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VOL. 39 | NO. 25 | Friday, June 19, 2015

Climate change as faith issue a tough sell

By Hollie Deese

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Tennessee Interfaith Power and Light holds vigils across the state to pray for action on climate change. This one took place in February at Danny Mayfield Park in Knoxville.

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It’s been a tough few years for Tennessee Interfaith Power and Light. The state affiliate of a national network of faith communities, the organization offers its members a spiritual way to respond to climate change issues and challenges from political and other sources.

But it isn’t always easy to get support in its mission.

“I think climate change has been so politicized that it is difficult for people to see it as a spiritual issue,” says Louise Gorenflo, coordinating secretary of TIPL, based in Knoxville but working throughout the state.

“The immediate response is whatever their ideology is. So we do put a lot of effort into recruiting other churches and faith groups, but there is pushback. Generally the clergy are very understanding of reality, but there is not enough in their congregation.”

Gorenflo, a Taoist, admits the group crumbled a bit and was dormant for a couple of years. But in late 2012, Gorenflo says there was concern that the spiritual approach for responding to climate change was not happening in Tennessee. And so they pulled the association back together with the help of the national Interfaith Power and Light association.

“TIPL is like the phoenix – it rises from the ashes,” she says.

Pope Francis takes charge

The world spotlight has been on climate change recently. Pope Francis was expected to release a major policy statement on June 18.

According to the Catholic News Service, the statement, also known as an encyclical, is expected to decree climate change “a moral issue.’’

Miami Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski, chairman of the Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, said in a news release, “the pope would not be speaking as a scientist or a politician but as a shepherd and that the bishops, who “aren’t novices” on care for the environment, cannot “opt out” of this conversation. Pope Francis will challenge the assumptions of “both the left and the right” with the document.’’

A Pew Research Center study on U.S. public views on climate change was released in August, 2014, stating, “43% of Republican or Republican-leaning U.S. adults believe there is no solid evidence that the Earth is getting warmer.’’

According to the study, Americans who identify with other political ideologies, around seven in 10 adults, believe that there is evidence the earth is warming up.

The issue breaks down into whether man is causing the earth to warm up, and if so, what can be done about it, which is where policy changes become part of the global discussion.

Prayer vigils, policy changes

Tennessee Interfaith began holding climate prayer vigils across the state in an effort to identify different churches and clergy interested in climate change and willing to come out for it, with another one scheduled in Oak Ridge in August. There are about 20 faith groups from across the state representing 12 denominations, and it is more focused on its mission than ever before, actively advocating for policy change on sustainability issues.

“In its earlier reincarnations, the IPL in Tennessee and nationally was largely focused on greening churches - practicing sustainability and getting energy audits, putting solar on roofs, things like that. This version, TIPL 3.0, is largely focused on effective climate policy. And engaging in the world more than the previous versions.”

On a local level, TIPL has been encouraging TVA to make more energy efficiency available through its different programs, have given public and written comment on the power plant, and are working with TVA on climate justice issues.

“TVA currently does not have any energy efficiency programs available for lower income families,” Gorenflo says. “Basically you have to have money to access them, so that is an ongoing effort with TVA. We are also organizing meetings with our state senators and clergy to talk about the morality of climate change. We have worked with the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy to make TVA energy audits available to churches across the TVA service area.”

So far this year 11 churches across the state have already taken advantage of the energy audits.

“And we are still also interested in churches practicing what they preach,” she adds. “When a church joins TIPL they have essentially made the decision to take a stand on climate change. There are no dues and expectations other than that.”

Earth Care Pledge

Blake Brookshire, 31, admits he was not much of an environmentalist growing up in Tyler, Texas. But his mindset has changed over the years, thanks in part to his job at KPMG in the LEED-certified Sun Trust building on Commerce in downtown Nashville, but more importantly from his church’s commitment to sustainability and energy efficiency.

“I am probably a good example of how institutions and organizations can influence people to change behavior,” he says.

Raised as a Baptist, he met his Catholic wife at Vanderbilt. But three years ago they became members together of Westminster Presbyterian Church on West End in Nashville.

“We were looking for a congregation that would be a nice balance of our traditions and upbringings and also, as we grew up, our spiritual needs matured a little bit,” he says. “We really lucked out that we both landed on a place we were both comfortable with, independently.”

At Westminster, environmental issues are a priority, and Brookshire is part of the outreach subcommittee that handles sustainability for the church, helping ensure they meet the criteria for the Earth Care Pledge they have committed to the church to be active stewards of God’s creation.

“We formed an agenda and made a 10-year plan to overhaul the way that we handle waste and try to make things a little more efficient around the campus,” he says. “It is really cool to see how you can do something as a community of 2,000 people which represents about 400 families, who then go back home and teach their kids something different. I think that is kind of exciting.”

