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Environmental Justice in the Pews

2012 August 2

By Cassandra Carmichael

Each Sunday millions of Americans attend church, sitting, singing, praying, and worshiping in spaces built to honor the sacred. Yet, in these same spaces congregants may be exposed to harmful chemicals found in carpeting, lead in paint, and toxic residues from cleaning products. Often the materials that are used to build these sacred spaces are manufactured in processes that create pollution in nearby communities.

When I traveled to New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, I met with numerous pastors, many of the them leaders of black churches. The one resounding comment I heard was that churches and their worship spaces should be built on foundations that promote ecological sustainability and purity. These religious leaders are not the first to express this sentiment. Many clergy and lay leaders have taken up the cause to “green” their house of worship—with energy efficient measures, by reducing, reusing, and recycling, using green products and by eliminating many of the toxic substances from their religious buildings.

Energy Star Congregation Award Map

In 2005, the same year that Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast, Keystone Community Church became the first LEED certified church in the world. And over the past decade, the number of “green” churches has grown. In 2009, Idlewild Baptist Church was awarded the Energy Star congregation award.  Several years later Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas, was recognized by the EPA for saving more than $360,000 annually in energy costs for the operation of their worship facility. And the First United Methodist Church in San Diego, California, empowered their congregation to live greener with recycling, landscaping, re-useable shopping bags, creation care classes, sustainably harvested palms for Palm Sunday, and a blog that keeps up with all the latest earth care issues.

This is just a small sampling of the wealth of “greening” activities happening in congregations around the country. Each Sunday, as millions gather to worship and pray they also join together to work to protect God’s good Creation. The National Council of Churches Eco-Justice Program works with congregations such as these to help them “green” their congregations, by providing educational resources, toolkits, and trainings, to make churches healthy, energy efficient places for our communities to gather and worship. The Eco-Justice Program has also issued reports that detail out how congregations save money by using energy efficient measures in their buildings.

About the Author: Cassandra Carmichael is the Director of the National Council of Churches’ (NCC) Washington Office and Eco-Justice Programs where she helps serve the environmental and justice ministries of NCC’s 36 member denominations, which represent 100,000 churches nationwide. In her role as eco-justice program director, Cassandra oversees all NCC eco-justice initiatives. Cassandra has written numerous articles and essays on faith and environment for publications such as Race, Poverty and the Environment journal, Holy Ground, and Heartstone journal. She is a senior fellow in the Environmental Leadership Program; a previous board member on the Chesapeake Bay Alliance. In May 200, Cassandra received the Community Award from R.E.S.P.E.C.T. for her faith-based work in the Chesapeake Bay region. She also recently served on the White House Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnership Advisory Council Task Force on Climate and Environment and the Advisory Council for the Green Bible.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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8 Responses leave one →
  1. Maria permalink
    August 6, 2012

    I will definitely mention this blog to my minister and hopefully take a look at the products we use in our church. Thanks for this information.

    Maria

  2. Robert Murphy permalink
    August 6, 2012

    I’ve been involved with the religion and environment discussion for about forty years. Last September, the national Sierra Club gave me an award for this effort.
    This summer, I’m especially active in responding to climate change problems in “the here and now.” I’ll pass along a few comments that may be helpful.

    FIRST: Use terms like “religious organization” or “community of faith,” instead of the term “church” when talking (and thinking) about religious involvement with the environment. Our nation has Sikhs, Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Native American traditionalists, and milions of others, who are involved in organized religion but who don’t participate in “church activities.” Sunday is not the sabbath day for all “people of faith.” (It’s not even the sabbath day for all Christians.) “Creation spirituality” is important for some religious groups but not for others. For government officials, understanding and respecting religious pluralism is epecially important. Don’t pick favorites among the religions.

    I was in North Carolina after Hurricane Floyd. FEMA officials wanted to meet with “the churches” and a community meeting was scheduled. There was some surprise when local Muslim and Buddhist leaders arrived with the Unitarian Universalist minister, but, yes, they represented congregations that were active in Greenville and they wanted to be included in the government discussion.

    SECOND: Environmental justice and organized religion? Even in most of the “green congregations” that I’ve known, the environmental justice discussion is still very new. In part, because “environmental work” – in most congregations – still reflects the concerns and values and interests of the big conservation organizations. Conservationists have a lot to say about polar bears but seldom, very seldom, do they talk about racism and poverty in American cities.

    Here’s an example: The summer of 2012 is incredibly difficult. Heat waves, droughts, power failures, and extreme weather events have hit low-income families and other vulnerable groups very hard…. The poor need fuel assistance, to keep refrigerators and fans working, but conservation groups seldom support fuel assistance programs…. The rich and the poor experience hot weather in different ways. If you’re wealthy, you may work and live in air conditioned spaces and, maybe, you’ll have a nice vacation in a cool area… If you’re poor, you may be working in construction or in a farmer’s field. So you worry about heat exhaustion and dehydration…. For many folks, climate change is “here and now.”

