Kentucky pastor and environmental activist Carol Devine has a succinct view of climate change:
“I'm a follower of Christ and a person of faith. The planet is dying, and this is the most important issue of our time.”
A Disciples of Christ senior minister at Providence Christian Church in Nicholasville, Kentucky, Devine has another almost full-time portfolio: heading up the Disciples longstanding eco-justice ministry, now known as Green Chalice. Launched first as a grassroots project among the 200 or so Disciples churches in Kentucky, Green Chalice, which advises congregations to raise awareness and changes their environmental practices, was formally adopted as an official Disciples ministry in 2011.
Devine also sits on the board of Creation Justice Ministries, a broad coalition of Christian and non-Christian denominations and organizations. In its mission statement, the group says it “educates, equips and mobilizes Christian communions/denominations, congregations and individuals to protect, restore and rightly share God's Creation.”
In 2017 the Disciples of Christ General Assembly voted to become a carbon-neutral denomination by 2030. That decision was the evolution of a process based on growing support, said Devine, who has been active in promoting theological reflection and action on behalf of environmental justice for more than a decade — and can recall getting routine emails from people who were upset with her work, she said.
“There's been an incredible wave of people waking up,” said the pastor, contacted on her way to lead workshops at her denomination's biannual meeting.
Though she sees a “real uptick in support” for addressing climate change, the work can also be very taxing, she said. “This ministry is exhausting and scary and grief-filled,” she said. "It's really hard emotionally as well as hard work in other ways. All justice ministries are hard. But when you are talking about the demise of the planet, it's a whole different level.”
At 52, she's aware that in the course of her lifetime, the climate crisis may only worsen. “That's a really horrible thought.”
What's the prognosis for her children, who are young adults? Devine isn't sure. “If we do what the scientists say is required, it will take decades before we see the earth heal.”
On the other hand, she added, embracing environmentally sustainable ways of living out faith is bringing energy and passion to Christian communities that have become increasingly sidelined by American culture in recent years. “Jesus never calls us to the comfortable, easy path. We're actually living out our faith in a way that feels authentic and real and right.”
In a way, it's not surprising that Wayne's Central Baptist Church, which sits along Route 30 in the affluent Mainline Philadelphia suburbs has taken a progressive approach to faith, politics and cultural life. This congregation, after all, was the result of an 1840’s split over slavery.
According to lay treasurer Chuck Marshall, Central Baptist has been working to lighten its carbon footprint for more than 20 years. That includes installing thermostats for each heating zone, bringing in LED lights, signing up for wind energy under the electric choice program and even wrapping hot water pipes.
In 2005, the church opted to move forward with a solar panel grant application from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. Though they didn't get the grant that year, a few years later, Central was able to work out a grant match that allowed it to install solar panels on the roof of the historic church building.
Said Marshall, who also sits on the Pennsylvania branch of Interfaith Power & Light, which works with hundreds of congregations of many faiths to save energy, go green and respond to climate change, “It’s all part of creation care. Congregants do believe climate change is real, and we need to do something about it. The biblical mandate is for people to preserve what God gave us.”
Congregation goes green
For 107 years congregants at the Unitarian Universalist Society in southeastern Iowa had attended worship in a church in the heart of downtown Iowa City. But though it was picturesque and a historic landmark, the building had some disadvantages: When it was built, it wasn't accessible to the disabled, there was no nearby parking and it wasn't energy-efficient.
“We had done all we could,” said congregation member Deborah Schoelerman.
Church members eventually voted to move out of their longtime home. When they did, they determined to build “the greenest church in Iowa.”
The decision to go green was rooted in the seventh UUA principle: “Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part,” Schoelerman said. As chair of the congregation's Green Sanctuary Committee, she also headed the Facilities Committee that oversaw construction of the new church on 8.5 acres in nearby Coralville.
The new building features geothermal heating and cooling, electric charging stations for cars, sustainable cladding, energy efficient windows and the use of a solar array.
The Coralville congregation has earned a Green Sanctuary Award, awarded by its denomination, and an Interfaith Power & Light “Cool Congregation” prize for being a Renewable Role Model.
The Coralville church also participates in several other activities focused on environmental issues, from writing legislators to supporting local farmers who are practicing sustainable farming, she added.
Schoelerman's husband, Paul Pomrehn, is an active member of the congregation and sits on its governing board of trustees.
“If you look at our values and our perspective on what we do with our time on earth,” he said, “that's what's driving us."