“How worried are you about climate change?” I asked my husband Bryan one night. I had just finished reading another apocalyptic news article. Maybe it was the one about collapsing insect populations. Or maybe it was the one about heat waves in the Arctic. Or maybe it was about the wildfire that burned through the town of Paradise.
We live in Southern California. In the fourteen years since I’ve moved here, fire season has lengthened from a few months into nearly the whole year. Our eight-year-old daughter Kai is accustomed to the murky glow of yet another fire on the horizon.
Bryan put down the book he was reading and considered my question. He is steady and smart, not given to easy fears. “Terrified,” he said finally. “I think about what we brought Kai into quite a lot.”
Bryan is agnostic or an atheist, depending on the day. I am religious, the daughter of missionaries. But until we joined our local chapter of 350.org, neither of us had a place to take our climate anxiety. We alternated between ignoring the crisis or feeling despair. When we joined Riverside 350, we were finally part of a community that talked honestly about the problem of climate change and acted on it.
Hope is a verb.
And yet, I still longed for my local congregation to be a place where I could find faithful and tangible responses to climate change. The destruction of our planet is a moral failing. Those most impacted by climate change have contributed the least to greenhouse gases. Religious communities have the opportunity to be teaching centers, modeling sustainable practices and meaningful activism. Preaching about climate change is necessary work. Demonstrating a faithful response is essential. Here are five practical ways local congregations can be environmental sanctuaries.
1. Replace the church lawn with native plants
America’s obsession with grass is creating insect deserts and exacerbating water shortages. Churches can use their land to witness to the community by creating a beautiful and sustainable habitat for God’s smallest creatures. Imagine an environmental garden, a pollinator plot, native trees, maybe even a vegetable patch. Ambitious churches could get their grounds certified as a wildlife habitat through the National Wildlife Federation. Even the smallest strip of grass can become a micro-habitat.
2. Invest in solar panels and heat pumps
Frankly, this is not just environmental stewardship, it’s also financial stewardship.
3. Compost on church grounds
Composting is like grace. Food waste turns into dirt and then turns into flowers. Compare that to food scraps that are dumped into landfills and become methane—a greenhouse gas worse for the environment than carbon dioxide. Homeowners know composting is beneficial, but they aren’t sure how to begin. By incorporating a composting practice into congregational life, churches can demystify the process. They can even offer composting workshops as community outreach.
4. Model sustainable consumption
Don’t buy the cheapest items, but research where things are made and how. Audit your congregation’s plastic and paper purchases and identify places where the church can use less or none at all. Discourage a culture of disposability. If your congregation brings in authors, consider inviting someone who writes about the consequences of consumption. In Made in China, Amelia Pang demonstrates how labor camps in China are a direct consequence of Americans wanting to buy lots of cheap goods. Amelia would make a prophetic guest.
If your budget is smaller, begin a book club. You could start by reading Made in China by Amelia Pang. Other books to consider: The Book of Hope by Jane Goodall, Douglas Carlton Abrams, and Gail Hudson, Unraveled: The Life and Death of a Garment by Maxine Bedat, Cast Away by Naomi Shihab Nye, Can I Recycle This? By Jennie Romer, 1001 Voices on Climate Change by Devi Lockwood, Thicker than Water by Erica Cirino. A lot of writers are sounding the alarm on the climate crisis.
Finally, open up your church space to mending circles and repair clinics. Have plant-forward potlucks. Demonstrate ways to live with a lighter footprint.
5. Change the systems
Churches can use their moral voice to support environmental legislation both locally and nationally. Church boards can write letters to the editor. Church members can visit their local representatives, under the umbrella of the church, and advocate for environmental justice. And the church space itself can be shared with existing environmental groups, building a web of relationships working together to protect creation.
Americans are worried about climate change, but they don’t know what to do. Churches can show how religious values can translate into concrete actions. No congregation (or family) will be able to make every change. Choose what works for you. Begin somewhere.