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Posted August 11, 2006

An Excellent Success Story in Light of the Energy Crisis
A Model Parishes Should Imitate

Group works in churches to bring awareness of,
tips on energy cuts

By Mark Pattison
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Interfaith Power & Light sounds like the name of a public utility, complete with monthly bills. But it's not.

Interfaith Power & Light, active in 21 states and the District of Columbia, works at educating churches and their members about how to make a dent in global warming. It's part of the organization's way of caring for God's creation, and the work is done on many fronts.

"The focus is mitigating climate change but through congregations ... making congregations the model of behavior for individuals through conservation, new technologies, making congregations more energy-efficient, and then having it filter down to the individuals to make changes in their lifestyles and make their lives more energy-efficient," said Tim Kautza, science and environmental education specialist for the National Catholic Rural Life Conference, a member of Iowa Interfaith Power & Light.

Michigan Interfaith Power & Light operates on several levels, said its director, Father Charles Morris, pastor of St. Elizabeth Parish in the Detroit suburb of Wyandotte, Mich.

One is a Web site with an online shopping cart where customers can order compact fluorescent lights and power-saving appliances at a discount. "They're making it a little bit easier" for consumers to be energy-conscious, Kautza said of the Michiganders.

St. Elizabeth spent $5,000 on an energy audit in 1997 and recouped the expense within a year by implementing the audit's energy-saving recommendations, according to Father Morris.

"We can save money as well as make a sacramental witness of our deepest values, with our care of creation," Father Morris told Catholic News Service in a telephone interview from the church rectory.

He recalled being pastor of another parish in the Archdiocese of Detroit where the church was "built in 1885 when coal was three bucks a ton."

"We had to keep the church at 40 degrees" because of the cost to heat it, he said. "We had to have daily Mass in an anteroom."

At St. Elizabeth, "we have four solar (power) systems in the rectory," Father Morris said: a solar thermal unit for the hot water, cutting natural gas usage in half; a 1.1-kilowatt photovoltaic unit; a 400-watt solar-wind hybrid turbine -- it's a hybrid "because of the vagaries of Michigan's climate," he said; and a solar attic fan.

"You can finance on-site renewable (energy) to reduce your ecological footprint," he noted.

Father Morris' next project is the old parish grade school, two rooms of which are still used weekdays for a preschool. "We have to heat the whole building because of the two classrooms. We've signed a contract with Johnson Controls for 20 percent discount on labor and 30 percent discount on equipment to zone out the rooms" not being used, he said.

In California, 76 Catholic parishes are part of the 384-church California Interfaith Power & Light, said Jessica Brown, a Catholic who, when not working as its outreach coordinator, is taking master's degree-level studies in social and cultural ethics at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, Calif.

Public policy and education are the California group's goals. It has secured commitments from 200 churches -- half of them Catholic, Brown said -- to show "An Inconvenient Truth," a documentary on climate change featuring former Vice President Al Gore.

In the state, the group is working to pass a bill mandating reductions in carbon dioxide emissions by 2010. California Interfaith Power & Light is working with the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the Dioceses of Oakland, San Jose and Stockton on getting word on climate change "out to all their people," Brown said. And in Washington, California Interfaith Power & Light is working with the state's congressional delegation on bills that would require the federal automotive fleet to be more fuel-efficient.

One of the newer Interfaith Power & Light affiliates is Texas Impact, formed by the state's Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist and Presbyterian leaders to address social issues.

Bee Morehead, Texas Impact's executive director, said she sees value in church participation.

"We're in kind of a polarized situation in this country. Any issue that is ... the least little bit hard gets polarized so quickly," she told CNS.

"If we do it right -- and there's plenty of room to do it wrong -- faith communities are one of the few remaining voluntary institutions in our community where we can come together to talk seriously about hard issues that have impact on the whole community," she said.

Texas' inconvenient truth, as Morehead puts it, is that "the fossil fuel industry has made Texas the seventh largest economy in the world. It's driven by a thing that is now understood to hurt and kill people. ... Who wants to hear that? It would be like going to a church in West Virginia that is full of coal miners and saying that coal-fired power plants are killing children with asthma."

Interfaith Power & Light affiliates are also active in Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Vermont and Virginia.