WASHINGTON – Parishioners won’t find Styrofoam at Towson Presbyterian Church, but they will notice shade-grown coffee, an ink cartridge-for-paper exchange and a recycling program led by the nursery school.
This weekend, the church will focus on God’s creation for “Earth Day Sunday,” a special service many churches now celebrate in conjunction with the secular Earth Day.
Earth Day Sunday is just one part of a faith-based green movement gathering steam in Maryland and churches nationwide, where Protestant churches try to dispel the idea that environmental protection is a leftist activity antithetical to Christian ideology.
The environment has historically taken a back seat to common faith initiatives like the fight against poverty or hunger, local church leaders and experts said. But now, congregations increasingly see a connection between care for God’s creation and social issues.
At Towson Presbyterian, environmental stewardship permeates worship and activities throughout the year, said Charles Conklin, chairman of Towson Presbyterian’s Earth Corps Advocacy Team.
“Almost everything we have in our hymnals refers to water — it refers to creation,” Conklin said.
Environmentalism remains in the background at many Protestant churches, but the concepts are beginning to take hold, said George Fisher, a professor emeritus of geology at Johns Hopkins University.
“Somewhat to my surprise, it’s happening in the evangelical churches as well,” he said. “I think it’s an absolutely wonderful thing.”
Evangelical churches — defined as Protestant churches focused on expressing the gospels and being “born again” in faith — are generally viewed as more conservative-minded and less likely to advocate environmental issues. It is Presbyterian or Episcopal churches like the one in Towson that are leading the way, Fisher said.
This Sunday, children at Towson Presbyterian will go on an environmental “plus and minus” scavenger hunt in the church. They’ll see positives, like signs reminding people to turn off lights when they leave, and negatives like windows that need to be replaced, Conklin said.
In addition, volunteers will shed their Sunday best and don work clothes to spruce up the church’s Chesapeake Bay-friendly garden.
A nascent coalition known as the Churches for the Chesapeake is further evidence that the religious eco-movement is blossoming in Maryland. The group held two gatherings in Annapolis this year to raise awareness on bay-friendly landscaping, energy efficiency in church buildings and other actions.
Churches for the Chesapeake has no official members yet, but 18 faith communities in Maryland and Virginia have participated in planning efforts and drafted a mission “. . . to establish Earth-healing ministries, to revere and cherish the Earth and to restore the ability of the Chesapeake Bay to sustain all life.”
Fisher, a Presbyterian, said he noticed the power of religion in environmental matters while he researched geology. Natural resources, he found, are too limited to satisfy the world’s population at a Western level of consumption. The allocation of resources is therefore an ethical issue, he said, and most people deal with ethics through religion.
Protestant churches may have been reluctant to touch environmental issues in the past due to conflicting ideology between the church and science.
“Much of the science we need to know and turn to for wisdom on environmental issues is precisely the same science that underlies evolution,” Fisher said. “That’s posed a difficulty for some churches.”
Fisher’s personal feeling is it’s not a conflict at all. Church ideology holds that God is the creator, and “all of science doesn’t say whether there’s a God.”
“I think that they work together,” he said.
Conklin, 69, and a lifelong Republican, acknowledges that the eco-movement is often perceived as a leftist one that harms business. In fact, he saw the debate firsthand in his career at Bethlehem Steel.
“I think that people viewed environmental issues as obstructionist to our economy,” he said. “And it was. It was a pain in the neck. It slowed productivity.”
There is a greater sense of urgency today, however, as evidence mounts on carbon dioxide’s negative effects on society, Conklin said. Conservative concepts of property rights and self responsibility should fit in with the greater context of what’s good for the Earth, he said. Still, mixing politics and religion can be tricky business.
“People do not like to be legislated from the pulpit,” he said.
In many congregations, issues like gay rights and abortion gain precedent over the environment, Fisher said. But as topics like climate change gain notice, the environment will be a hot topic in many churches, Fisher said.
“The fact that we’ve been able to change a global feature of the Earth system is going to get people’s attention,” he said. “I anticipate a shortage of gasoline, in a very immediate way, will impact people in a pocketbook fashion.”
Most importantly, congregational and coalition efforts to sustain the environment will pay future dividends for today’s children, Conklin said.
“I believe so much about giving (young people) the same privileges and rights that I’ve had in my lifetime,” he said, “and I believe churches will be the tipping point.”