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Houses of Worship Go Green

Listen to this line near the beginning of the Bible.

This is the verse that's led some to think it's OK for humans to exploit nature.

READER: Be fruitful and multiply. And fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the bird of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.
 
ROSEN I've always considered the translation of that particular word kiv-SHU-ha as subdue or exploit to be a very unfortunate translation.

Rabbi Brant Rosen of the Jewish Reconstructionsit Congregation in Evanston is re-interpreting that passage from Genesis in ways that make 'care for the earth' not just the right thing to do, but a religious mandate. And that mandate has led his congregation to raze its old building. We'll get to that story in a few minutes. But first, let's go spelunking through the basement of Resurrection Lutheran Church in Wrigleyville.

SPOONHEIM This is the the storage. And then the water heater, the existing one is this.

Sara Spoonheim and other members of the church council voted to install a solar hot water system last fall. She says it didn't take much to convince the congregation to go green. 

SPOONHEIM Specifically, we read a letter from the bishop of the Lutheran Church in America talking about a Lutheran church in Alaska that was having to physically relocate its church and its members because of global warming. And the rising, melting water that was there.

Still, Resurrection's old hot water heater had a few good years left in it and a new solar one would be three times as much. 

SPOONHEIM The system was $11,300. And Faith in Place was able to help the church round up more than half of that from a state of Illinois rebate and from the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation.

Faith in Place is a non-profit organization that helps congregations throughout Illinois understand, 'care for the earth' as a practice of faith. Founder Rev. Clare Butterfield says eight years ago she was a voice in the wilderness on this issue. Now, she can't even accept all the speaking invitations she receives. 

BUTTERFIELD The way that we relate life, the way that we take care of the earth the in our stewardship as many faiths teach is a religious practice.  It is a way of following the teachings that the founders of our faiths gave to us.

LOYA All this was turf grass. But we burned it all out. Retro-fitted acres and acres.

Go to southwest suburban Homer Glen and you'll find Father Thomas Loya helping his Byzantine Catholic congregation live out those founding religious teachings. His parish--Annunciation of the Mother of God--is restoring the prairie on its ten acre property.

On a rainy, snowy day, Loya walks along a stream bursting with life. Loya says the idea of working with the land instead of against it began back in 1999 when the congregation was building its current sanctuary. They contracted an environmental design company to figure out how to stop the erosion caused by that stream. Loya says this attention to the earth is very much tied to Eastern Christian theology. 

LOYA It sees the created world, matter, our bodies, nature as putting us in a very real way in touch with God.  It's sort of a manifestation of God.

That belief was enough to convince churchgoers to spend $100-thousand to replant all ten acres with natural prairie grasses and flowers. A few years ago during a drought in the area, Loya used this emerging landscape as a pointed sermon illustration.

LOYA I picked prairie flowers and then I dug a little piece of sod and I brought them into the church and I showed them. I said look a the sod. It was absolutely brown and burned out from the sun. So I said here is what we think is better. Here it is all brown. And here is God's way--here is god's vegetation. And I'm holding in my hand these gorgeous prairie flowers that are thriving in this drought.

Loya's beliefs stand in sharp contrast to another view. Some people of faith believe that line from Genesis, subdue the earth and have dominion over it, means humans are the pinnacle of creation and all of nature is in service to them. 

TANNER Historically that's probably the dominant Christian way of understanding it.

University of Chicago theologian Kathryn Tanner says many Christians have been more concerned with the end of the world than the care for it. 

TANNER If you think the end times are about to come, your concern might be less. It's not so important how things are going now and if there's an environmental crisis or if there are wars and famines you're not especially concerned about that because it's a temporary matter and soon to be erased.

But the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation, or JRC, in Evanston isn't concerned about the second coming. It's taking the long view and spending $7-million to rebuild its house of worship along LEED standards. That's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, a certification given by the U.S. Green Building Council. It means the structure uses recycled materials and employs energy-efficient lighting and heating as well as water conservation techniques. It was a plan that worried JRC president Alan Soposnik.

SOPOSNIK On a personal level I'm very conscious of environmental issues. On a building standpoint, I was concerned about the cost and what it would do to impact our design process and timeline.

The J-R-C had outgrown its old building and needed a new one anyway. But rebuilding to LEED standards would end up costing an extra quarter million dollars. The environmental concerns committee eventually convinced him sound energy practices would actually save money over time. Building a temple, after all, is a long-term investment. Now, Soposnik climbs the scaffolding and proudly points to the building's third story wall of windows. 

SOPOSNIK The clear story is actually about three and a half to four foot of glass, so the rest will be filled in with the reclaimed Cyprus walls.

That recycled wood came from an old barn. So many windows saves on lighting bills. Convincing Soposnik and others to go green wasn't all about the dollars. The JRC's Rabbi Brant Rosen made it his goal to help every member find a new, faithful way to read that verse from Genesis: subdue the earth. Kiv-SHU-ha.

ROSEN That word is not and in no way should connote exploitation.

Thousands years ago, perhaps the land was something to subdue when survival depended upon conquering a hostile environment. But now, Rosen says, kiv-SHU-ha might be a command to tend the earth, as did Eve and Adam, as God's garden.

I'm Jason DeRose, Chicago Public Radio. .

Related Links
Resurrection Lutheran Church
Faith in Place
Announciation of the Mother of God Byzantine Catholic Parish
Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation of Evanston

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