Bob Whitaker wants to put solar panels on the sloped brown roof of Evangelical Community Church in Bloomington, Indiana. Then he wants to help other churches get solar power too.
Although COVID-19 has complicated fundraising efforts, Whitaker hopes to soon see clean energy projects at churches across the state, dramatically increasing the number of evangelical congregations committed to creation care in a very practical way.
â€śThis whole thing for me has been a bit of a conversion,â€ť said Whitaker, who has pastored at Evangelical Community Church for 22 years. â€śI didnâ€™t grow up thinking this way. I didnâ€™t begin serving this church with this mentalityâ€¦. Among evangelicalsâ€”churches, pastors, even theologiansâ€”weâ€™ve focused on the salvation of the soul to the exclusion of other parts I now consider to be part of the Good News.â€ť
His change was gradualâ€”an expansion of his understanding of how the gospel applies to everyday life and a growing sense that Godâ€™s people should treat the earth not as consumers but as caretakers. Now, he wants to take the next step.
As chair of Creation Care Partners, a nonprofit with a goal of helping evangelical and Jewish organizations work together to promote environmentally friendly initiatives, Whitaker is asking 20 evangelical churches in the state of Indiana to commit with him to cut their energy usage by 25 percent or more.
One Indiana church has led the way. Englewood Christian Church, in Indianapolis, has reduced electricity use by 27 percent and natural gas use by more than 60 percent. About a third of Englewood church members have reduced their personal energy usage too, some by as much as 40 percent.
Hoosier evangelicals who sign on to be Creation Care Partners can get a $25,000 matching grant to install solar panels. The money comes from a $500,000 fund established as part of a legal settlement between American Electric Power and the United States Environmental Protection Agency. Evangelical Community Church is raising its initial funds now. Whitaker knows it can be a challenge for a church to come up with $25,000, especially during a pandemic. But heâ€™s hopeful.
â€śWeâ€™re experiencing a gradual shift,â€ť he said. â€śI think itâ€™s a good one.â€ť
The executive director of the World Evangelical Allianceâ€™s Creation Care Task Force agrees that there is reason for optimism. Chris Elisara is amazed at how far the creation care movement has come since the 1990s.
Today a lot of evangelicals take climate change seriously, and there are robust theological discussions on caring for the environment.
More than that, there are evangelicals undertaking practical creation care projects, Elisara said. At least 75 evangelical churches use solar power in the United States, from an Assemblies of God church in Bakersfield, California, to a Vineyard church in Cincinnati to a Baptist church in Charlotte, North Carolina, according to the Interfaith Power & Light directory. And the WEA is working to get 20 percent of its international network of ministries and churches on clean energy by 2025.
â€śI think itâ€™s vital that we as an evangelical community contribute our solutions to the global work to fight climate change,â€ť Elisara said.
Itâ€™s been a slow process, he admits. Looking back on his own awakening to the issue of creation care, Elisara is surprised it took so long. He says he had been to a lot of churches and studied at several universities before he learned that caring for the earth and the environment is a biblically based idea.
Creation care proponents point to passages such as Genesis 2:15, where God tells Adam to take care of the garden, and Leviticus 25:1â€“5, where the Lord tells Moses that the Promised Land should also take a Sabbath rest, for the basis of their argument. They say Scripture never teaches people to use up or consume the land. Godâ€™s people instead are told to cultivate and nurture the world around them.
Advocates also say that Jesusâ€™ instruction to love your neighbor is a mandate for Christians to concern themselves with the quality of the air people breathe, the cleanliness of the water, and the health of the environment.
Kyle Meyaard-Schaap, spokesman for Young Evangelicals for Climate Action and Midwest director for the Evangelical Environmental Network (EEN), said when he saw the impact that environmental degradation could have on a community, he realized that loving his neighbor should include concern for nature.
â€śI grew up in a pretty conservative Christian community that was beautiful in so many ways,â€ť Meyaard-Schaap said. â€śBut it gave me very little when it came to what my faith had to do with the natural world and specifically what it had to do with climate change.â€ť
Seeing the impact of rising temperatures and decreasing rainfall on farmers in Kenya, reading about how coal companiesâ€™ mountaintop removal harmed communities in Appalachia, and watching the devastating impact of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans in 2005 made Meyaard-Schaap expand his understanding of what it means to love your neighbor.
He too is looking to help people put that belief into action. This summer, the EEN has been lobbying Ohio Governor Mike DeWine and pro-life legislators to commit to converting the stateâ€™s power grids to 100 percent clean energy by 2030.
More than 50,000 people have signed a petition that says, â€śAs a pro-life Christian, I believe pollution harms the unborn, causing damage that lasts a lifetime.â€ť About 30 percent of Ohioans are evangelical and 18 percent Catholic, according to a Pew Research Center poll, and roughly 47 percent of the state thinks abortion should be illegal in all or most cases.
The pro-life petitioners are pushing for a repeal of House Bill 6, which sharply lowered the stateâ€™s renewable energy and energy efficiency standards while providing a financial bailout to two coal plants and two nuclear power plants. Since the law was passed in 2019, the Ohio speaker of the house and four Republican allies were arrested on charges that they accepted about $60 million in bribery from the nuclear power plantsâ€™ parent company.
If legislators repeal and replace the bill, they could commit the state to a clean energy plan.
Meyaard-Schaap thinks a growing number of people see the link between the issues.
â€śItâ€™s impossible to ignore the threat that climate change is imposing to life around the world,â€ť he said. â€śWe want to be consistent to our values. We value life from womb to the tomb.â€ť
Whether or not the lobbying effort is successful in Ohio, the push is another example of how the creation care movement is graduating from theory and education to action. As Elisara explains, the question is now â€śWhat does it really mean practically, pragmatically?â€ť
In Bloomington, Whitaker thinks creation care means changes for his church roof. Two hundred miles north on Interstate 65, another evangelical pastor, Curtis Whittaker Sr.â€”no relation to Bob Whitakerâ€”had the same thought. Five years ago, he raised $10,000 to match a state grant of $10,000 and install solar panels at Progressive Community Church in Gary, Indiana.
The theology was pretty simple, he said: â€śWe have a responsibility to be good stewards and good managers over the earth because God loves the earth. God loves what he created.â€ť
The first year, the church saw its energy bill reduced by about 60 percent, as it produced more energy than it consumed for most of the year. The church was able to redirect the money it saved on utilities to other ministries in its effort to take the impoverished area â€śfrom blighted to lighted.â€ť
â€śYouâ€™ve just got to sit and listen to God,â€ť Whittaker said. â€śIf he gives you the vision, he will give you the provision to go with it. Walk out and step out on the faith he has called us to walk on. Heâ€™ll do the rest.â€ť
Adam MacInnis is a journalist based in Nova Scotia, Canada.
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