Brookshire says participating as an Earth Care Congregation is a sub-ministry of the Presbyterian Hunger Program, and they have set an emphasis on the awareness of resource scarcity and minimizing their carbon footprint.

“A lot of people would tell you that we do what we do as obedience to God, but if I was honest I would tell you this is not a compliance activity – this is something that is continually mentioned among new members,” he says.

“It is a rhetoric that is on everyone’s tongue these days, and our church has tried to listen and implement things as we can.”

Successful efforts at Westminster to date include a campus recycling pilot program, the elimination of Styrofoam cups from coffee stations throughout campus while continuing to minimize paper with reusable mugs offered, water served from pitchers, and fair-trade coffee offered and veggie options available for Wednesday night dinners.

They have also planted native species trees after storm damage on church grounds, added light-motion sensors where applicable, donated used building materials to Westminster Home Connection and Habitat for Humanity, as well as bringing in earth care speakers and hosting worship services outside. They even began delivering the church newsletter via email, which brought some pushback.

“When we were coming up with our little effort here, we felt we would be alienating some participation if we called it something environmental,” he says. “Sustainability was a word that seemed to resonate with the congregation so much because of the idea of meeting the needs of a present generation without compromising the resources for future generations.”

Moving forward, Brookshire says they are working with a fair-trade alliance in Mexico and Guatemala to procure responsibly-harvested palm fronds for Palm Sunday 2016, and are working with Metro Nashville public works and the WPC youth program on an Adopt-A-Stop effort for removing litter from bus stop No. 2046 along the West End border of campus.

They are also working with the Cumberland River Compact on an effort to adopt a section of Richland Creek near the church campus, exploring opportunities to use locally grown, pesticide-free flowers in service and possibly allocating carpool spots in closest lots for Sunday worship.

‘Caring for the natural world’

And it isn’t just Westminster that is involved in environmental issues, but the entire Presbyterian Church says Rebecca Barnes, associate for environmental ministries of the Presbyterian Church USA, based in Louisville.

“PCUSA has a long tradition of theology and biblical foundation that caring for the earth is part of our daily discipleship as Christians, and we don’t separate it out from the other things we do as part of our faith life – caring for others and caring for the natural world,” Barnes says.

The Presbyterian church’s general assemblies, the decision-making bodies, have had policies for decades about caring for natural resources, for water, responding to climate change, trying to live our own lives as carbon neutral as much as possible.”

Barnes says each church is unique in what it does in terms of sustainability, with some focusing on the worship and the scriptures about creation, water, land or food, or hosting a Vacation Bible School that teaches kids about food and gardening and local food economy.

“Presbyterians have traditionally been known, especially overseas, for building schools or hospitals and really focusing on public health, children’s health, education, and I think this is an extension of our long health commitment and standing in solidarity with those who are poor, those who are hungry,” she says. “This is a kind of social justice that includes not just human species, but the entire world.”

Of course, just because the church believes in environmental issues doesn’t mean ever member does, much like PCUSA’s recent decision to approve same-sex marriage.

“Our church is diverse and people hold many different views,” Barnes says. “Even though our national church policy is very clear on climate change, there are people in the pews who are not certain about climate change and who still question it.

“You can find everyone along the entire spectrum in the Presbyterian Church.”

Do unto others… and the earth

Tricia Bruckbauer, program director for Creation Justice Ministries – formerly the eco-justice program for the National Council of Churches – says their goal is to educate people from a Christian perspective about environmental issues and try and equip them to advocate and speak out on behalf of creation, and on behalf of marginalized and vulnerable populations.

“I believe from a Christian perspective that we are called by God to care for creation,” she says. “God created the world and it was good, and he also placed us in the garden to till it and to keep it, which is where our stewardship call comes from.

“From a purely care creation standpoint there is a solid biblical grounding in why Christians should be involved with caring for the environment.”

And she says the proof is all right there in the Bible.

“In the New Testament we see a distinct call to care for our neighbors in Matthew. And so when we look at a lot of these environmental issues like air pollution and climate change, these are not impacting everyone equally. There are certain communities that are disproportionately impacted, whether that is here in the United States or around the world, and there are people who we are called to serve.

“I think engaging in these environmental issues are really matters for justice, and I think that seamlessly aligns with the Christian faith.”

But until the politics can be taken out of it, Bruckbauer agrees it is going to take the hard work of a lot of small faithful groups to effect change.

“There is obviously a political element to a lot of these issues, especially when were are dealing with the advocacy side of things,” she says.

“But when we come at these issues we come at them from a faithful perspective, from a biblical and theological grounding, and so I think that we can talk with people who maybe don’t agree with us politically but can understand where we are coming from, from a Christian perspective.

“Wherever we can focus on the moral obligation and the call from God to care for God’s creation, I think that is where we have a little more common ground.

“And if we can make these issues less political and more issues of faith, then I think that there are a lot more similarities and a lot more room to work together.”

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