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US Environmental Movement Has New Ally: Churches - 2003-03-08

The environmental movement has a new ally, God. At least that's the view of a group of religious leaders who've formed an organization called "Interfaith Power and Light". Currently, there are IPL chapters in eight different states and the number is growing.

"It's called 'Pathways'," says Kate Harrigan, a religion teacher at St. Stephen's Episcopal School in Pennsylvania's capital city. She works with students between the ages of eleven and fourteen, and today she's in the church, explaining to a group of eighth graders how to play a game she's designed. "I will roll the dice, and you will move the number of pews the dice says," she says.

The game is really a review session. As students move through the church from pew to pew, they're asked questions they should know the answers to if they've been paying attention to the lessons they've covered in their religion class.

Harrigan: "How long does it take a cigarette butt to decompose?"
Students: "Five hundred years?"
"Is it 500 or 100?"
"Or 50?"
"It's 500."
"I think it's 500."
"So do I. Five hundred!"
Harrigan: "No, it's not 500."

In fact, it takes just five years for a cigarette butt to decompose. Kate Harrigan suggests the students have confused that fact with something else they studied, the decomposition rate of a tin can. Now mind you, this is a religion class. So then why are the students learning about garbage? After the class is finished and the church has been turned over to the organ tuner, Kate Harrigan says it's because she wants the children to understand a concept known as "stewardship." "Stewardship is how do we take care of the creation that God has given us? And this isn't getting into 'evolution' or anything like that. It's really however God gave us this world, through evolution, creation, however God gave it to us, we are responsible for it," she says.

And taking responsibility for the world doesn't just involve being concerned about big things, like war. Kate Harrigan says it involves little things, too… like how you dispose of your garbage, or whether you drive to a meeting that's within easy walking distance. And this is something she's trying to stress to her students, through a curriculum designed by Pennsylvania's chapter of Interfaith Power and Light.

"There are a great many of us who really believe that stewardship of creation is central to Christology and central to most mainstream religions," says Sally Bingham, an Episcopal bishop who helped to found the IPL movement in 1997. It began in California as an Episcopal initiative and has since grown to include leaders from several religious groups, including Catholics, Jews, and Muslims.

Interfaith Power and Light seeks to convert people not to a particular religion, but to an environmentally-conscious way of life. Sally Bingham says the organization wants to give those who are already religious a greater understanding of their faith. "I think it acts as a mechanism for deepening people's faith, because you have this new sense of personal responsibility, and that every single one of your behaviors, whether it's the car you drive, or the coffee you drink, or the clothes you wear, or where you put your trash, whether or not you recycle," she says. "These are things that if you find that you're doing these things out of a deep devotion to God and creation, it makes you feel wonderful."

It also makes you feel that if you don't take responsibility for your behavior, there will be consequences says 13-year-old Morgan Davis, a student at St. Stephen's Episcopal School. "It's a huge difference from somebody telling you to clean up, and God saying "I gave you life," she says. "I'm providing you with the will and everything to do what you're doing right now. Could you just give me back a little bit and help me take care of everything on this earth, so that you can help your brothers and sisters and all the animals and everything else on this earth live. So it's a huge difference from somebody saying 'It's good,' and God saying 'It's what you have to do'."

Currently, Interfaith Power and Light is focused on fossil-fuel dependency. The group is working through churches, mosques, and synagogues to teach people that decisions like not turning off the television when leaving the room contribute to wasteful coal and oil usage. IPL is also encouraging religious groups to construct more energy-efficient houses of worship. In Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, the organization is helping to remodel St. Stephen's Episcopal Cathedral, so the structure will cab be cooled in the summer without the use of a high-energy air conditioning system.