Thursday, December 02, 2010

If Faith Had a Color

By Beth Herman

Ecclesiastes 11:1 - “Cast your bread upon the waters, for after many days you will find it again.”

When members of approximately 300 congregations in 11 faith communities in the greater Washington, D.C. area set their sacred sails toward sustainability, the goal is not so much to find the bread again for personal gain, but to bake it into a world community that honors the resources of all religions, cultures and species resulting in an environmentally solvent planet.

Guided by the tenets and resources of Greater Washington Interfaith Power and Light (GWIPL), a chapter of the national organization and project of the Interfaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington, congregants avail themselves of an organization that promotes green living and response to climate change with a three-pronged approach: education, replete with a faith-appropriate speaker’s bureau and film screenings of such titles as “An Inconvenient Truth” when it came out; greening congregations; advocacy. According to GWIPL Director Joelle Novey, the bottom line is that the group asks a fundamental question about what it looks like when people “really live their values.”

Liturgy and LEED

For Barry Lemley, past president of and current owner’s rep for Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church (CELC) of Bethesda-Chevy Chase, Md., GWIPL was highly instrumental in raising their awareness about what a small congregation can do to work towards changing the planet. A series of seminars called “Creation Care,” which spoke to ideas on improving the local and global environment, ensued both from the Church’s association with GWIPL and also Blessed Earth, an educational nonprofit that works with faith communities on environmental issues. Lemley also credited simple practices such as exchanging old light bulbs for energy-saving ones and reinforcing the idea of turning out the lights, as well as replacing windows in the congregation’s 1950s-era building, with raising CELC’s green awareness quotient. And while educating members about greening their own homes was a big part of CELC’s objective, perhaps the largest component for change is that the Church has been calculating a plan since 2003 or 2004, Lemley said, to redevelop its two-acre site on old Georgetown Road. “To just upgrade certain things and change some of the leaks wasn’t really the way to address environmental issues,” he maintained, adding it wasn’t the direction in which they wanted to go for the community. On October 26, Lemley said the county council approved CELC’s request to rezone the entire property with a goal of LEED Silver certification for the facility.

Chutzpah and Compost

At Congregation Beth El of Montgomery County, Md., Green Tikkun (as in Tikkun Olam: repair of the world) Committee Chair Michele Lieban Levine, already an environmentalist who bikes or takes public transportation whenever possible, recalled attending a GWIPL-hosted meeting on faith-based environmental action in 2007 which resulted in a GWIPL-sponsored energy audit of her congregation. In search, initially, of what Levine and others called the “low hanging fruit,” the first matter of business was to reduce and eventually eliminate all use of Styrofoam that came from a daily breakfast, a regular Saturday lunch buffet following services, pre- and religious school refreshments, and other food-related activities of which Levine said there were many in the 1,100-family member congregation. Beth El also started a designated tax-deductible fund to receive contributions earmarked for green projects. “If it was going to cost more to buy recyclables or compostables,” Levine said, “that would be covered by the fund.” A decision to use dishes as much as possible, as opposed to any disposable products, followed, as did a series of “dumpster dives,” facilitated by a congregant in waste management, to analyze their waste content with a goal of 50 percent recycling. Funds were used to hire a professional composter to pick up compostable waste, and on Tu Bishvat, the Jewish holiday that celebrates the New Year of the trees, nursery school students learned about sustainability by utilizing a bag of compost to help plant parsley seeds.

Epiphany and Electricity

Following a stint at Green America, a national environmental nonprofit, and with lay training in clinical pastoral education where she participated in chaplain training at Washington Hospital Center (“…you talk to people from every background and no background, and you need to be a good listener and respond to their feelings more than anything else,” Novey said), Novey, who is GWIPL’s sole paid staff member, took the helm from the organization’s second director in September, 2009, when she realized the organization and its mission were a confluence of everything she cared about. “What does it mean to put our concerns about the world at the center of our religious community?” she asked, noting that because of our assault on the environment and accruing climate change, one-third or even one-half of the world’s current wild animal species population may not survive another 200 years. When Novey addresses groups about electricity, she examines that half of electricity which comes from coal, the environmental rigors of mountaintop removal mining, and pollution from coal processing and coal fire plants that precipitate climate change. “I bring it all back to the light bulb,” she said, indicating the connection immediately raises eyebrows and consciousness. “That’s the very first step.”

Solar Sabbath

At the 25,200 s.f. Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Bethesda, Md., Rabbi Fred Dobb, who is also Chairperson of GWIPL’s steering committee and a religious environmental educator since his junior year at Brandeis University in 1990 when took a year off to join a cross-country environmental education march (nine months: L.A. to NY), leads a community rooted in green. With its structure - which incorporated, rather than demolishing, a single family dwelling on the property into its design - completed in 2001, recycled carpets, the use of cork, organic gardens, Energy Star appliances and six individually-controlled HVAC zones, among other things, have set the pace for a building about to make synagogue history, environmentally that is. While Adat Shalom was already heralded as one of the greener congregations in the region prior to its association with GWIPL, shepherded largely by Rabbi Dobb’s affiliations with such entities as the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life ( and the national interfaith environmental organization Religious Witness for the Earth, this year GWIPL Director Joelle Novey “…was an indispensable part of a solar working group within Adat Shalom which will lead to the installation of a 45-killowat solar array on the synagogue roof,” Rabbi Dobb said. The array, which will displace one-fourth or more of the building’s electric use for decades to come, will be operational by the end of the year.

Based on the premise that accountability is challenging and climate change - with its often irreversible repercussions - is daunting for many and has become highly politicized as well, Novey observed that even in the five years since GWIPL’s inception, fewer people think the science of climate change is sound. “People are shutting down (to the concept),” she said. “It’s sobering to realize that in the largest sense, we’ve failed to educate the public.” With that in mind, GWIPL’s objective is to stay on message in a safe forum – the congregation – where people do not feel isolated and in fact already experience a sense of connection to one another. “It’s a place where they come to strive to be better, whatever that means in their tradition, or strive to walk a holier path,” she explained. “It’s exactly the place where we do think about changing our lives, our choices, our habits.”

Speaking to GWIPL’s continuing and evolving work in light of its global goals, Rabbi Dobb said, “We have wonderful leadership and a fabulous, wider faith community in the area which has long supported GWIPL. We want to bring more congregations into the orbit so they can receive (GWIPL-sponsored) energy audits, take advantage of our many ongoing resources and so we can hear their success stories.

“We see defending creation as a religious imperative no less than worship or ecclesiastical education,” he continued of the group’s mission. “We are called to the sacred service of securing a sustainable future for all of God’s children and all of God’s critters.”

Images 1-3: Adat Shalom
Image 4: Washington National Cathedral


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