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God is Green
Philly's churches, mosques and synagogues battle climate change.In the midst of Sarah Palin’s God–will–grant–us–an–oil–pipeline mumbo jumbo and other equally egregious misrepresentations of religion for political gain, some choose to throw the baby out with the bathwater, rejecting religion as the lunatic ravings of a bygone era. But as climate change and energy independence begin to affect everyone from the atheist to the pious, many churches, mosques and synagogues in Philadelphia are joining the fight for environmental reform.
This week, the Academy of Natural Sciences announced receipt of a grant from the William Penn Foundation to start the Center for Environmental Policy. Recognizing the good work of the Academy to bring non–partisan, townhall–style organization of disparate do–gooder organizations to issues of environmental policy, the William Penn Foundation has offered $82,500 as startup capital for an ad–hoc environmental think tank to bring more voices into the debate over urban renewal and climate change initiatives.
First on the newly formed Policy Center’s adgenda: the Interfaith Environmental Network.
Philadelphia is brimming with faith–based organizations looking to be involved in environmental stewardship. Nearly 20 churches and religious organizations are already on board. Organizers at the Academy of Natural Sciences believe they just need a way to connect.
Joy Bergey is Director of the Interfaith Climate Change Campaign. She has been working with different religious groups in Philadelphia for the last 10 years, encouraging involvement and outreach from sisters, rabbis, clerics, imams and everyday parishioners. She says that despite distortions by politicians, religion and science are not the oil–and–water combination many people may think.
”If you look at just about every major faith tradition, its followers are called to do two things: take care of those least able to care for themselves; and certainly global warming will affect those people both at home and abroad,” Bergey says. ”The other common tenet of most religions is the call to care for the Earth, given to us as an irreplaceable gift by the creator.”
Bergey’s job has mainly focused on connecting parishioners and religious organizers to the policy discussions affecting their communities. But as climate change projects have become a priority in Philadelphia, her job has gotten more difficult. The Center for Environmental Policy hopes to help through a series of networking efforts.
”We had a Sustainability Forum back in May where we were discussing faith–based issues with these groups that were doing different things and we really didn’t know much about them,” says Roland Wall, director of the Center for Environmental Policy. ”What we found was that when we got the groups together that night, almost everyone in the room represented a church or religious organization doing something on environmental issues, whether it be a mosque creating a community garden all the way to a large interfaith group in New Jersey doing the kinds of things the Pennsylvania Environmental Council might do. It was eye–opening.”
Now that the cat is out of the bag, the race is on to see how this enviro–God concept will manifest itself. Ideas have been kicked around, from an interfaith online networking site to a weekly newsletter cataloguing different efforts around the city. The overall goal is to get religious groups involved in urban sustainability as soon as possible because one thing is for sure: these religious groups are not waiting for a misinformed public to come around.
Last year, when Ed Rendell announced the Energy Harvest Grant Program for alternative energy, first in line were the Medical Mission Sisters, a convent in Fox Chase.
Awarded over $22,000, the sisters purchased a 5.1–kilowatt solar photovoltaic system to generate 6,047 kilowatt hours of electricity and reduce power plant air emissions. The system now produces all the energy for the convent on site. And you thought religion and science didn’t mix.
”As good stewards of the Earth, we are compelled to use what we have in a wise way,” Sister Clarita Hackman says of the solar array atop her convent.
This is not a rogue sect of religious progressives. Chestnut Hill’s United Methodist Church has been buying 100% clean wind energy since 2002. Mishkan Shalom in Roxborough has built their synagogue inside a former mill, complete with solar–powered amphitheater. The building received an Energy Star award from the EPA.
”I think religion and science have two separate missions that don’t conflict with one another,” says Bergey. ”The paradox in this country of religion versus science is really overblown.”
Assisting Bergey in her crusade against this paradox is the Interfaith Coalition on Energy. Begun in 1980, after the second Iranian revolt caused a spike in oil prices, ICE brought together representatives from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, the Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia, the Metropolitan Christian Council of Philadelphia and the Philadelphia Chapter of the American Jewish Committee to see how religious denominations could cooperate to control rising energy costs.
ICE currently runs climate change workshops for religious leaders, publishes newsletters on various environmental efforts around the city and connects different faith communities with one another. It was ICE that assisted Sister Hackman in finding the Energy Harvest Grant that brought solar energy to her convent.
”There is tremendous benefit to involving other religious groups,” Hackman says. ”Not just in material help but technological help as well.”
The one thing ICE doesn’t do is involve these groups in more secular efforts to reform environmental policy on a city level. That’s where Roland Wall feels something is missing. As the Academy of Natural Sciences works to connect religious organizations to more broad–based policy issues, they will no doubt keep an eye on religious groups already on the right track.
The Unitarian Society of Germantown on Lincoln Drive currently works like an environmental activist group, going above and beyond the work of a normal church group. The group’s Green Sanctuary Committee has been involved in greening vacant lots in Tioga, petitioning legislators for more green jobs in Harrisburg, and promoting recycling programs through a partnership with the city Streets Department.
”I’m a believer in the common ground between religion and other walks of life,” Green Sanctuary Committee chairman Joe Walsh says. ”We are a very liberal congregation by traditional standards but in my meetings with clergy members from the other end of the spectrum, all we hear is Catholic nuns saying ’God would not want us to pollute this river.’ Nature has really given us all a sense of belonging and opens doors to the mysteries of the world.”
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