By Cassandra Hall
There are many state-wide organizations that promote environmentally-friendly, sustainable lifestyle practices, and work to raise awareness of climate change and its influence from and on people both locally and globally. But one organization has a twist to its approach—faith.
It began in 2004 as Congregations Caring for Creation, but was re-launched in September 2010 as Minnesota Interfaith Power and Light (MN IPL) to better reflect its strong affiliation with the national Interfaith Power & Light campaign; the Minnesota branch is currently one of 39 state affiliates. Directed by Mindy Ahler Olmstead, Minnesota Interfaith Power and Light is composed of 300 separate religious congregations representing 25 different faith traditions.
The group concentrates on three main areas: education, convincing people to change their behavior, and public policy advocacy. Changing behavior includes persuading people to reduce the amount of energy in their homes and in their congregations by making their places of worship energy efficient. MN IPL speaks out on public issues on the local and state levels, supporting the EPA Carbon Rule, more sustainable energy models, and other measures to ensure public health. Through education, MN IPL strives to help people understand climate change and why it is not only an environmental issue, but an issue of morality and faith.
“There are two common tenets related across all major world religions: Creation is a gift and is something for people to be stewards of, created by God and given to us to take care of; and we are called to take care of our neighbors, both our neighbors around the world and future generations,” says Olmstead. “These tenets are especially important when you realize that it’s often the poor and most vulnerable communities hit by climate change; and that when you look at what causes climate change (carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas), the United States produces 25% of the world’s carbon emissions while having only 5% of the world’s population.”
Olmstead herself became involved with MN IPL because of a strong tradition of stewardship within her own religion. “My church is St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church in Minneapolis. The Catholic Church has a strong history of social justice, and for me, social justice is the motivation of why I see this as important work. We are causing harm to people around the world through our own actions and inactions, and I firmly believe there is a better way. Congregations are places where people build on hope, and by working with these congregations, we can look to that hope.”
These congregations are taking action by building rain gardens, installing solar panels, converting lawn to garden space, reducing energy through efficiency, using locally-grown foods, and getting involved in political advocacy. For instance, the Mayflower Church in Minneapolis has pledged to go carbon neutral by 2030, and passed a resolution at the United Church of Christ’s annual Minnesota conference, challenging other UCC communities to do the same.
“They’re not waiting for the government to do something,” says Olmstead, “they’re just doing it. Churches and religious communities have been a major part of history, and they make a difference in becoming a more sustainable society.”
Pastor David Carlson of Gloria Dei Lutheran thanked the EPA for finalizing mercury pollution protections for Minnesota’s children. Minnesota Interfaith Power and Light worked with a broad group of faith leaders (and the Sierra Club) to help push the EPA to protect children from dangerous mercury pollution coming from coal power plants.
But these communities cannot do all of this alone, which is where MN IPL comes in, serving as a way to link congregations to resources and to each other. In one example, the grassroots movement Lutherans Restoring Creation has a manual that guides and advises Lutherans on caring for Creation—but few actually knew about it until MN IPL brought it to their attention.
The huge task of building and maintaining this network of communities, which not only include different denominations, but different religions, is difficult.
“Our base is stronger in Christian and Unitarian churches, who are the most involved, but we have an intern working on interfaith outreach this summer, reaching out to the Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist communities,” says Olmstead. “There are some faiths where we get individuals rather than whole congregations to join us as we help people connect with these issues through their faith. In some faith traditions/denominations, there are a lot of materials out there, but the people in that tradition may have no idea that these materials or groups exist.”
In addition to building relationships with various congregations, Olmstead is working on building the MN IPL network itself; the organization has a board of directors, but for day-to-day operations there are only Olmstead, the executive director, and April Winebrenner-Palo, this summer’s interfaith outreach intern. They are rebuilding their volunteer base, and hope to concentrate efforts on networking opportunities, focus more on education and public policy, and ramp up efforts on energy efficiency.