Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2007

Spreading the gospel on green living

Congregations leading public awareness campaigns for environment issues

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Children hunted for natural treasures during an outdoor scavenger hunt and pasted together collages about the earth on a recent Saturday afternoon.

Their parents checked out hybrid cars, solar-powered water heaters, rain barrels made from recycled juice containers and organic food hauled in by a mail-order delivery service.

The ‘‘Green-IN,” hosted by Cedar Lane Unitarian Universalist Church in Bethesda, was meant to open Bethesda’s eyes to the environment, complete with an eco-potluck for dinner.

Cedar Lane is one of several inside-the-Beltway congregations in Montgomery County taking up environmental advocacy. Like eco-missionaries from a range of religious and spiritual beliefs, these congregations are trying to spread the green gospel.

‘‘Almost universally there is a concept of being a good steward of the earth and a good steward of Creation,” said Allison Fisher of the Greater Washington Interfaith Power and Light, a nonprofit that helps local faith-based groups with environmental initiatives such as fluorescent light bulb drives. ‘‘More and more, they’re taking it as part of their mission.”

Eleven of the group’s 71 partner congregations in the Washington area are in Bethesda, Chevy Chase, Kensington and Potomac.

Some churches work internally — from saving electricity by switching off lights in church offices, to renovating their terrestrial houses of worship. Others are getting their neighbors involved.

Activism ties into many congregations’ basic belief in helping the indigent, they said, because climate change most harshly affects those in poverty. Churches are coming to a consensus within their congregations, Fisher said, that ‘‘no matter how many peanut butter and jelly sandwiches they make for their neighbors nearby,” environmental outreach is more likely to help their neighbors in third-world countries.

The Green-IN at Cedar Lane took months to plan and drew about 300 people, including church member and County Councilwoman Nancy M. Floreen (D-At large) of Garrett Park, and other local and state politicians.

A church vote earlier this year named the environment Cedar Lane’s ‘‘number one issue,” according to member Mike McKenna, who organized the Green-IN.

‘‘Some were surprised about this, because it beat out the war in Iraq,” McKenna said. ‘‘What I would like to see this be is a movement spread across the country, not just a congregation.”

Church leaders said that while global warming is a major issue everywhere from Capitol Hill to elementary school classrooms, public awareness is lacking.

‘‘People hear about global warming all the time,” said Molly Hauck, one of the Cedar Lane’s environmental leaders. ‘‘But they don’t know exactly what causes it and how to solve the problem.”

The Green-IN was an effort to teach about specific lifestyle adjustments that conserve energy and reduce pollution. Exhibitors included Trader Joe’s and the Gaithersburg-based Sustainable Design Group, which aims to build ‘‘zero energy” homes.

Faith groups across lower Montgomery County are taking similar approaches.

The Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church of Bethesda on Old Georgetown Road hosts a public ‘‘Creation Care” forum where environmental experts give tips for green living.

The Bethesda United Church of Christ launched its campaign last fall. The church’s screening of Al Gore’s documentary ‘‘An Inconvenient Truth” drew more than 100 people, two-thirds of whom were from outside the church.

‘‘One of the things we’ve talked about is how to bring [environmentalism] to the public more, and help people who don’t have the resources necessary to make these changes. It’s very expensive,” church member Karen Tincknell said, referring to the hefty price tag on weatherizing a house or buying wind energy.

Children at River Road Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Bethesda have taken up the cause on behalf of the church. The youth group collects and recycles printer ink cartridges and cell phones, then donates recycling proceeds to the Potomac Conservancy.

The project was the kids’ idea.

‘‘They read the news, and they see all the bad things that are going on with global warming and degradation to the environment,” said Beth Irikura, youth ministry coordinator. By reaching out, Irikura said, the youth group is staying true to the tenets of theirs and other faiths, to protect ‘‘the interconnected web of all existence.”