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Greening the faith

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When Jodi Perras wanted to start a group focused on environmental stewardship at her church in 2006, there was little resistance. The proposal passed unanimously in the church council. But problems arose when it came to implementing changes.

When the church did an energy audit of the four buildings it owns, Perras' team discovered a seldom-used meeting house was using twice the amount of energy as the pastor's house, which was occupied by four people.

The meeting house badly needed insulation, but there were some in the church who didn't think the job was worth the money. Eventually the church moved forward on the upgrade anyway; turns out, it made a big difference.

"Through different things that we did — we really saw the energy bills drop," said Perras, chair of the Green Team at Epworth United Methodist Church, on Indianapolis' northeast side. "And then people said, 'Oh, this is saving money. This is helping. What we're doing is actually helping.'"

The church has since become something of a meeting point for environmental activism and spiritual sustenance. It hosts environmental film nights, recycles, has cut its energy use and has been active politically, writing to Sens. Richard Lugar and Evan Bayh about climate change — an issue its leaders view as a moral one, not political.

It's the kind of awakening a new organization hopes to bring to more congregations throughout Indiana.

Change of faith

Last Saturday, leaders from 16 Christian denominations, along with Buddhist, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, and Unitarian leaders, gathered at First Baptist Church of Indianapolis to celebrate the inauguration of Hoosier Interfaith Power & Light. The organization is an affiliate of the national Interfaith Power & Light (IPL) organization, founded in 1998, which considers itself the "religious response to global warming."

Its goal is to educate religious congregations on energy efficiency, renewable energy, and conservation.

"The first goal of Hoosier Interfaith Power & Light is to reduce our carbon use, our energy use, within our places of worship," explained Luke Gascho, board chair of the new organization and director of the Merry Lea Environmental Center at Goshen College, to the gathering of about 200 Indiana church leaders.

But Gascho said it shouldn't stop there. He wanted to see worshippers take that idea home and to the workplace, as well.

"We have goals that relate to education, relating to energy use, climate change," he said. "We also believe that it's important that we practice timely sharing of information in advocacy networks across the state, so that we can have change occur in our policies."

Gascho and other religious leaders like him have their work cut out for them. Historically, Indiana hasn't had much to cheer for when it comes to the environment, and this year has been no exception.

Indiana is the 4th largest emitter of carbon dioxide in the U.S, and with "Right-to-Work," education, gay marriage, immigration, and myriad other issues atop the statehouse priority list, legislation to improve Indiana's environment hasn't received much attention.

This year environmentalists might have to rely on faith for some good news — people of faith that is.And there's reason to believe that Hoosier Interfaith Power & Light isn't just a feel-good gesture.

"[Indiana] is going to be one of the most important IPL programs in the U.S.," Rev. Sally Bingham, IPL's founder and president, told Saturday's crowd. "The fact that you all are living in a purple, sometimes red, state is important. It is precisely the people here that need to understand that our issue is not about Republican, Democrat, Tea Party people, or Independents.

"This is a spiritual issue. And it's up to each and every one of us to make decisions that will be helpful in deciding the future for our children and our grandchildren."

Before she got involved with IPL, Perras said she had seen the success a church congregation could have with educating people about environmental stewardship.

"I've been working in the environmental field for a lot of years, and it was really when I started working in my congregation that I felt like I could really have an impact on people's lives," she said. "Because it's not the government telling you what to do, it's not some environmental group telling you what to do, it's your own faith community saying we do this because it's right, because we shouldn't be treating the earth this way, and that's what our faith tells us."

Neighbor's success is something to love

Hoosier Interfaith Power & Light is in its infancy as an organization, but it is already providing guidance for churches that want to save energy. For example, the group has devised a "Task of the Month" program, which gives congregations one energy-saving task to complete each month — making an otherwise overwhelming task seem more manageable.

But perhaps most important: the organization acts as something of a support group for faith communities that are interested in sustainability. The hope is that those interested won't have to feel alone in a state where the issue isn't necessarily a popular one.

As an affiliate of a larger nationwide organization, Hoosier Interfaith Power & Light has plenty of successful examples to look to. And it need not look further than the Illinois affiliate, Faith in Place.

The Illinois organization has been around for 12 years and currently partners with over 700 congregations in the state. Part of its success, according to executive director, Rev. Dr. Clare Butterfield, is its ability to reach communities with which environmentalists have otherwise failed to connect.

"Our group of participants doesn't look like the usual suspects when you think of what an environmentalist looks like," she said. "It's much more diverse geographically, racially, religiously, even in age."

One of Faith in Place's programs trains African-American youth in Chicago to install low-cost weatherization kits — which include energy saving tools like door strips and window plastic — in the homes of elderly people in their neighborhoods.Last year they installed over 700 kits.

It's this ability to combine the message of the environmental movement with faith that allows IPL organizations to reach a larger community than the environmental movement has been able to traditionally reach.

The connection was difficult for people to make at first, said Rev. Butterfield.

"I think [the connection] happens much more easily now," she said. "Many more denominations are making this an active part of their ministry, but I think it takes people who are committed people of faith, who are from within the faith community and not simply trying to deploy the faith community to serve an environmental agenda."

Illinois's example is a powerful one. But as committed church leaders move forward here in Indiana, they ultimately need look no further than their own faith — which asks practitioners to care for the Earth as a core part of their spiritual duty.

"Every mainstream religion that I know of has a mandate to care for the earth," said Interfaith Power & Light's founder Rev. Bingham. "For Christians who are commanded to love God and love our neighbors, it could not be clearer... If you love your neighbor, love one another, you don't pollute your neighbor's air and water."

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