The Common Good
February 2013

Getting to Green

by Tobias Winright | February 2013

Sacred Acts: How Churches are Working to Protect Earth's Climate. New Society.

IN THE FOREWORD to Sacred Acts: How Churches Are Working to Protect Earth's Climate, prolific scholar-activist Bill McKibben recalls a time not long ago when many people of faith regarded environmentalism suspiciously—conservatives saw it as a cover for possible paganism, while liberals considered it less of a priority than problems such as war and poverty. Now, however, theologians and religious leaders discuss the environment almost as much as ecologists and Nobel prize-winning scientists do. As this book shows, moreover, the environmental movement now includes religious organizations such as Earth Ministry, Interfaith Power & Light, and GreenFaith, which are working at the grassroots level in congregations and communities.

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Edited by Mallory McDuff, a lay Episcopalian who teaches environmental education at Warren Wilson College near Ashville, N.C., Sacred Acts boldly focuses on climate change. McDuff believes that momentum is building among Christian communities worldwide as they call for just climate solutions—much like a modern Pentecost moment. The book addresses both skeptics and those who know climate change is real but feel overwhelmed by the problem's magnitude and despair of finding and implementing solutions.

The contributors to Sacred Acts include clergy, teachers, activists, directors of nonprofit organizations, and a farmer. Its 12 chapters are divided into four sections on the themes and strategies of stewardship, spirituality, advocacy, and justice.

Each contributor concentrates on "opportunities for empowering action"—just earthkeeping practices, I would call them. Instead of offering analysis of the theological whys, the chapters deal with the practical hows of the "need to share and replicate the range of actions that congregations can take to convert communities to a low-carbon future." Concrete examples, anecdotes, illustrations, diagrams, and graphs abound to equip individuals and local congregations to put environmental theology into practice.

For example, writer and farmer Ragan Sutterfield proposes a catechesis to encourage appreciation of fresh rather than processed, canned, and packaged fruits and vegetables. To illustrate, he highlights Cedar Ridge Community Church near Washington, D.C., where members took up farming to grow and provide meals for the poor and needy—which revived and promoted neighborliness and harvesting celebrations in the community. The Common Ground Church Community with its Goodness Grows mission in North Lima, Ohio, builds community gardens, teaches job skills to youth, and operates agricultural businesses such as a subscription-based vegetable program.

McDuff explores more sustainable burial practices that conserve energy and minimize waste, while also involving family and friends, who do things like shoveling dirt into the grave. She introduces the Trappist monks of the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, Ga., who operate a green cemetery. Burying the dead is truly a corporal work of mercy there, with the option of pine caskets and avoidance of toxic embalming chemicals.

Episcopal Rev. Brian Cole, sub-dean of the Cathedral of All Souls in Asheville, N.C., suggests ways that clergy can "allow the natural world to come 'inside,' to figure prominently in prayers and litanies and hymns and sermons"; LeeAnne Beres and Jessie Dye highlight Earth Ministry, a national leader in training people of faith in advocacy skills and helping them to be heard in public policy decision-making; Michele McGeoy's chapter deals with training green-collar workers, as exemplified by Solar Richmond, a grassroots organization in Richmond, Calif., that trains underemployed and unemployed people to work in the solar industry. Meanwhile St. John's Episcopal Church in Oakland, Calif., reduced its carbon footprint while creating a full-time job for a Solar Richmond graduate.

Sacred Acts is ideal for adult education classes in parishes and congregations seeking renewed inspiration and practical insights into caring for the environment. The chapters included in each of the book's four sections sometimes seem arbitrary; for instance, the chapters by Sutterfield and Norman Wirzba, which are in different sections, could just as easily have been placed together. Otherwise, McDuff and the contributors have done us a tremendous service that I hope many will put to good use.

Tobias Winright is associate professor of theological ethics at Saint Louis University and editor of Green Discipleship: Catholic Theological Ethics and the Environment.

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