Non-Profit Spotlight: GreenFaith
By Jessica Norris
On the scale of human history, it was not long ago that the disciplines we now term theology and science were two closely related aspects of philosophy. In 1800, English theologian Paley produced an immensely popular series of treatises showing why the natural world is all the evidence necessary to prove God’s existence. Charles Darwin himself was an aspiring parson-naturalist before the journey of the Beagle. And yet today, deepening societal divides in the US and elsewhere often seem to place environmental and religious convictions on opposite sides. This relatively recent pitting of the two against each other is firmly rejected by a growing contingent of people who see that purported divide as a false and dangerous dichotomy.
Greenfaith, a non-profit organization whose mission rests on the conviction that “protecting the earth is a religious value, and that environmental stewardship is a moral responsibility,” is a leader in movement to support environmental stewardship by people of faith. They do this through a suite of activities, including training and certification for religious leaders, a strong advocacy effort focused on environmental justice, and direct support for faith-based groups that want to reduce their carbon footprint, energy use and energy costs. All of their concrete programs, such as helping houses of worship transition to solar power, are supported by speaking, training and conferences that lift these efforts onto the larger stage of a global movement.
Based in New Jersey, GreenFaith was founded in 1992 under the name Partners for Environmental Quality by Jewish and Christian leaders who believed that New Jersey’s religious community needed an organization to connect diverse religious traditions with the environment. Executive director Reverend Fletcher Harper sees the physical setting of their headquarters as fitting. “New Jersey itself is a world of environmental gifts and challenges in microcosm.” It is a place with a deep pastoral and agricultural heritage, but was also one of the first places in the US to undergo the industrial revolution. The diverse mix of cultures and religious traditions also made it a rich setting for the launch of one of the first US religious-environmental organizations.
Since its earliest all-volunteer efforts to support greater awareness among faith communities, GreenFaith has grown into an international actor. Their growth has been both concrete and abstract. One of their most measureable successes is having identified and facilitated financing for over a megawatt of solar energy at faith-based sites. But they are also seeing evidence that their perspective is growing among wider audiences.
Harper, who joined the organization in 2002, can describe a few turning points in its momentum. Although public interest as measured in inquiries and speaker requests has reflected pretty steady growth, 2005 marked a surge of activity. Hurricane Katrina cast a spotlight on the painful, unmistakable impacts of severe storms, especially on the most vulnerable members of society. “There was a recognition that that kind of severe storm activity is one of the hallmarks of climate change,” says Harper. When An Inconvenient Truth followed in the following year, Harper said the growing concern over climate change spurred more people to examine how the groups they were a part of could respond. Many faith-based organizations began to put environmental justice and stewardship to the forefront of their concerns.
The second major turning point, somewhat ironically, was the spectacular failure of the climate negotiations at Copenhagen. Like many issues that took a back seat to the global economic crisis, the religious-environmental linkage stopped gaining steam in 2007. The 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference, commonly known as the Copenhagen Summit, was supposed to establish a framework for climate change mitigation, but the talks were largely considered a failure.
On the other hand, the ineffectiveness of the global summit served as a call to action for civil society groups and faith-based organizations alike. Harper traces the blossoming of the divestment movement, the call upon organizations to sell stocks that supported the extraction and use of fossil fuels, to post-Copenhagen frustration. GreenFaith also responded with actions directed at the next round of climate talks, helping organize the faith-based participation in the People’s Climate March in 2014. Focused on New York, where countries met last year to conduct the negotiations and preliminary meetings for 2015’s Paris Climate Summit, the People’s Climate March brought together thousands of people requesting more decisive action from this round of talks. “We were able to unite faith groups and had really beautiful music and prayers offered from different traditions. It was a great moment of showcasing what we feel our mission is all about, which is bringing people from very diverse religious and spiritual backgrounds together and uniting in common purpose in protection of the earth.” The momentum from that day carried forward into action for this year’s climate summit.
GreenFaith continues to grow and examine their opportunities for engagement. One sector that Harper would like to see better collaboration with is the community of conservation practitioners. When we spoke, he had just returned from a meeting convened by the Nature Conservancy and the Alliance for Religious Conservation to foster better collaboration between religious groups and the conservation movement. Harper sees ample opportunity to strengthen this relationship. “There is a lot of unrealized potential. Religious groups themselves are significant land holders, and if properly mobilized can play an important role in preserving and protecting the land that they own and control. And obviously religions are also important in helping shape culture, and cultural values have a lot to do with the development of a conservation ethic.”
Despite Harper’s optimism, he notes that building partnerships takes time and recognizes some obstacles to effective joint action. “Conservation groups, often need to move quote quickly when an opportunity appears. And religious groups, to be frank, often move quite slowly.” There are also some specific cultural barriers that need to be addressed. For example, Harper notes that sometimes western “Christianity has a bit of a blind spot when it comes to the environment. For an awfully long time and particularly in its founding centuries, Christianity partly defined itself against paganism, and I‘ve seen this deep assumption that getting too close to the environment is not a Christian thing to do. And I see a certain part of the environmental movement that has not been too happy with organized religion also. So it creates conversations and some interesting opportunities.”
These are the conversations that GreenFaith seeks out and supports both locally and internationally. They are the conversations that bring people together to focus on common goals. GreenFaith itself is an umbrella of a remarkably diverse set of religious communities that with mutual respect for each other’s goals and approaches. Though it seems unlikely that the environmental and religious thought will ever be as tightly linked as when Christian scholars were busily cataloguing natural phenomena as the expression of their god’s intentions for the universe, the emergence of organizations that bridge modern religious and conservation communities such as GreenFaith should bolster our confidence in the possibility of establishing enduring religious-environmental collaborations for the planet.
GreenFaith’s website offers a variety of resources for congregations, ranging from guidance on finding funding for energy retrofits to guides on how faith organizations can confront environmental health issues (such as asthma, pictured here) affecting their members.