Correction: An earlier version of this story included incorrect spelling for Rabbi David Shneyer’s name, and stated that Kehila Chadasha synagogue is located in DC. The story has been updated to correct the spelling and also to note that the synagogue does not have a fixed location, and the congregation typically meets in Montgomery County.
It started a little more than a year ago, with an innocuous question during coffee hour after a Sunday service at Grace Episcopal Church in Silver Spring. The Rev. Andrew Walter remembers someone asking why the congregants were using paper plates and cups at their weekly gathering. Wasn’t there a greener alternative?
The small matter was resolved quickly, Walter said, “and then people kept asking, ‘What else can we do?’ ”
During the next 15 months — as the church installed LED lights in the fellowship hall, low-flow toilets in the restrooms and a new energy-and-money-saving HVAC system — Grace Episcopal Church joined the faith communities across the Washington region and the nation that are increasingly embracing environmental activism.
Faced with an ever-growing array of faith-driven environmental programs at the national, local and denominational levels, Grace Episcopal Church became the third congregation in the Washington area to enroll in a two-year certification program through Greenfaith, an interfaith environmental organization. The ambitious program felt like the right fit, Walter said, because it involved all aspects of the community’s life — everything from “greening” the building to changing the way the parishioners navigate their daily lives.
Environmental activism — particularly as it relates to the polarizing debate over climate change — can be fraught with political undercurrents. But, Walter said, he was unwilling to let his church’s efforts be “hijacked” by partisan controversy.
“My sense is there’s a growing awareness of environmental issues in the wider culture and society, and as that’s happened, there’s also been a growing theological understanding in the church,” Walter said. “Here at our own congregation, it’s sort of a no-brainer — people just immediately understand that the Earth comes from God, and we need to care for it.”
That shifting perspective has been increasingly evident in recent years, said Stacey Kennealy, director of Greenfaith’s certification program. When the organization was founded in 1992, it was a small partnership between Jewish and Christian leaders in New Jersey, with just a handful of faith communities involved. Now the organization works with more than 4,000 congregations of many faiths across the nation, and 75 of those are a part of the two-year certification program specifically, Kennealy said.
Participation in Greenfaith’s programs began to surge in earnest about five years ago, Kennealy said. Before that, “We had to do a lot of educating about why people . . . of faith should care and take action on this,” she said. “We had to do a lot of convincing.”
Since then, she said, “it’s switched pretty dramatically. There’s more talk of climate change, and the reality of climate change is accepted more readily by congregations.”
Greenfaith’s two-year certification process is the most comprehensive of the organization’s programs, requiring that congregations include their environmental efforts in worship services, their buildings and grounds, and their communities.
“It’s not for the faint of heart,” Kennealy said of the program. “But for those who are willing to commit the time and the energy to it, it has a huge impact on their environmental footprint, and it really greens their community from top to bottom.”
The promise of such a profound transformation is what captivated the Grace Episcopal community, Walter said. If all goes according to plan, the church will follow in the footsteps of St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in Triangle and Kehila Chadasha, a synagogue “without walls” – meaning no fixed location – that generally meets in Montgomery County, Md. Both have completed the certification program in recent years.
The Rev. Kevin Downey, pastor at St. Francis of Assisi — where the new pews are made of wood from sustainable forests and every window is energy-efficient — said that the program fueled a mounting interest in environmental issues among his parishioners.
“People have gotten more educated on the issues,” he said. “I listen to younger families talk about their concern, about their kids, about what is going to be here for them.”
That fundamental concern has certainly driven more faith communities to get involved in environmental efforts, said Joelle Novey, director of Greater Washington Interfaith Power and Light, a national nonprofit organization. The local branch of the national nonprofit organization reaches 6,000 members of several hundred interfaith congregations across the District, Maryland and Northern Virginia through its programs and communications, Novey said.
Because environmental causes can be infused with political undertones, there is a particular benefit to broaching the topic in churches, synagogues, temples and mosques, Novey said.
“People listen differently in their congregations — they listen with their moral ears,” Novey said. “And on the advocacy side, when we speak out from our faith traditions, those leaders are heard differently.”
Interfaith Power and Light has mobilized faith leaders to support pro-environment initiatives at state and national levels, she said, including the Environmental Protection Agency’s clean power plan, and a campaign to pass legislation in Maryland that would require that 40 percent of the state’s electricity come from renewable sources by 2025.
“Those voices ennoble environmental conversations, and sometimes we’ve seen that they also get attention politically from our elected leaders,” Novey said. “It’s a powerful opportunity to do right by our neighbors, and to do right by the people who will live in the world after we’re gone — and that’s very basic, that’s not external to religious teachings.”
This view is echoed by Rabbi David Shneyer, the longtime leader of the Kehila Chadasha community, which is Greenfaith-certified and also active with Interfaith Power and Light.
“Nearly all the Jewish holidays have an Earth and nature connection, and our community recognizes that,” he said. “We’ve always been engaged in one way or another in environmental issues, either through the way we celebrate holidays or through greening ourselves, our homes, our community.”
The congregation of about 110 households is passionate about environmental advocacy and education, he said, whether that means petitioning elected leaders for environmentally progressive legislation or screening former vice president Al Gore’s Oscar-winning documentary on global warming, “An Inconvenient Truth,” on Yom Kippur.
“Most synagogues wouldn’t show a documentary, but we thought it was so important to bring this issue to the community,” Shneyer said. “On Yom Kippur, we’re asking for forgiveness for our wrongdoings. Well, the way we treat the Earth is certainly worthy of noting, and asking for forgiveness and working toward relating to the Earth in a better way.”
The congregation’s environmental work is a core part of its mission, Shneyer said, a sentiment that also resonates with Downey’s parishioners at St. Francis of Assisi. Downey said that the Greenfaith program has empowered members of his church.
“Now, as we look at some of the bigger issues like fracking and climate change and carbon footprints, I think people are able to see the bigger picture and, more importantly, they see themselves in that picture,” Downey said. “They know they can make a difference.”
The transformation, he said, goes far beyond retrofitting a building or remembering to sort the recycling.
“What we strive to do is to make a transition from saying ‘this is what we do’ to ‘this is who we are,’” he said. “Who are we? We are environmentalists.”
Out of a sample of 20 congregations that completed the two-year Greenfaith certification program, the average savings were: 34%
Reduction in energy use: 16.8%
Reduction in gas and oil use: 15%
Reduction in solid waste: $14,283