Preaching God's Green Gospel

When Rev. Sally Bingham steps up to the pulpit at San Francisco's Grace Cathedral, her mission isn't just to save souls, but to save the environment. The environmental minister (her official job title) is converting Episcopal congregations across the nation to the life of energy conservation. "No institution is better suited to preach clean air, water, and land than the institutions that profess a love of God and God's creation," Bingham said.

Along with Steve MacAusland, Bingham founded the Episcopal Power and Light ministry in 1997. The group persuaded 27 California churches to install solar panels and 61 churches to switch to a renewable power company called Green Mountain Energy. By consolidating the purchasing power of the state's churches, EP&L was able to secure green energy at a bargain price. Unfortunately, deregulation of California's power industry forced Green Mountain Energy to pull the plug on its California customers. In turn, churches had no choice but to again power their sacred spaces with fossil fuels. "We carry tremendous guilt knowing that we are polluting our neighbor's air every time we turn on the lights," said Bingham. "We have been forced into sinful behavior that frightens us."

But as the following interview made clear when it appeared, Bingham was still full of hope, redoubling her efforts in the wake of the California energy crisis. Freelance writer April Thompson ( spoke with Bingham at Grace Cathedral in August 2001. Thompson wrote about the environment, spirituality, and community issues for such magazines as The World and I, Native Peoples, and Natural Home .

April Thompson: Now that renewable energy companies like Green Mountain Energy have shut their doors in California, what do you see as the next step? How should churches be responding to California's energy crisis?

Rev. Sally Bingham: We have to conserve. If we cut down on our energy use and get energy-efficient appliances, we're not only saving money and getting California out of the energy crisis, we're helping with global warming too. We are also educating ourselves to lobby the legislatures in Sacramento to get more green power into our mix. If we can get people to speak up and write letters to their senators and representatives, hopefully we can get renewables up to 20 percent of California's energy, from the 12 percent it is now. [California Senate Bill 532, introduced in 2002, would have required that 20 percent of the electricity provided by retail sellers come from clean renewable energy by 2010.] I think the faith community is getting a louder voice, so we will be heard. We have an audience of about 50,000 congregations—15 million Californians attend some kind of Christian congregation.

Last July, the Episcopal Church of the United States powered its annual general convention in Denver with wind purchased from the border of Wyoming and Colorado. At the convention, the National Renewable Energy lab, which is in Boulder, Colorado, set up a display right next to the EP&L booth. We asked everybody to contribute $1 to the extra cost of wind. (It was literally 10 cents per day per person to have wind for the 10-day, 15,000-person conference.) The idea blew the general convention. When we got back to our offices, we started getting calls from people all over the country.

Thompson: It's one thing to preach to a liberal, environmentally minded congregation in San Francisco, but how do you see your ministry winning conservative Christians who support Bush's energy policies?

Bingham: I don't look at whether a congregation is liberal or conservative; I look at how devout they are. I've yet to find any resistance when I talk about God calling us to be good stewards of creation. The covenant between God and Noah was with every living thing. If you say the first endangered species act was between God and Noah, they get it. Everything God created has an intrinsic right to life; even your most stringent fundamentalists will not argue with that.

We explain to folks that dirty-burning power plants pollute the air around them, and we are called to love our neighbors, so by virtue of following that commandment, you don't pollute your neighbor's air. We don't want a dirty-burning power plant in our backyard, so why are they in poor neighborhoods? When we raise these environmental justice issues, they get it. The problem is that nobody has talked to people like this before.

We've had great success and interest in Texas, where a new interfaith program is getting started. Last June I flew into Corpus Christi, Texas—the heart of oil country—and talked to the bishop there about powering their council meeting with wind, which they did this February. Green Mountain supplied the Texas utility grid with enough wind to power the Omni Hotel for the whole convention. There's a whole group of people down there who recognize that Texas needs to get on the renewable energy train.

Thompson: What has inspired you personally to do this work?

Bingham: I grew up in the fields around Stanford with a horse. I spent so much time alone in nature that I developed a very strong sense of divine companionship in the wilderness. Then, later in life—about 1985—I was a trustee for the Environmental Defense Fund. For 10 years I listened to the threats of global warming, overfishing, dying coral reefs, and deforestation. At one point, I began to think, "Where is the religious community in this problem? Why don't we hear the religious voice?"

