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VOL. 35 | NO. 7 | Friday, February 18, 2011

Environmentalism as matter of faith

By Hollie Deese

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The Rev. Canon Sally Bingham has always felt connected to nature, years before she founded a movement committed to help saving it. The Episcopal pastor grew up in the country and watched as the land around her was destroyed and developed.

“And while we have to have some of that, in many cases it is done thoughtlessly,” Bingham says.

And once she was a pastor, she began to wonder why her contemporaries, who she felt were stewards of God’s creation, weren’t preaching conservation.

“I have always seen the divine in nature more so than in a building,” she says. “I started asking clergy why they never talked about protecting creation from the pulpit when we sit in the pew and say we love God and we love creation. Over time I realized nobody was going to do it, so I had to do it.”

As a trustee for the Environmental Defense Fund, she had access to science concerning the harm overfishing, clear cutting, mountain top removal and other human practices were not only doing to the environment, but to the people close to where these practices take place. And what was once “Sally’s Mission” has grown into the Interfaith Power and Light Foundation.

Sixty Episcopal congregations in California grew into a program that is now in 10,000 congregations in 38 states run by such diverse clergy as rabbis and Catholic priests. The goal: To get the congregations who join the program to cut their own carbon footprint and to serve as an example to the community.

“We like to see the leader of that congregation tell the people in the pews how much money they are saving and how much they are doing the right thing in answering God’s call to be the stewards of creation,” Bingham says. “And we hope the folks in the pews will go home and do the same thing in their homes when they realize saving electricity and conserving energy is a matter of faith.”

An unintended aspect of the program, which she calls a religious response to global warming, is the coming together of so many different faiths when she originally thought it would just be a few Episcopal congregations in her home state.

“We can sit in the room together with a common goal and a common interest,” she says. “We are not going to talk about where we came from and where we are going when we die.”

Tennessee is already on board with the program, run by the Rev. Doug Hunt in Knoxville since 2005.

“We have an email list now of about 700 who are connected to several hundred congregations around Tennessee,” he says. “We have about 100-150 very active folks who come from 20-25 congregations.”

Hunt, who doesn’t currently lead a congregation, regularly attends Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist, Church of the Savior United Church of Christ, and Bethel Behel, a reformed Jewish congregation.

“We hope she can stir interest among faith leaders and other community leaders who are concerned and interested in having the same kind of community involvement,” Hunt says. “We know in both Chattanooga and Nashville, the community leadership has shown strong interest in reducing energy use. So it is getting people to recognize that the faith community has a significant, if not major role to play, in meeting the challenges of trying to reduce the impact of the changes that are going on in our climate.

“If I’m wrong, and we have cleaned up the environment and we have cleaned up the air and created jobs, and there is no global warming, we have still done all these good things,” she says.

“But if the other people who say this is all a great big hoax are wrong, it may already be too late and we have already destroyed the ability for humans to live on this planet.”

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