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John A. ColemanFebruary 01, 2011

     I was asked recently to serve on the advisory board of  California Interfaith Power and Light, one of 36 state branches which sponsor, as part of a national network, religious responses to global warming, due to deforestation, gross energy inefficiencies, glacial melting, overuse of fossil fuels. The root source in religion for care about ecology stems from the notion of our stewardship of God's creation. Religious groups, typically, also lift up strongly the pertinent issue of eco-justice( that is, those who least caused global warming suffer more from it, due to encroaching desertification, water deficiencies and pollution, rising sea levels etc.)

        I had met the foundress of Interfaith Power and Light, the Reverend Canon Sally Bingham, an Episcopal priest, at a national board meeting and seminar of another group, The Interfaith Partnership on the Environment, in October, 2009 and was impressed by her interventions and comments. At the time I also read an edifying and illuminating book she edited, Love God, Heal Earth, which bundled together 21 essays by Jewish, Muslim, Evangelical, Mainline Protestant and Catholic voices concerned about healing the earth ( Pittsburgh, PA: St. Lynn's Press, 2009). One of the Catholic voices in that book, the Rev. Charles Morris, Pastor of St. Elizabeth Church, Wyandotte, Michigan, insists that " we can no longer treat God's good earth as a dumping ground". Father Morris did an energy audit of his church which helped reduce energy use by almost 60 percent in a five year period.

        The California Interfaith Power and Light ( CIPL)--now around ten years old-- is, to be sure, a modest organization with a somewhat measly yearly budget of a mere 232,000 dollars. But it represents a robust sign of creation care and a specifically religious attempt to address issues of stewardship and eco-justice. It engages in several key activities. Perhaps, first and most important, it provides congregations and parishes resources and personnel to help them do a serious energy audit and to find ways ( different light bulbs, solar panels etc.) to reduce their energy use significantly. This is not only a money saver but an educational opportunity for members of congregations/parishes to pay attention to issues of energy waste. Since 2000, CIPL member congregations have curbed their own greenhouse emissions by over 64 million pounds, through their cumulative energy-saving efforts. Yearly, CIPL presents " Oscars" to churches which have conspicuously embodied green technology and energy savings.

        Some salient examples abound. The South Bay Muslim Green team has given away over 10,000 re-usable canvas bags to reduce waste. Congregation Beth El in Berkeley pioneered with the first geothermal heating system in Berkeley. Holy Family Catholic Parish in South Pasadena, employing a total of 133 new energy-saving light fixtures, also, thereby, cut 30% from its utility bill for lighting. Mary Immaculate Catholic parish in Pacoima dedicated Lent to homilies on themes such as air, water, food and climate change. The weekly bulletin featured an ecology corner. A monthly town-hall meeting in the parish highlighted the waste and destructive potential of plastic water bottles which are now banned on church grounds.

           CIPL also engages in both education for congregations and advocacy--largely lobbying or writing letters to legislators on some key energy issues. Examples include lobbying to enact legislation in California to increase to 33% ( it is presently 20%) the renewable porfolio standards for public utilities. In effect, by a certain date, utilities would be asked to derive a third of their energy from renewable energy sources, such as wind or solar or wave power. Other lobbying efforts envision the banning of the use of plastic bags in supermarkets and other stores.

        Modest as the results of congregational actions may be, they are educational. 20% of CIPL congregations draw on solar energy; 30% employ forms of ridesharing, carpools, bicycling and walking; 25% have planted new trees on congregational grounds. A growing number of parishes demnd LEED design in any new parish construction or remadeling. Nor are all actions state-side. A Carbon Covenant links California congregations with: monks in Cambodia who protect forests from de-forestation in their sacred groves; with an Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Ghana which is fighting to restore de-forested lands; with the Presbyterian Church in Cameroon planting 100,000 trees and ensuring that water catchments are protected and developed; the planting of 3 million trees on Mount Kilimanjaro with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania. The main focus of these Carbon Covenant programs is to combat one of the single largest sources of global warming: de-forestation ( which represents 20% of all global warming) due to illegal logging and poaching. These programs are re-foresting degraded lands.

         Similar programs can be found sponsored by other state-wide branches of the national Interfaith Power and Light coalition. Iowa's IPL held a national day of service helping to weatherize 17 low income houses in the Des Moines area. North Carolina's IPL called for an end to Mountaintop removal coal mining which pollutes air and water. Kansas' IPL engaged in an energy stewardship program which toured Kansas' wind projects and held discussions about the theological and moral reasons for energy stewardship. The National IPL coalition is sponsoring a National Preach-In on Global Warming for the weekend of Feb. 11-13, 2011. Data shows that very few sermons, in either Protestant or Catholic churches, ever raise issues of ecological stewardship, global warming, eco-justice and creation care.

         In his book, Hot, Flat and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution--And How It Can Renew America, columnist Thomas Friedman seems to imply that the modest action of groups such as CIPL are much too small and measly really to tackle the growing and possibly catastrophic issue of global warming. In his view, only governments and large corporations have the needed clout to meet head-on the scope of the problem. I suspect, in one sense, he is right. But I am convinced that modest actions of stewardship ( even the planting of organic gardesn on parish grounds) serve as ascetic reminders and conscience-raising practices which root, for parishioners, the realities of eco-justice, creation care and stewardship. In many ways, the hope of CIPL is that religious congregations and parishes, through such modest actions, will, little by little, serve in educating a mass of people receptive to larger schemes to address global warming.

           Having read a great deal, lectured and written over the past decade on a range of issues connected with eco-justice and creation care, I did feel it was time for me to put my body and some action to where my research and writing has already been. So, I have agreed to serve on the advisory board of CIPL.


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Daniel Misleh
13 years 5 months ago
California Interfaith Power and Light is lucky to have Fr. Coleman's wisdom and experience.  I was with Fr. Coleman and Rev. Bingham in October 2009 when the National Religious Partnership for the Environment was going through a strategic planning process.  Fr. Coleman and Rev. Bingham were both insightful and enormously helpful with this process.  

For Catholics interested in learning about all the ways our community is organizing and educating the faithful on our unique approach to climate change, please visit the Catholic Coalition on Climate Change at www.catholicclimatecovenant.org. 

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