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Faith Groups Join Secular Environmental Groups to Address Common Goals - 2003-04-18


At a synagogue not far from the nation's capital in a Maryland suburb an inscription above the altar reads: "Let the rivers clap their hands. Let the mountains sing together."

These verses from the Old Testament show a spiritual connection to the natural world.

In a recent survey by the Wisconsin-based Biodiversity Project, 56 percent of Americans said that the environment should be preserved because it is God's creation.

As we look ahead to the annual observance of Earth Day on April 22, VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports that across the United States and around the globe communities of faith are joining with secular environmental groups to address common environmental goals.

At Temple Emanuel in Kensington, Maryland, a wood sculptor's rendering of a Banyan tree stands prominently in the main sanctuary. Like the real Banyan, its branches extend roots back to the ground and spread over a wide area.

The Banyan is an important icon in the synagogue, as it is in Jewish tradition. It is regarded as a tree of life and a symbol of the continuity of the Jewish people. In a tour of Temple Emanuel, synagogue member De Herman instructs us to look up above the tree to a kind of bird's nest sculpture glowing with light. This, she says with a twinkle in her eye, is the eternal light, a lamp found in every synagogue. At Temple Emanuel, she says, the light is powered by a solar panel on the roof.

"What an incredible thing! What a natural thing to have an eternal light powered by the sun, rather then by an electrical outlet! There is no other better way to put out that kind of environmental message than through something like that," she said.

De Herman is co-chair of Green Shalom, an environmental advocacy group that began at Temple Shalom in 1990, on the 20th anniversary of Earth Day. She says the synagogue board supported Green Shalom early on by formally adopting a set of environmental policies.

"(These) allowed the committee to set itself some goals including getting rid of Styrofoam in the kitchen and trying to change over some of the cleaning products," she explained, "so that they would be less chemically harmful to the people that were using them, and also to instill educational curriculum goals in the religious school so that we would also bring it down to the very young children and create (environmental ethics) as a community wide process."

Green Shalom runs a recycling program and sponsors Friday evening prayer services that focus on the environment. The group also brings speakers to the synagogue to lecture on environmental issues and lobbies for local and national legislation to protect natural resources.

De Herman's ecological temple tour moves into a recently built addition, an octagonal room with light streaming in from tall, energy-efficient windows.

"This is an alternative worship space for smaller groups and it has a bamboo floor and double glazed windows surrounding it and access to shade of the trees and sunlight coming in from the back part of the property," she said.

Al Grant, a retired engineer and co-chair of Green Shalom says green building standards have been used in the design of the addition and in other parts of the 50-year-old synagogue.

"All of our lighting is florescent lighting to reduce the energy cost. The floor in our classroom wing is 80 percent recycled material. Our architect did this in spite of a lot of budget restraints that we had. So we think that it is quite an accomplishment the things that he has done."

The Shalom Committee at Temple Emanuel represents a new trend, not only in the U.S., but elsewhere around the globe. Religious groups have begun to mobilize their members around environmental issues. De Herman and Al Grant say it makes perfect sense.

"It is just logical that as part of our outreach we go and try to address some of these issues. They all tie to religion and we all see them getting worse. And somebody has to make a movement toward doing this environmental stewardship," said Mr. Grant

"What we are hoping is that as time goes on, and the economy changes from a petroleum-based one to alternative energy sources, that we have lot of work to do in the Jewish community as part of the whole faith based community. We represent thousands and thousands and thousands and millions of people if we work it through some of the religious institutions," added Ms. Herman.

According to Mr. Grant, "Anybody that listens to this should not think that they are not too small even as an individual to make progress in improving the environment. They have got to believe that if all of us work toward improving the environment in a religious community, we can get it done."

Melanie Griffin believes that faith-based initiatives can play a major role in the environmental movement. She coordinates partnerships with religious groups for the Sierra Club, one of the largest environmental organizations in the United States.

"The community of faith speaks with a moral authority like no one else in this country, in the world in fact. They come from a place of doing what is right, a moral imperative," she said. "So, you can have scientists arguing statistics and economists arguing their numbers, but when the religious community speaks out on an issue it really carries a lot of weight so that is why the religious community is so important in these societal debates."

So important, in fact, that a recent Sierra Club media campaign opposing oil exploration in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge created this national political television advertisement, in collaboration with the National Council of Churches.

"We don't need to run the land we love, the land left in our care, to meet America's energy needs. Drilling in special places like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is not the answer. The answer is conservation. Fuel efficiency. Solar and wind power. And keeping our promise to care for creation. Care about America. Care for America. For our families, for our future.

Brought to you by the Sierra Club and the National Council of Churches"

Ms. Griffen said of the ad, "There are a couple of prayers in it. It starts with a Jewish prayer. It has a very inter-denominational and interfaith sense to it. It talks about the need to protect our special places and that we don't have to sacrifice creation in order to produce our energy needs, that there are safer, more sensible ways to do that. And it has footage of the Arctic Refuge and the snow-covered Brooks Range as you approach the coastal plain of the Refuge."

"This collaboration could change the world," writes Gary Gardner, director of research at the Worldwatch Institute, in a new book called "Evoking the Spirit."

Mr. Gardner offers examples from around the world where religious institutions are using their influence to promote environmentalism. He writes about the "environmentalist monks" in Thailand who have opposed shrimp farming and dam and pipeline construction, protected mangrove swamps and bird populations. And, he profiles a non-governmental group in Sri Lanka that actively promotes a Buddhist-inspired vision of development in half of the country's villages.

"They have a very particular understanding of what development is. It is not simply an increase in income," he said. "It is not simply this increase in the provision of infrastructure such as water, or health care infrastructure. It takes into account as well the spiritual and cultural needs of people and so it really develops a different understanding of what development means in a developing country context."

Gary Gardner charts these unconventional alliances. But, he says religious and environmental groups still have a lot of work to do overcoming misconceptions about each other, and finding their common ground. Once they do, Mr. Gardner predicts, the two communities will "generate the societal energy needed to sustain the planet and its people."