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Posted on Sun, Mar 24, 2013 : 5:55 a.m.

Ann Arbor church creates faith-based program aimed at supporting greener habits

By Erica Hobbs

Love your neighbor, forgive your enemies and save the planet?

That’s the message of one Ann Arbor church that is paving the way to promote energy efficiency for faith-based organizations across the state. St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church, located at 2250 E. Stadium Blvd., is leading a pilot project with Michigan Interfaith Power and Light (IPL) to promote energy conservation within its church.

Michigan IPL is a statewide coalition of faith-based organizations that advocates energy conservation. The “Sustainability Framework for Faith Communities” is being implemented by the church’s Sustainability Project, which it hopes to eventually share with other faith communities statewide.

“We as Catholics are called to care for God’s creation and its deep distresses and identify what we can do to help,” said Scott Wright, St. Francis’ social ministry director who serves on the project’s board. “Care for creation is just part of who we are as Christians, we have to care for our environment.”

The Sustainability Project started officially in spring of 2012 after building momentum for several years. Team leader Steve Lavender said the church started discussing the idea of promoting energy efficiency in 2009 as part of its Peace and Justice Committee, the church’s social justice advocacy group. But it wasn’t until last year the project pushed forward.

Michigan IPL President Jane Vogel, also who serves on the Project’s board at St. Francis, said the team collaborated with several other sustainability organizations, including the Catholic Coalition on Climate Change, the University of Michigan Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise and Ann Arbor’s Clean Energy Coalition to create a five-step framework.

The framework includes establishing a team, building a faith foundation, educating and communicating with the church community, taking action to make the parish and homes more "green," and advocating for social and environmental justice on a local and global scale. The project draws upon the sustainability model used by the University of Michigan, which includes seven areas of focus: culture (behavior), energy savings, buildings, land and water, food, transportation, and purchasing and recycling.

While still in its early stages, the group has begun implementing greener policies within the church community as well — beginning with coffee and donuts. Lavender said the church started by replacing the Styrofoam cups and plates used during the church’s weekly coffee and donut social after Sunday mass with compostable and recyclable ones. That effort soon spread to the rest of the kitchen which included replacing disposable dinnerware with real plates and silverware and recyclable or compostable ones.

The group also has been active in educating its fellow parishioners on energy efficiency through updates in the church’s weekly bulletin, the Forum. Recent articles have explored theology for sustainability, defined sustainability as a concept and discussed home energy audits, saving water and recycling. Members also have made energy conservation presentations to the St. Francis community, including its eighth grade confirmation classes.

The church also has led the way to encourage parishioners to make their homes more energy efficient by receiving home energy audits. Rev. Jim McDougall had his home, the church rectory, audited last summer, and Lavender estimated about 30 families have followed since.

“We’re really trying to get folks to think about the bigger picture,” Lavender said. “Whether you live in Ypsilanti or the South Pacific, we’re all brothers and sisters in dealing with this whole climate change issue.”

While some might not always equate religion with environmentalism, Vogel said there are significant connections between Christianity and sustainability. Theologically, Vogel said Christians are called upon by God to protect his creation. She said caring for the environment also goes back to Jesus’ teaching to love your neighbor as yourself, paraphrasing national IPL leader Sally Bingham, “If you love your neighbor, you don’t pollute their air.” Vogel said environmental conservation is also a social justice issue.

“When you consider it, the effects of climate change will have the greatest impact on the poorest among us,” she said. “That whole social justice driver is part of the story.”

Other faith communities in the area also have established similar environmental sustainability groups. The First Presbyterian Church of Saline has an environmental stewardship group that has worked to make the church buildings more energy efficient, educate its parishioners on conservation and grow food in its garden for Food Gatherers.

Vineyard Church of Ann Arbor’s “Green Vineyard” group also has worked to make the church more energy efficient, but leader Brett Cosner said his focus is more on getting congregation members to participate in established community sustainability activities rather than starting their own. He also said the church has set up a weekly recycling service and Pastor Ken Wilson has given several sermons on the importance of sustainability and faith.

The University of Michigan Hillel’s “Hayerukim,” Hebrew for “the greens,” is a student-run group that focuses on the connection between environmentalism and Jewish values. Hillel Assistant Director Davey Rosen said the group has started a compost and gardening program and has hosted an annual Tu B'Shevat dinner, a Jewish holiday celebrating the “New Year for trees,” where students discussed different environmental initiatives.

Ann Arbor Friends Meeting has had an Environmental and Social Concerns Committee since the late 90s. The group, which has about a half dozen members, has worked to make the meeting’s buildings more energy efficient and encouraged families in the congregation to reduce their carbon footprint. It also recently has teamed up with the meeting’s finance and property committees to create a monthly forum on sustainability topics that began in January.

Several members of the Michigan IPL, including St. Francis, Vineyard Church, Ann Arbor Friends Meeting and First Presbyterian of Saline, also are collectively looking into purchasing solar panels to boost their energy efficiency.

Planning ahead, the team at St. Francis is looking at creating a sustainability theme for the church’s faith-sharing groups, as well as discussing K-8 sustainability education in its school. It is also working to expand the church garden to introduce more native species.

For Lavender, it’s all part of the same goal.

“It’s basic Christian teaching,” Lavender said. “This is how we’re supposed to live and how we’re supposed to treat each other.”


Merilynne R

Sun, Mar 24, 2013 : 12:29 p.m.

Another way people of faith can care for the environment is through Natural funeral and burial practices. A home funeral allows for public visitation without embalming, in the comfort of the home. Green burial means being placed in the ground to go back to the earth without a cement vault or non-biodegradable casket. Cremation uses a huge amount of energy and isn't very good for the environment.


Mon, Mar 25, 2013 : 12:23 p.m.

Actually, Churches offer burial after Cremation. This is better for the environment. No casket, no body, no urn.