464: 50 Ways to Help Save Our Earth Interview with a faithful green activist

This week, we’re looking at America’s future. Monday, we shared snapshots of American spirit. Tuesday, we recommended three great books on America. At OurValues.org this week, readers are talking about what unites and divides Ameicans.
    One thing is certain, though, green is joining red white and blue as an all-American color. In fact, you’re probably greener than you were a decade ago. And, if you’re like millions of other Americans, you want to wind up even greener in the years ahead.
    That’s why we’re recommending a brand new “green” book by Rebecca Barnes-Davies in this Wednesday Conversation. Rebecca has been active over the past decade in diverse environmental networks. She’s best known in her own denomination for leading Presbyterians for Restoring Creation and working with the National Council of Churches’ earth-friendly programs. On the nationwide interfaith level, she recommends the National Religious Partnership for the Environment.
    One refreshing truth about the green-faith movement is that it’s remarkably free of conflict, compared with other social issues in congregations. The religious world, to put it simply, is going green from the Vatican to the grassroots. One example: There’s a new Green Letter Bible that highlights creation-friendly passages of scripture in—well, of course, in green type.

    National research shows that congregations by wide margins welcome opportunities to protect and preserve the natural world. Even the globe-hopping evangelist Rob Bell is opening up display space in theaters hosting his new world tour to a big display on the need for clean water.
    But how do we take our first steps in the hundreds of thousands of smaller congregations coast to coast? Most churches, synagogues, mosques and temples are modest sized and they’re stressed out these days by our tight economy. Where does the ordinary person in a grassroots congregation begin to make a difference?
    Rebecca answers those questions in “50 Ways to Help Save the Earth: How You and Your Church Can Make a Difference.” The book is a great resource for small groups and actually provides hundreds of ideas—grouped in 50 categories. Right here, we’re offering you a preview of this important new resource to get you thinking as you wait for a copy of her book to arrive. (Click on the Amazon link at right to order a copy.)


    DAVID: Let’s tell people a little bit about your background. You’re attending seminary now in Louisville, Kentucky, but you’ve been active for a good decade in religious environmental work. You’re nationally known in your denomination. Also, you’re a big believer in the power of sharing good ideas between various local congregations—and also between various faiths.
    Inside your book, along with each of the 50 categories of environmental work, you include a little story from some real-life group or congregation or Web site. You call those stories, “Walk the Talk.”
It’s refreshing to find someone so optimistic about the power of people to make a difference at the grassroots!
    REBECCA: That’s one thing that’s distinctive about this new book. These Walking the Talk stories tell you what other people already are doing. When I go talk to groups about these issues, I find that people are hungry for good examples. People want to hear real stories of things that are working for real people.
    DAVID: I like that way of thinking. That’s why we’re talking today. Our readers will find a lot of books about environmental awareness on bookstore shelves. This one’s unique. I think it’s solidly designed with the practical needs of congregations and lay people in mind.
    So, one big question people will ask is this: Where should we start? A lot of congregations want to get involved in green projects—but they don’t know how to take the first step. You’re giving them 50 choices here, but what are the first things we should do?
    REBECCA: The first thing is: Find out about your congregation. You want to know where the energy in your congregation is already. What are people’s passions? Where does the leadership already show depth? I would start with that.

    DAVID: You talk in the book about creating a larger spiritual awareness of God’s Creation. You’re not just asking people to start one more program or form one more committee. You want them to rethink the way they preach and teach about Creation, right?
    REBECCA: Yes, you begin by working where people’s passions and strengths already are. If people are passionate about worship and your congregation is really a Sunday-morning community—then start by including liturgies and hymns about caring for Creation. Use preaching as a primary tool for expressing this.
    If your congregation rallies more around programs and small groups and activities for adults and children—then I would start there. People might want to work on an energy audit or focus on a summer camp or a Vacation Bible School with earth-friendly themes.
    The important thing is to find out what most people in the church agree that your church does well. By starting there, this means we’re not deleting some other effort or pushing something else to the side to make room. This can then become part of the congregation’s existing energy and strength. You don’t want to walk in and declare that you’re going to create some huge new program that will overlay everything else people already are doing.

    DAVID: Your book is about 50 things to do—but how about things to avoid? Any tips about things that are likely to cause problems? Or can be ineffective?
    REBECCA: The main thing is not to get hung up on projects that feel heavy, or get sidetracked with ideas that aren’t moving anywhere. There are so many ways to start caring for creation that the real mistake is to keep pushing on doors that aren’t going to open.
    You may be in a fairly green church that still uses disposable paper products. For some reason, the church may be doing other great things to help the earth, but you just haven’t addressed that issue of disposable paper products. You could address that issue—but it may be a closed door for some reason. So if you get hung up on a single issue like that, you can lose the ability to excite and motivate people and to celebrate all the other opportunities that are available out there.
    I’d advise congregations to find things you can do—things you can accomplish and celebrate. That’s the way to open more doors.
    DAVID: What about the common complaint that somebody in the congregation already “is in charge of that”? Some committee or small group already has the environmental issue pretty much locked up.
    REBECCA: That’s actually a really common problem. People get into small groups that really care about these things, then they get burned out. So, work stops. Nothing happens. People feel frustrated.
    One thing you can do is talk to your pastor and your staff about this as a pastoral concern. Tell your staff that you’re feeling burned out and ask them to help guide you toward better ways of fitting into the larger congregation. Even if your small group is running some programs, you can still be giving the impression that you’re the only group who can do this work. It can be very helpful to talk with the top leadership in your church about ideas for making this a larger effort throughout the congregation.

    DAVID: You’re suggesting that people actually step outside their church doors, as well, right?
    REBECCA: Yes. I don’t think people should be hung up on the idea that they just have to work through their own congregation all the time. Chances are, you can find other congregations down the road to work with you. You might find a temple or a mosque where there also are five or six really committed people doing this same kind of work. Try to use the ecumenical and interfaith networks where you live.
    DAVID: I asked you about things to avoid. Of course, your book offers lots of ideas for environmental action. So, help us focus on your central message. What’s the highest priority for you?
    REBECCA: My top priorities are concepts like Jubilee and Sabbath as they relate to caring for the earth.
    DAVID: Jubilee is a big idea from the Hebrew scriptures. There’s a lot to it, but the idea basically is that we don’t own God’s world—and that, regularly throughout history, we need to take dramatic steps to restore and renew our communities and the land itself. You can read about this in the book of Leviticus—and in the 50th chapter of your book.
    REBECCA: With these ideas of Jubilee and Sabbath we can challenge the notion that we can keep on consuming at the rate we’re consuming now. If we do that, we’re going to use up God’s resources.
    Through worship, Bible study and preaching in our congregations, we can focus on our need to help God’s Creation flourish again. Shifting our values is very important to me. You can change light bulbs or you can change your grocery list, but without changing your awareness of how we’re living overall on earth—then we really aren’t addressing the basic issues.

    DAVID: Of course, this isn’t just in Leviticus. In the new Green Bible, there are green passages marked cover to cover in the Bible.
    REBECCA: Yes, another one of my favorite passages is the story of Noah. For me, this was part of my own original “Ah-Ha!” moment, realizing that we need to connect environmental justice with our religious lives.
    If you read the story of Noah, after the flood you realize that the covenant is formed not just with Noah and his family. The covenant is formed between God and every living creature. The story is bigger than just one life. It’s bigger than just human life. We’re part of a story about God’s relationship with all living creatures.


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