God Shepherds

Knoxville churches discover a new calling: environmentalism

You might not expect Knoxville's religious community to be a hotbed of environmental activism. This is a group that maintains a reputation for keeping its hands clean of the green agenda. But strange things are afoot in East Tennessee: churches are jumping on the environmental bandwagon in droves.

The buzzword is faith-based stewardship, and it seems like a contradiction in terms. There seem to be two major themes that perpetuate the stereotype that conservative Christianity is at odds with environmental concerns: First, there is the idea that Earth is merely a stopover on our journey to the next world. Second, there is the verse in Genesis where God says, "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth."

But there has definitely been a shift in mindset among many in the Christian community. The new interpretation of Christian doctrine begins with the idea that since God created the heavens and Earth and everything else, then all his creation is a sacred gift that must be cared for. Anything that exploits God's creation is a sinful act of rebellion against God Himself.

Well, if you want to light a fire under a group of Christians, accuse them of being sinners.

Here in East Tennessee, the movement seems to center around energy concerns. This is not surprising, with the looming presence of TVA. Churches are doing various things within their congregations, but the first real interfaith initiative is being coordinated by the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE)—a nonprofit citizen alliance that closely monitors TVA's energy policies.

Gil Melear-Hough, a green power organizer with SACE, basically stumbled into the idea as he was drumming up grassroots support for the Green Power Switch—a program through TVA where residents and businesses can buy electricity generated from renewable sources like wind and solar power. "I was speaking to clubs and Boy Scout troops," he says, "but my warmest reception was from churches...They were the group most willing to take action, not just talk about it." He admits that this caught him by surprise; he never thought: We need to go out and get the faith community involved. It just kind of happened. Call it good luck, if you will. Or divine intervention.

Melear-Hough's first major project was to organize a visit to Knoxville by the Rev. Sally Bingham, a priest in the Episcopal Church who is currently the environmental minister at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco and co-director of Episcopal Power and Light, an arm of the church dedicated to energy conservation.

Eco-Sal, as Bingham is known to her friends, is not exactly the outspoken activist you might expect. She is a fair-complexioned woman of diminutive stature, and apparently the speech she gave to the public at the Good Samaritan Episcopal Church on Nov. 7 was one of the first times she had spoken outside of a worship service. Her delivery bore more of a resemblance to Marge Simpson than the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

Nonetheless, Bingham is obviously passionate about her work, and she has no shortage of pithy sayings when it comes to stewardship. She likes to say that the first endangered species act was between God and Noah. She wants to see people reading the scriptures through green lenses. When discussing fuel economy, she asks the question, "What would Jesus drive?"

Knoxville's version of Bingham's outfit is Tennessee Interfaith Power and Light—a new initiative started by SACE to encourage churches in the area to sign up for the Green Power Switch and to look at ways to save energy as institutions. Right now it is still embryonic, but Melear-Hough has been impressed with the support of many local church communities.

In addition to the Episcopal Church, which hosted the public meeting with Bingham, several other major denominations in the area have been active in environmental issues, including Methodists, Presbyterians, and Catholics.

The Knoxville Diocese of the Catholic Church established what it calls an Eco-Church Ministry in 1994 through its Office of Justice-Peace-Integrity of Creation. It is a "practical and spiritual approach to healing our wounded environment," says Sister Anne Hablas, and a way to promote action on behalf of the diocese. They are working to do away with all Styrofoam and paper products in favor of traditional ceramic plates and silverware; a parish-wide recycling project is underway; and two churches—St. Mary's in Oak Ridge and Seymour Catholic Church—have signed up for the Green Power Switch program. The big undertaking right now is encouraging every church to do a simple energy audit. "There's just a lot of ways in which water and energy could be saved among 45 churches," Hablas says.

Another local church active on the environmental front is the Church of the Savior on Weisgarber Road, a part of the United Church of Christ. They have actually included a blurb about caring for the Earth in their church mission statement, and Rev. John Gill listed about 13 different projects they are working on. "Most simply, this is based on the idea that the Earth is a gift from 'God the Creator' and therefore not our own," Gill says. "We have been put in a position to care for it." One innovative thing they are doing is supporting a local sustainable agriculture food cooperative, where individuals provide money up front and get food at the end of the month, depending on the level of production. Contributors help sustain the effort by taking on some of the financial risk.

The 24th Psalm says, "The earth is the Lord's, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it," and this verse is commonly cited as a Biblical foundation for stewardship. One who mentions it is John Nolt, professor of philosophy at UT and all-around green guru. (This is a guy who cuts his grass by hand with a scythe.)

Nolt teaches a course on environmental ethics at UT and he has also written extensively about environmental topics. Nolt sees Psalm 24 as an important metaphor, a way of showing that destruction of the Earth is disrespectful.

One of the books Nolt collaborated on—What Have We Done?—is an environmental state of the region report for the upper Tennessee Valley and the southern Appalachian Mountains. One of the book's more interesting (and perhaps surprising) techniques is the use of a Bible verse at the beginning of each chapter as an epigraph. For example, the introduction quotes from Jeremiah 12:10-11: " . . . they have trodden my portion under foot, they have made my pleasant portion a desolate wilderness. They have made it desolate and being desolate it mourneth unto me; the whole land is made desolate, because no man layeth it to heart." Subtle, this is not. But Nolt says that he and the other authors were not trying to be cynical: "We weren't using the tradition in a disrespectful way. What Have We Done? was addressed to a popular audience in contemporary southern Appalachia, which is overwhelmingly Christian, and so we felt that quotations from the Bible would be most resonant for that audience. Some people have found it puzzling. A few have been moved by it." That number seems to be growing.

—Jason Gorss

© 2002 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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