Spreading the Green Gospel Around Chicago

Spreading the Green Gospel Around Chicago
Irving Park Lutheran Church
Spreading the Green Gospel Around Chicago
Irving Park Lutheran Church

Spreading the Green Gospel Around Chicago

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Whether you call it eco-theology or creation care, efforts to combine religion with environmentalism are growing in Chicago. Many churches have created green teams to make their buildings eco-friendly. Interfaith green groups are active on college campuses. And at one area seminary, budding pastors are trained to save souls and the planet. But once they hit the pavement and the pews, spreading the green gospel isn’t without its challenges. As part of our series Chicago Matters: Growing Forward, Monique Parsons reports.

ambi: sounds of a lecture

What you’re hearing is a nuclear scientist talking about atomic power. It’s pretty technical stuff, but the students listening and taking notes on their laptops aren’t fazed by it.

MacNEIL: They’ve brought in scientists from the University of Chicago, from Northwestern, you name it…on water issues, on species depletion, so it’s very scientific.

That’s Christine MacNeil, one of the students in the class. She’s not a science major. She’s working on a Master’s Degree in Divinity. But if you didn’t catch the portrait of Jesus staring down from the back wall, you might not guess this is a seminary.

The Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, in the Hyde Park neighborhood, is one of the only seminaries in the United States to offer a major in “environmental ministry.” Bible scholar David Rhoads pioneered the program a decade ago. He wanted the seminary to create pastors interested in environmental stewardship, and then send them out to spread the word…

RHOADS: To encourage their members in their homes and in their work, their lifestyle to do the same thing, so that we are really part of a grass roots movement that will help to turn the tide and lead our culture to embrace this kind of commitment.

Rhoads’ vision is considered cutting edge. His curriculum is a national model for other seminaries and other denominations. He’s transformed the culture of the seminary including worship services. And even though only three or four students graduate from his program each year, his earth-friendly ethos is making its way into some of Chicago’s churches.

ambi: footsteps and street noise

PETERSEN: There’ll be a fence that goes along here to sort of set this garden apart, and then we’ll split all of these up into raised beds….

That’s Reverend Brooke Petersen. She’s pastor of Irving Park Lutheran Church. She’s standing in a vacant, rubble-strewn lot behind her church.

Traffic buzzes by on Pulaski Road. But Petersen says come spring, this will be a vegetable patch to supply fresh produce for the local food pantry.

Petersen graduated from the Lutheran seminary a couple years ago. This is her first full-time job and she’s excited to get to work greening her church. When she got there, the congregation already had made small changes, like new compact florescent light bulbs in the sanctuary and heat monitors in the gym. Even so, Petersen says the green gospel isn’t always an easy sell.

PETERSEN: I think that time is gone now where I can just say, ‘Care for the Earth,’ and everyone’s going to do what I say because I’m their pastor. They want to know why I think that’s important or why I think God’s calling us to that, and if I don’t understand the science and the religion then it seems really shallow.

To get her congregation’s buy-in on the community garden, Petersen insisted on holding a vote. It helped that the plan saved money – Plan A had been to expand the church parking lot, which would have cost tens of thousands of dollars more. But harder and more expensive decisions are down the road.

PETERSEN: My hope is that the sell will be helping people to understand that this is something that God is calling us to. It’s not just another task on that never-ending religious to-do list.

ambi: church music

Yazid Ebeid, a father of two and an insurance consultant, is one of the congregants who’s heeding that call. He helped come up with the idea for the church vegetable garden.

As he walked out of worship service on a recent Sunday, Eibid said he hadn’t really made a connection between his environmentalism and his faith.

EBEID: My interest in saving the planet, for me it comes from almost a humanistic perspective. Obviously my spirituality plays into it. But I do like, again, one of the things that draws me to the message of Christ is that it does lends itself to the, love one another, let’s take care of one another, let’s take care of our planet.

Ebeid says his pastor is opening him up to new ideas. He admires Petersen. And he’s inspired his church can play a role in greening the neighborhood.

But back at the Lutheran School of Theology, David Rhoads says new gardens and light bulbs aren’t enough. If Christians are going to truly embrace environmentalism, he says they need to rethink their relationship to the planet, and that means reimaging their concept of God.

RHOADS: You know our theology isn’t earth-friendly for the most part. Our biblical studies have been done with a lens that has kind of screened creation out. Now we have an opportunity to reinterpret the Bible; not reinterpret it, discover it with new eyes.

That doesn’t sit well with every Lutheran.

BARBER: Obviously it would make me rather uncomfortable.

That’s Reverend David Barber, pastor of Immanuel Lutheran Church in Glenview. He’s part of a more conservative branch of Lutheranism. He says that the classical God suits him just fine. And he believes the church’s top priority is leading people to God through Jesus, not environmentalism.

BARBER: People are searching for identity, and I think this is one of the things that they maybe grab onto, a place that allows them to have a purpose. Unfortunately from my perspective that purpose would be askew from what I understand is the primary purpose of faith.

Still, liberals and conservatives are finding common ground on this issue. Barber says he urges his flock to reduce their carbon footprint. His church recycles and recently bought a new energy-saving boiler, and he says his younger members are excited to do more.

David Rhoads also sees this enthusiasm whenever he leads workshops on “greening” congregations. And as mainline Protestant denominations like his see their membership decline, he thinks the green gospel might not only help save the planet. It could also save the church.

For Chicago Public Radio, I’m Monique Parsons.