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Putting Faith in a green planet, Congregations are embracing green movement - Hillcrest Mennonite believes going 'green' shows leadership

Congregations embracing green movement

WATERLOO REGION — Most of the changes at Hillcrest Mennonite Church aren’t obvious.

New light bulbs and programmable thermostats are small, inexpensive switches that gave the New Hamburg church a kick-start on becoming more environmentally friendly.

Then an unmistakable testament to its green mission was erected last year outside the rural church — a large array of solar panels.

Hillcrest is among many area faith communities embracing an Earth-friendly approach, starting with the gathering place.

Reducing energy use and waste in a faith building goes far beyond its walls to inspire congregation members and the wider community to adopt environmentally friendly habits, while also furthering the strong religious tradition of social action through stewardship.

“A lot of people here look at the church as a leader,” said Rob Yost, green advocate on Hillcrest’s facilities and finance team.

Educating people about green issues is a big part of the effort. That includes sharing tips to be more environmentally aware; explaining the benefits of adopting more environmentally friendly practices; and informing people how individual choices have an effect locally and globally.

“We try to tie all that together,” Yost said. “A lot of it just goes down to loving your neighbour and being responsible.”

Hillcrest got help on their environmental campaign from Greening Sacred Spaces Waterloo Region, a practical program helping faith communities with education and support for such things as energy audits on worship spaces.

The local chapter, started in 2006, is a partnership between the advocacy group Faith & the Common Good and the Kitchener-based Residential Energy Efficiency Project (REEP) that came out of numerous requests for energy audits.

“They realized they needed to capture the interest of the faith communities,” said Jane Snyder, co-ordinator of Greening Sacred Spaces.

Now about 150 are part of the network, which hosts workshops with local experts, provides information about grants and programs, and offers invitations to join activities.

“It’s a good way to learn from each other’s experience,” she said.

Snyder said there’s a bundle of small changes a church can make for almost no money, while still having a big impact.

“You can make a change pretty quickly as long as you pick something that is doable for your faith community,” she said.

Efforts could go into raising awareness, such as holding information sessions, offering space for car share vehicles in the parking lot, organizing a tree-planting day or joining other community initiatives such as Earth Day on Sunday, April 22.

Big changes can also help the bottom line or even give charitable efforts a boost. Solar panels may require a hefty outlay to install, but in a few years start making money that can offset energy costs, be reinvested in retrofits or directed to charities.

“If you can manage it, that’s a revenue stream,” Snyder said.

At Hillcrest, the issue of environmentalism came up spontaneously during a church meeting. An energy audit seemed the right way to start.

“Then we can get an expert opinion on what to do and what not to do,” Yost said.

The New Hamburg church, its original building erected in the 1960s and an addition constructed in the 1990s, was rated average. The audit’s report outlined the costs and benefits of changes to give the church a better understanding of where it’s best to spend money, Yost said.

“For the most part, it was a bunch of little things,” he said.

Beyond the physical changes, tweaks were made to how things were done. One of the two fridges was unplugged, now used only when needed for events. Signs in the Sunday school rooms remind those leaving to turn off the lights and lower the temperature on the electric baseboard heaters.

“Part of it is education, too,” Yost said.

The solar panels, although expensive at $75,000, will be paid off in eight years and then the income will go to the church’s green fund, charitable projects and into the general fund. An education campaign explained the benefits of solar power and rallied support, leading church members to lend money to fund the endeavour, along with a line of credit.

Green is a good fit for the church, partly due to its deep roots in farming that brings an awareness of resources. Curbside recycling is a long-standing habit. Adult Sunday school sessions explore green themes such as seasonal eating, local foods, cooking from scratch and living with less in a consumer culture.

“We’re a fairly thrifty congregation,” Yost said.

St. John the Evangelist Anglican Church in downtown Kitchener branded its environmental initiatives as Green Passion, crafting a mission statement and even a logo after its 2009 inception.

“We thought there was a lot we could do to green the parish,” said Alan Coughlin, who’s on the leadership team. “We’re quite pleased with how far we’ve gotten.”

A green roof demonstration is where they started, giving members a tangible example of possibilities for environmentally friendly initiatives. Really the church got its start decades before environmentally friendly became a commonplace expression by reusing cans for its annual Christmas pudding fundraiser.

The church also made simple changes to lighting and improved attic insulation to keep out drafts. Outside the church, a cordless lawn mower and weed trimmer keeps the lawn tidy, while compost bins and rain barrels give landscaping a boost.

“People can see them from the outdoors, so they know we’re doing things for the environment,” Coughlin said.

Now they’re looking into a solar array on their high roof, where there’s also more room for green roof panels. Retrofits are ongoing after an energy audit several years ago — a daunting project in a church originally built in the 1850s with later additions. Down the road plans include replacing an old boiler with an energy efficient model.

“It’s a balance of preservation and restoration and also going forward to take care of the environment at the same time,” Coughlin said.

People gathering for a coffee after worship services can see Green Passion updates prominently displayed on a board in the gymnasium, now outfitted with energy efficient light bulbs. The ultimate goal, beyond improvements to the building, is encouraging congregation members to adopt green habits in their daily life and home.

“It’s not just for the church, but it’s for the individuals of the church as well,” Coughlin said.

That’s also the driving force behind the green group at Trinity United Church Elmira, where the congregation embraced projects and soon began coming up with their own. The church recently won a Green Sacred Spaces award for 2012 in recognition of its efforts.

“We’ve got a number of people who are always trying to come up with new suggestions,” said Chris Moore, who has been involved in the church board as a finance and property chair.

The congregation voted unanimously in favour of erecting a solar panel array last fall. Once the $65,000 loan is repaid, in about a decade, the large array will offset the church’s energy needs.

Small changes introduced slowly — such as using cloths instead of paper towels, reusable dishes instead of disposable, and drought-resistant plants in the flower beds to reduce watering — are adding up.

Celebrating nature is simply part of the congregation’s consciousness. The minister talks regularly about the outdoors and some spring services are held in the garden.

“It’s ingrained,” Moore said.

Snyder said the green movement parallels values of faith communities, which champion social change and think far beyond the local community for the good of all. Creation and the Earth are also at centre of religious tradition.

“It’s all very Earth based,” she said.

Beyond those theological reasons, churches are surrounded by a steadily growing emphasis on environmentally friendly choices.

“It’s everywhere now,” Yost said. “It’s becoming a lot more mainstream.”


Greening Sacred Spaces is hosting a public information session on renewable energy.

People can learn about investing opportunities in renewable energy, such as solar and wind power, and retrofits to save money on energy costs.

The event is being held on May 12 from 1 to 4 p.m. at St. John the Evangelist Anglican Church, at the corner of Water and Duke streets in downtown Kitchener.


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