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Earth Day: Celebrating service to the environment

By Scott O’Neill | Presbyterian News Service

solarpic7Observing its 45th anniversary today, Earth Day has been the catalyst for a number of environmental regulations and laws over the life of its existence. Thanks to the voices of neighbors, activists and lawmakers committed to environmental oversight, the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act–to name a few–went into effect a mere decade after Sen. Gaylord Nelson, D-Wisc., (1916-2005) and about 20 million fellow Americans gathered for the first celebration in 1970.

Presbyterians have been active in caring for creation pre-dating the first Earth Day, but it wasn’t until the 202nd General Assembly in 1990 adopted the resolution “Restoring Creation for Ecology and Justice” did a formal policy exist, calling for the whole denomination to engage fully in the task of restoring creation. Presbyterians for Earth Care, a grassroots organization, was born in 1995 and in 2007 came the genesis of Earth Care Congregations (ECC). The program, through the national PC (USA) offices, certifies Presbyterian congregations to celebrate, encourage and provide resources around the good work they are doing in earth care, and to connect Earth Care Congregations with each other.

“My predecessor, Katie Holmes, worked with Presbyterians active in their local earth care ministries in churches to develop a program that wasn’t too simplistic or too overwhelming for congregations to achieve certification,” said Rebecca Barnes, associate for Environmental Ministries. “The ECC program was designed to recognize earth care as part of our Christian worship, education, facilities and outreach, so that churches can integrate it as part and parcel of their faith without it being too difficult to achieve selected goals.”

Earth Care Congregation certification includes a pledge that comes from Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) policy language and is signed by a church’s clerk of session after a session discussion. From a practical standpoint each church is also required to perform a self-assessment from four key areas: worship, education, facilities and outreach. In 2007-08 several churches were selected to pilot the program and report back their experiences, and in 2009, 14 churches were certified ECC. Today there are 160 ECC churches across the country.

“It’s gratifying to know that we’ve seen steady growth over the past six years or so,” says Barnes. “Presbyterians have been caring for God’s earth even longer than the Earth Day celebrations, but as we reflect on this Earth Day it’s also worth celebrating an initiative from Presbyterian Mission Agency that equips, inspires and connects congregations of all sizes and environmental foci.”

Recent articles have highlighted two churches heavily invested in the eco-friendly matters. Flagstaff Federated Church in Scottsdale, Ariz., used a strategic approach to convert their electric to solar power, using creative financing to help fund the transition and gain buy-in from the whole community. First Presbyterian Church in Ithaca, New York, has a long history of eco-justice activism, yet still finds value in the guidance that ECC certification provides to the congregation. Both these churches have found that including the community and other faiths make their efforts more compelling and rewarding.

“Presbyterians are a diverse group, whether it’s a small church of 30 members where everyone is a member of the “earth care team,” or a large church that has several committees; rural or urban churches, conservative or liberal, ECC can help bridge some of the differences into a common goal,” says Barnes.

Barnes says churches interested in ECC certification, or just greening their congregation, should visit the ECC web page for multiple resources that can be used in worship or guidance to performing an energy audit. In the audit form—part of the Earth Care Congregation application—there is a checklist of extensive activities that Barnes points out, “no church has been doing every single item on the list.”

The ECC program connects churches, presbyteries and the national church. By celebrating stories and achievements, it recognizes local ministry and celebrates the faithful ministry that goes on around caring for God’s creation. ECC also gives new ideas to help rejuvenate efforts; if a church starts to feel like they’re faltering in their efforts or meeting application guidelines, they can always contact another ECC church or Rebecca Barnes with questions or help with a resolution or idea.

When asked what her vision or goal was for ECC in the future, Barnes says, “I can’t predict the future, but I trust the Holy Spirit will take the program down the right path. I do believe in letting congregations lead, and one area where we’re seeing growth is the idea of “earth care presbyteries.” If a presbytery has several ECC churches, the congregations start to think about supporting one another and collaborating on green projects for the whole presbytery. I would love to see this happen more, because everything we can do should support one another, that’s why we’re a connectional church.”

“My ultimate hope is that in 15 years there is no need for ECC,” says Barnes. “There’s no need because ecology and being green becomes part and parcel of the Presbyterian way that we’re modeling God’s intentions and the right relationship with all of earth because it’s just what Presbyterians do.”

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