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Convergence of Earth Day, Good Friday highlights church's 'green' ministries

[Episcopal News Service] As Holy Week quickly approaches and Good Friday and Earth Day coincide, the Episcopal Church has compiled liturgical, educational and other resources for incorporating earth-care themes into services and celebrations.

"This year Earth Day falls within Holy Week, specifically on Good Friday, a profound co-incidence," said Mike Schut, economic and environmental affairs officer for the Episcopal Church. "To fully honor Earth Day, we need to reclaim the theology that knows earth is 'very good,' is holy. When we fully recognize that, our actions just may begin to create a more sustainable, compassionate economy and way of life.

"And on Good Friday, the day we mark the crucifixion of Christ, God in the flesh, might we suggest that when earth is degraded, when species go extinct, that another part of God's body experiences yet another sort of crucifixion -- that another way of seeing and experiencing God is diminished."

Embracing earth-care and incorporating environmental prayers, liturgies and practices, not just around Earth Day, have had transformative effects on congregations and communities throughout the Episcopal Church.

For instance, parishioners at Grace Episcopal Church in Chattanooga, Tennessee, began examining their relationship to the environment a decade ago, when the church's outreach committee sent Marion Pound, who is now the church's Green Team coordinator, to a conference where Schut, who then worked for Earth Ministry, was promoting simpler living.

"It has been bubbling up since then," said Pound in a telephone interview, adding that last year the church opened a farmers' market in the parking lot and in late March of this year completed a community garden -- two things that make Grace more visible in the community.

In the late 1990s, Schut compiled and edited a collection of essays into a book, Simpler Living, Compassionate Life: A Christian Perspective.

When asked to share his thoughts on "simpler living, compassionate life," Schut responded in an e-mail message, saying: "Simpler living is a draw for many of us. One of its strengths is that it draws people whose primary concerns may be quite different. For example, someone may feel way out of balance in their relationship with time, or money. Another might be concerned about environmental issues and how our consumerism feeds ecological degradation. Still another may see living simply as a way to free up resources for those who do not have enough. Get all these people in one room and they begin to realize that their particular concern or passion is connected to everyone else's. From there, community connections grow. And that's an inspiring place to be together -- a place from which a group just may seek to express simpler living as a compassionate response to the world -- compassion felt as empathy and embodied as justice.

"I think one of the most important steps an individual can take to simplify life, which can be encouraged by a small group or a congregation, is to practice daily Sabbath. To slow down enough to create space to listen to your own heart, to the still small voice of God. This could be seen as one way to express compassion for yourself. And then, try something new that inspires you and connects you to larger issues of justice. Try a small garden or establish one on your church property. If you have money to invest, invest in community development financial institutions, in socially responsible funds. Serve fair trade coffee, advocate for strong legislation to address climate change …"

Schut has also written books titled Food and Faith and Money and Faith, both of which served as study resources for Grace, Pound said. Last October, the parish brought Schut to Chattanooga to give a talk, which was attended by people from the ecumenical community, she added.

Eventually, Pound said, the congregation decided it was time to stop studying the environment and act. Following Schut's suggestion, the church decided to pursue GreenFaith certification.

GreenFaith, an interfaith nonprofit organization with roots in the Episcopal Diocese of Newark, strives to "inspire, educate and mobilize people of diverse religious backgrounds for environmental leadership."

"The wonderful thing about GreenFaith, aside from support, there is an accountability factor," Pound said. "They make you walk the talk and take real action."

The arrival of the Rev. Susan Butler a year ago as Grace Church's priest-in-charge also has helped move the congregation forward in its care of creation, Pound said.

"Susan is willing to try new things … earth prayers, including the children and recognizing in the services the things that are going on outside Sunday worship," Pound said, adding that last fall's creation care series extended into the spring and included hands-on outdoor activities.

Butler came from the Diocese of Newark, where some 20 years ago a number of congregations began unofficially celebrating the season of creation in late Pentecost, she said.

(Newark's Diocesan Convention recognized and confirmed the creation season in 1994.)

During late Pentecost, readings, hymns, vestments and hangings reflect creation themes, Butler said, adding that incorporating creation doesn't end there.

"Our theology is incarnational; it's not very hard to celebrate the body, the earth," she said. 

On recycling day last week in Chattanooga, a progressive southern Bible Belt city, Pound's family's recycling bin was the only one on the street, she said.

"In the Bible Belt we should be leaders, not that last ones to do these things," she said. "I don't want my girls to look at me in 20 years and say 'where were you?"

On a recent Sunday Pound found some encouragement. She spoke at local church that wants to move in a more environmentally conscious direction.

"When faith communities come together it is exciting," she said. "If anyone should be speaking out claiming that the earth is the Lord's … we love God, we can't do that and trash the place."

Click here for Earth Day resources.

-- Lynette Wilson is an editor/staff writer for Episcopal News Service.

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