I had never been to college. When people said to me, "Well, it's the Christian religion that caused all this problem, because of that word ‘dominion,'" I had to not just go to seminary to get some answers, but to go back to college. So in my mid-40s, I went to the University of San Francisco as an undergraduate. As I explored all this, I realized that it really was a call to the holy orders, a very clear call.

Thompson: What obstacles have you faced in this work, and how have you overcome them?

Bingham: Ten years ago, it was great turmoil, because I felt alone. There were not other clergy who would agree with me on any of this. They thought that I was mixing politics with religion—it wasn't seen as something that involved human souls, which was what the church was all about. The change between a few years ago and today is just phenomenal. People are there; they understand the connection between faith and the environment.

Thompson: I like your update of a familiar teaching: It's harder for a wasteful consumer to get into heaven than an SUV to pass through the eye of a needle. You preach some messages that are pretty uncomfortable for people to hear—messages people have heard often, but not necessarily taken to heart. What will it take to shift thinking away from overconsumption and consumerism?

Bingham: We need disciples in this work, because we can't do it all. We are now trying to raise money for a train-the-trainer program called Lighten Up. Educational materials will back up everything we preach and teach, including a video and a packet of materials that would allow facilitators to conduct a six- to eight-week study program.

In my own congregation, I ask people to be mindful of every single one of their behaviors: The cups we use, the cars we drive, the clothes we buy. I don't condemn people who have the means to buy what they need. But when you buy 10 times more than what you need. ... I live in a neighborhood where the recycling bins are sometimes just shocking—in one week the amount of packaging that comes from Saks Fifth Avenue and Wilkes Bashford [a San Francisco-based clothing store]! How can these people possibly wear all these clothes? That's where I draw the line. There's plenty to go around in this world for all of our needs, but wealthy communities have to change their ways.

Thompson: What choices have you made toward that end?

Bingham: I drive a Toyota Prius, which is a hybrid car and gets 54 miles to the gallon. I compost in my backyard, which turns into rich, wonderful soil for my vegetable garden. Every single thing gets recycled out of our house. I walk whenever I can. I take a basket with me to the farmers market on Saturdays and stock up for the week. There are no lights on when nobody's using them; there's no television going when nobody's watching it. We conserve water. We're just really conscious in the household.

Sharing God's Creation
Thompson: What does the Bible say about protecting the environment?

Bingham: Throughout scripture are various teachings of restraint—not taking more than you need, loving your neighbor, giving to other people. People often ask me "Was Jesus an environmentalist?" Jesus identified with marginal people. And probably today he would identify with endangered species, coral reefs, and forests, because he identified with pain and suffering, and right now creation is in pain and suffering. I would go so far as to say that if Jesus were here, he would not drive an SUV.

It's so simple. The first and greatest commandment is to love God. The second is like unto it, which is to love your neighbor as yourself. Therein lies this ministry—if you love your neighbor, don't pollute your neighbor's air and water. Don't trash something that your neighbor could use.

Rev. Sally Bingham and Steve MacAusland started Episcopal Power and Light with a lofty goal: to make the Episcopal Church a zero-emissions entity by powering every house of worship with green energy. After their first five years, they were reaching not only Episcopal congregations but also Catholic, Muslim, Jewish, and other faiths via spin-off groups across the nation. The duo sparked Interfaith Power and Light groups in California, Maine, Oregon, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Massachusetts—and by 2002 Texas, Tennessee, and possibly Michigan.

In Bingham's home state, the California Interfaith Power and Light (CIPL) draws from a broad base of groups—from the Social Justice Department of the Catholic Diocese of Sacramento to the Southern California Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life. More than 100 churches have already signed the organization's congregational covenant (see The covenant asks religious leaders to support CIPL's mission in specific ways, such as conducting an energy audit of their buildings, contributing to a wind turbine fund, or educating congregants about global warming.

CIPL's members are coming up with their own bright ideas, too. In Montclair, California, St. John's Episcopal Church is buying energy-efficient lightbulbs in bulk and asking its parishoners to buy three apiece: two to take home and one to donate to an impoverished sister church. —April Thompson

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