Environmental Justice in the Pews

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-usable 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.