    Suggestion? Although there’s a lot to learn from the big conservation groups, I encourage religious groups to do some new thinking about social justice and the environment…. The energy conversation, especially, needs to be approached in new ways… I don’t know what role, if any, government agencies want to play in theological discussions. Proceed with caution.

    With best wishes,

    Robert Murphy
    Falmouth, Massachusetts

  3. Frank permalink
    August 6, 2012

    What about burning incense? Doesn’t this cause indoor air quality issues?

  4. Chandler permalink
    August 8, 2012

    Many religious organizations support burning of candles, possibly leading to indoor air quality issues and asthma in sensitive populations. The carbon dioxide emissions may also contribute to anthropogenic climate change.

  5. Ernest Grolimund permalink
    August 8, 2012

    Good idea: consulting all the religions on the environment. Gore did this too. Most religions say the Lord teaches and commands all people to love or care for their neighbours and the earth in different words at different times. Provable? No. Believable? Yes. This just happens to be the core moral teaching behind most of all mans laws in all societies, Lord or no. This consensus also is a poll of sorts guiding government on what most people of all religions people want government to do.

    Most religions I have studied agree with the path that the EPA is trying to follow in general.

    In the USA, many people are Christians and the words of Jesus give some food for thought. “Beware the Fiery Furnaces” is a ripe subject for thought as it referred to the burning dump at Ghenna and was a warning about air pollution as well as a warning about burning off sins or karma perhaps. It is explained by some that many of his best sermons had many levels of understanding. He also advised people to seek the natural goodness of fresh air in the forests and fields in the country and away from the cities where wood was the primary source of energy. This too has a practical lesson for us even today as wood smoke is one of the largest cases of poor health and global warming.

    He also advised people to seek out clean water and food and sunlight and to keep our thoughts clean as well. It is fascinating that most religoius prophets, saints, Masters, Buddhas and Gurus all say basically the same thing on the basics and the environment. If only our politicians could do the same. Given their 50-50 split, it would be wise to follow the advice of these revered leaders and abandon greed, self interest, and work for the common good or God of all.

  6. August 8, 2012

    New York City recently implemented a “benchmarking” study (mandated) which applies to most houses of worship. It requires fairly technical feedback – at a time when most are truly struggling, financially (half the congregation is in foreclosure, e.g.).

    Are we talking about environmental justice, with the implication of distressed socio-economic areas? Or simply environmental awareness?

    Pro Bono design and construction is very very very rare in the current economy.
    LEED is a nightmare – and pretty much nonsense, at that! (LEED gets good press, but many locales have MANDATED energy efficiency anyway, so why pay for a trade-marked bit of publicity? even the Dept of Defense no longer seeks LEED-certification for projects, I believe) A LEED design adds substantial costs – not only the charges of the LEED-certified designer but also materials and methods. Sadly, “green” is hip, so naturally almost every corner of commerce is making hay – construction is a capitalist segment of a capitalist society and has been feeling the pinch; environmental design considerations offer one of the few profit opportunities available.

    “Justice” implies an understanding of intersecting interests – Murphy, above, seems to get that. When a religious group meets in a storefront, LEED is not an issue. Ms. Carmichael, I submit we would be better served with information – in several languages! directed to religious organizations and their congregants, which environmental coalitions could make available to houses of worship.

  7. Moses permalink
    August 9, 2012

    What about the holy water used by some religious organizations? I know EPA regulates public drinking water systems, but what about the water that people put on their foreheads and pour over babies heads? Could congregants be exposed to harmful chemicals found in holy water?

  8. Robert Murphy permalink
    July 2, 2013

    Whew! It’s now the summer of 2013…. Millions of Americans are suffering because of heat waves, droughts, wildfires, massive power failures, the impact of extreme weather events, etc. Vulnerable groups include the very young and the very old – in particular, members of racial minority groups and low-income people – and people with disabilities. At the moment, America seems to be waiting for the next hurricane Katrina or Sandy to arrive.

    This is a crisis situation, for environmental justice advocates. Although we need to be better prepared and more responsive to social justice needs. Examples: How do we make emergency services agencies more responsive to the needs of vulnerable groups? How can we be helpful to the day laborers, the farm workers, and others, who work in extreme heat with little compensation or protection?

    Shelters should be more accessible and more welcoming. Emergency services literature in different languages will be helpful. How do we get agencies like the community clinics and the visiting nurse associations more involved with disaster response work? How do we bring OSHA into the climate change discussion? (How do we get mainstream environmental protection groups more involved in EJ work when natural disasters develop?)

    Religious organizations have been responding to community emergencies since ancient times. It’s the religious groups that have often worked for economic justice, racial justice, community peace, and related concerns, in the past. As the climate change problem develops, religious groups will face new challenges.

    The “greening of religion” is important but there’s a need for something that goes way beyond solar panels and a few poems on Earth Day. There’s a need for environmental justice. I hope and expect that people of faith will provide much of the leadership.

    Some religious groups are responding to environmen

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