Popes Visit Sparks Md. Congregations to Push for Climate Legislation

By Jacob Bell

COLLEGE PARK, Md.—In speeches at the White House on Wednesday and the Capitol a day later, Pope Francis emboldened the U.S. and its lawmakers to act in favor of the environment—a stance the pontiff has made clear since the release of his encyclical in mid-June.

Following the pope’s lead, 85 congregations of various faiths throughout Maryland will address climate change and care for the Earth as part of Climate in the Pulpits, a three-day effort this weekend that, for many of the participating congregations, will culminate in a call to the state legislature for renewal and magnification of laws designed to protect the environment.

The laws in question are the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Act and the Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard, both part of the Maryland Climate Action Plan. The congregations will ask legislators to renew the former act, which expires at the end of 2016, and amend the latter to require that electric companies derive 25 percent of their retail sales from renewable energy sources like wind, solar, geothermal and ocean power by 2020. The current standard requires 20 percent of retails sales from those sources by 2022.

“We’ve talked about environmental concerns and environmental issues in the parishes,” said Father Ty Hullinger, a Roman Catholic priest and pastor for three parishes in Baltimore, all of which are participating in the effort. “To be quite honest, before the advent of Pope Francis we really didn’t spend a lot of time talking about that.”

Within the Archdiocese of Baltimore, Hullinger added, the churches “probably weren’t looking at these issues the way we should have.”

Climate in the Pulpits comes at a time when the majority of Catholics in the state report believing in climate change.

A survey of more than 1,500 Marylanders, released Monday by George Mason University and Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, found nearly two-thirds of Roman Catholic responders are at least somewhat sure that climate change is happening and support state and local government initiatives to protect against its harmful effects.

The survey also found more than half of Catholic responders said they, their families and their communities are vulnerable to potential health impacts of climate change. Many Catholics reported implementing pro-environment actions like buying energy efficient appliances or adjusting thermostats down in the winter and up in the summer.

As of 2010, Catholics made up the largest religious denomination in Maryland with nearly 840,000 adherents, according to a study from the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies.

The Climate in the Pulpits effort should directly reach 10,000 worshipers of faiths ranging from Catholicism to Judaism to Episcopalian, according to Brooke Harper, the Maryland Outreach Coordinator for Chesapeake Climate Action Network. The network partnered with Interfaith Power & Light, which encourages congregations in the Washington metropolitan region to respond to climate change through green actions, to create Climate in the Pulpits.

For congregations pushing state lawmakers to beef up environmental legislation, Climate in the Pulpits organizers are providing petitions that adherents can sign and send to representatives.

Congregations not addressing specific environmental legislation plan to incorporate teachings like encyclical study or creation care, which emphasizes mankind’s position in environmental stewardship, into special workshops and sermons, according to Harper.

Participation greatly overshot the effort’s initial participation goal of 50 congregations, Harper said.

“I did a lot of one-on-one meetings with congregations, and it was really interesting to see just how many of them had started on their own to pick up environment and climate-change issues,” she said.

St. Philips Episcopal Church in Annapolis is one such congregation. The church is looking into installing rain barrels, and has redone its parking lot blacktop to better address stormwater management, said Cynthia Snapp, the parish administrator.

“Three was a need for it to be redone,” Snapp said, “(and) we’re not far from the water, the Severn River, here, and so we’ve always been a part of that.”

St. Philips on Saturday plans to host the Rev. Kip Banks Sr., who will hold a workshop on climate change. Banks, pastor at the East Washington Heights Baptist Church in Washington, said his congregation has become increasingly responsive to climate-change issues.

“You look at it on a number of levels,” Banks said. “We can see the lack of rain we experience each year; temperatures have been warmer and we’ve had less rain. It impacts people in terms of not having green grass, but (on the other hand) we’re increasingly talking about the effects it has on the poor.”

“We are a church in an urban community, and the number of impoverished are growing,” Banks added. “Climate change worsens poverty. The pope’s a refreshing message that we need to address all the issues of the lost and the left behind.”

Hullinger is finding similar responses in his congregations, where he said most Catholics are willing to listen and be challenged by the pope and others.

“At the same time, we still have a long way to go to reaching a consensus and unity around environmental issues and what responses are appropriate for society to address those,” Hullinger said.

“And that’s why I think it’s so important to even have the space for conversation and dialogue at the parish level around it,” he added. “It can get people talking about it more and thinking about it more and praying about it more.”

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