in Nature, founded by the Rev. Paul Bortz, has created the Interfaith Path Sanctuary, a series of paths with quotations from various religions, designed to promote education and action toward better stewardship of the Earth. The organization’s website notes, “Spirit in Nature’s power lies in its ability to use the traditional wisdom of organized religion to jolt you out of your mind’s ruts and into a new perception of your environment.”

  • Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon works to protect farmland, forestland, and natural areas. It also has programs on food sustainability and global warming. Three of its many interfaith partners are UU congregations: Michael Servetus UU Fellowship in Vancouver, Wash.; First Unitarian Church in Portland; and West Hills UU Fellowship in Portland.

The Sierra Club report also lists the UU Ministry for Earth, an independent affiliate organization of the UUA, as a national resource for congregations interested in environmental justice.

Correction 09.09.08: In an earlier version of the article, we mistakenly said that RWE's rally and demonstration culminated in the largest demonstration on environmental issues in U.S. history. Click here to return to the corrected paragraph.

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