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Area Churches Going Back To The Garden

Faithful Take Small Steps To Address Global Warming

February 18, 2007
By JOEL LANG, Courant Staff Writer

Global warming is prompting a growing number of Connecticut churches and synagogues to go green, and to redefine what keeping the faith means.

They are conducting energy audits of drafty sanctuaries, learning how to insulate stained glass windows and selling low wattage light bulbs instead of cookies at fundraisers.

You could call it counting kilowatts for God. Though the immediate goal is energy conservation, and maybe even saving on the monthly utility bill, the ultimate purpose is bigger. The congregations want to do their part, small as it may be, to burn less of the fossil fuels that produce the greenhouse gases threatening the world.

"God put man in the garden to care for it - that's the first call," said the Rev. Thomas Carr of the First Baptist Church in West Hartford, citing Genesis 2:15. "A lot of people see this as part of our mission. It is as important as feeding the hungry and caring for the poor."

Carr said his church spent $10,000 to insulate the sanctuary and, along with Asylum Hill Congregational in Hartford, was one of the first to buy electricity through the state's "Clean Energy Option," which delivers power, at a slight premium, from generating stations that run on wind, water or landfill gas.

Carr emerged as a leader of the churches' new environmentalism from the campaign begun in the late 1990s to clean up pollution from older power plants known as the Sooty Six. Back then, people worried more about the health hazards of dirty air than greenhouse gases.

"My main reason for getting involved was the global warming association," Carr said. "But I didn't know how to talk about it so it wouldn't seem so overwhelming."

The Sooty Six campaign was still active when Carr and Lynn Fulkerson, head of the Episcopal Church's diocesan environment committee, founded the Interreligious Eco-Justice Network. Now directed by Andrea Cohen-Kiener, a part-time rabbi, the network has sponsored hundreds of showings of Al Gore's film, "An Inconvenient Truth," and has sold thousands of compact fluorescent light bulbs.

Seeking converts to the bulbs, which use a quarter of the energy of incandescent bulbs, may be the most common religious response to global warming.

In December, Congregation Beth Israel in West Hartford began selling the bulbs as part of a national program called "How Many Jews Does It Take To Change a Light Bulb?"

The co-chairman of the congregation's social justice committee, James Friedman, said that at least 500 bulbs have been sold and that he is trying to interest area synagogues in the program. "It's got to be ongoing," Friedman said.

Meanwhile, the Eco-Justice Network has launched a first of its kind "home improvement" program aimed directly at church buildings. Called "This Old House of Worship," it teaches congregations very practical lessons in how to make their churches more energy-efficient from steeple to basement.

"You have to give people doables. You can't just scare them," Cohen-Kiener said. "I ask people what they really think it means to be safe and wealthy. You've got to be real gentle about it. You don't just want to guilt-trip people."

So far, more than two dozen churches and synagogues around the state have signed up for the 15 hours of classes taught by Carol Wilson, a former high school science teacher who has remade herself into an energy consultant. On a Sunday afternoon earlier this month, disciples from five churches met for a class at the 300-year-old First Church of Christ in Simsbury.

Wilson asked for a prayer to start the session. "Help us to be good stewards," said the surprised adult student she called on. "Hopefully we can all walk away with some savings, and save natural resources."

The class then reviewed the insulating capabilities of various materials, studied a math equation for calculating heat loss and discussed the enigma of stained glass windows. Installing exterior storm windows over stained glass is no good, Wilson said, because they trap heat and soften the windows' lead glazing.

Wilson mentioned global warming only once, when she read from a newspaper article that listed the globe's 12 hottest years on record, all since 1990. "I will pass this around and make a copy because it's amazing," she said.

Later Wilson said her curriculum does include a section on the link between fossil fuel emissions and global warming.

During a break, Fulkerson, who was taking Wilson's class for her church, Trinity Episcopal in Torrington, said "climate change is a little harder to wrap your mind around than the Sooty Six. It's a lot scarier and you don't feel empowered to make a difference."

There's still denial about global warming, Fulkerson said. "It's sort of like the arms race. Denial is a good place to go when it could destroy the Earth and there's nothing you can do about it." Avoiding fossil fuel energy, "that's what we can do right now," she said.

Like others, Fulkerson said global warming extends the traditional church notion of environmental justice because warming probably will harm poor people most. Cohen-Kiener said she considers Hurricane Katrina's dead and homeless to be victims of climate change.

A church especially focused on global warming is St. John's Episcopal in Vernon, where the congregation's environment ministry is led by Letitia Naigles, a University of Connecticut psychology professor.

She said her church encourages members to walk, bike or car-pool to services on "Green Sundays" and has the distinction of being the only church to buy out a supplier's entire stock of energy-efficient light bulbs.

Church members are lobbying Vernon and South Windsor, the towns where most of them live, to join the Connecticut Clean Energy Fund's so-called "20/10" program. It commits towns to buy 20 percent of their energy from renewable sources by 2010.

"We've been pretty much in the vanguard of this. I don't think it's a wave yet," Naigles said of churches' concern about global warming.

"The scientists are not entirely sure we can turn back the clock. But we in the church are not going to get depressed. We're not going to let it go."

She said her church has a batch of readings it looks to for inspiration. One is Psalm 104, a homage to God's power that contains the line, "He founded the earth on its foundations that it not falter to eternity."

The church bidding to become the "greenest" in Connecticut, at least technologically, may be the Unitarian Universalist Society East in Manchester. Its minister, the Rev. Josh Pawelek, said the church is planning an expansion that uses geothermal and passive solar energy for heating and air conditioning.

In the geothermal system, underground water pipes draw heat from the earth, and in the passive solar system, pipes embedded in surface concrete collect heat from the sun.

"The fundamental motivation is to address global warming," Pawelek said. "I don't think anyone [in the congregation] thinks we'll solve the problem. We hope to be a model to others."

Pawelek said the church has a sustainable living committee and teaches environmental lessons in Sunday school. The church also has an organic garden children plant each year on church property, he said.

"We're getting back in touch with the earth. I think that's one of the ways human beings are going to overcome global warming," Pawelek said.

In the church garden, children are "learning where food comes from. They think it comes from supermarkets. But just getting it to the supermarket has to do with global warming," Pawelek said.

"The older kids can say, `If I pick this here and eat it, it does not do any damage,' plus there's no pesticides. The younger kids don't know the science. But they know the world is getting hotter and it comes from gasoline and automobiles and heating oil and power plants."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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