Look at any environmental gathering in the Buffalo Niagara region, and you’ll see the usuals: the bird-watchers, hikers, pollution fighters, neighborhood activists and even the granola-eating tree-huggers. ¶ But now others show up in greater numbers, too. ¶ You can thank God for that. Or Yahweh. Even Allah or the Great Spirit. ¶ Environmentalists are making room for priests, nuns, rabbis, imams and others of faith who care about the environment and want to play a role in protecting our water, air and land.
The Sierra Club’s Lynda Schneekloth said the clergy and others with religious backgrounds now account for between a third and a half of those attending local Sierra Club events.
“Two years ago, there wouldn’t have been anybody except for the diehards,” said Schneekloth, chairwoman of the Sierra Club’s Niagara chapter.
Some joined the environmental movement on their own. But others heard the call of Pope Francis, who published his encyclical, “Laudato Si,” last May “on care for our common home.” Environmental justice, specifically addressing global climate change, has become a calling like feeding and clothing the poor, caring for the ill and housing the homeless as moral imperatives for people of faith.
“The pope, from his religious and political positions, opened up the floodgates this past year,” Schneekloth said. “Now that the pope has said it’s a moral issue, it’s given everybody permission to talk about it.”
It’s not just their attendance and comments at rallies or public hearings making a difference, but also what the religious are doing and teaching at their places of worship and schools.
Faith-based environmental activism abounds across the region:
• Some 72 churches, schools and other diocesan buildings in the Buffalo Catholic Diocese are “green,” with others turning to solar energy for power.
• Sisters at Stella Niagara have launched a full-time outdoor education program for students.
• Jewish families are “repairing the world” with preservation pledges to take action in their synagogues and homes under the Green Faith Initiative.
• Local Muslims are promoting Quranic principles of conservation, moderation and compassionate stewardship of the environment in mosques.
• Eastern Orthodox Christians are teaching the environmental principles espoused by Bartholomew I, their “Green Patriarch.”
The groundswell of support and involvement from people of faith comes as a boon to organizations and activists, according to Schneekloth and others who have lobbied and pressed for environmental causes for decades.
When area environmental groups held a gathering and potluck dinner Thanksgiving weekend to send off University at Buffalo law students to Paris for the climate talks, the auditorium at Temple Beth Zion was packed with religious.
“I’m more hopeful now than I’ve been in years,” Schneekloth said.
“We need to build a bigger tent, and we welcome the faith-based community,” added Brian Smith of the Citizens Campaign for the Environment. “This can only help.”
A green diocese
Even before the pope’s encyclical, the Buffalo Catholic Diocese was working to become “earth-friendly.”
The Diocesan Care for Creation Committee was formed 10 years ago as a way to meld religious and science in launching environmentally responsible initiatives throughout the diocese.
“We say it’s about the care of Earth, but it’s really taking care of human beings,” said Sister Sharon Goodremote, the committee’s founder. “The Earth will be here without us.”
The diocese was one of the earliest consumers of solar energy products.
Today, six dozen diocesan buildings have shifted to renewable energy sources and the diocese hired an energy manager, Carol Anne Cornelius.
Cornelius said the transition just makes sense, both environmentally and economically.
“Our poorest parishes have the highest utility costs,” Cornelius said. “This helps take the pressure off the parish and the parishioners.”
Environmental stewardship varies at the parish level, but examples are rife.
St. Christopher’s in the Town of Tonawanda runs successful recycling initiatives.
Care for Creation committees are springing up at the parish level at places like SS. Peter and Paul in Hamburg, Nativity of Our Lord in Orchard Park and St. Joseph’s University Parish in Buffalo.
Parishes like Blessed Sacrament Church on Delaware Avenue hold meetings to read and study Francis’ encyclical.
Although each pope since John XXIII has called attention to the need for worldwide environmental justice, Francis “is the first pope who’s elevated it to an official church teaching,” Goodremote said.
She considers it “a call for action.”
“This isn’t a document where you said, ‘I read it and put it on the shelf,’ ” said Sister Karen Allen, who’s championed the environment at Stella Niagara for more than 30 years. “This is a document that makes you think, ‘What can I do? What groups or organizations can I join?’ ”
Packing people of faith into the tent “changes the entire picture going forward,” said the Sierra Club’s Schneekloth.
Sisters of the earth
More than 12,250.
That’s how many plastic water bottles were estimated to have been saved between last spring and Tuesday at the Stella Niagara Education Park
The you-fill water station on the first floor of the prekindergarten through eighth grade Montessori school keeps count.
The water station is a necessity on the Lewiston campus because the nuns have forbidden bottled water.
The widespread proliferation of plastic pollution worried them.
“We studied it, and we took a stand,” said Sister Margaret Sullivan, the school’s principal. “We don’t purchase bottled water, and we don’t allow it at our functions.”
Disposable lunch wrappings and food containers will also earn you a black dot at Stella.
“Trash-free lunches,” said Kristen deGuehery, Stella’s director of institutional advancement. “Lunches need to be in reusable containers. No foil packaging. Nothing to throw away.”
Styrofoam or paper packaging also is banned in the cafeteria – real dishes only.
Recycling bins are found in every classroom and there’s also a campus composter.
“If they get in the habit, they’ll continue it when they’re older,” said teacher Coleen Edwards.
Added Sullivan: “Everybody can recycle and we all should, but we try to aim for something bigger. From the age of 3, we try and instill in them they’re part of nature.”
With the New Year, Stella also launched a full-time Outdoor Education Program for its 160 students on the 100-acre campus.
As part of a pilot project, students scavenged decayed tiger lily stems and used them in class to make paper. They planted a vegetable garden. They started “nature appreciation” journals. They documented the environmental changes to a vernal pond on campus.
The pope’s encyclical validated the school’s environmental movement that began in the Franciscan tradition decades ago. Signs of that are everywhere from the framed poster announcing Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s 2008 appearance at Stella to talk about the environment to Sister Karen Allen’s “Environmental Concerns” bulletin board.
‘Repairing the world’
“Green Shabbat” started three years ago at Temple Beth Tzedek in Amherst.
The temple upgraded to LED lighting, replaced disposable foam cups with china mugs or paper, held a bottle recycling fundraiser, bought a rain barrel for its Getzville Road site and reuses compostable paper products in its organic community garden.
“Caring for the earth is a religious value, and environmental stewardship is a moral responsibility,” said Rachel Anderson, the synagogue’s social action chair.
Guardianship of the earth is ingrained in Jewish tradition through the Torah, because Genesis states that humans are inherently of the earth, formed “of the dust of the ground.”
That provides the impetus for the synagogue’s Green Faith Initiative in pursuit of the Jewish theme of “tikkun olam,” which translates to “repairing the world.”
The synagogue asks its members to make planet-preservation pledges to make environmentally friendly changes at its house of worship and in their homes.
“We will be planning several events around the green theme, bringing awareness of the myriad things that help to destroy (the environment) and to show alternate things to use that are invariably cheaper and less toxic,” Anderson said.
Saving Allah’s creation
Conservation and preservation are constants for local Muslims.
The Quran explicitly prohibits waste of any kind – water, food or the bounties the earth provides.
That may have been behind the thinking to collect and repurpose stormwater on the grounds of Masjid An-Noor on Heim Road.
When the Islamic Society of the Niagara Frontier designed Masjid An-Noor, the mosque on Heim Road, stormwater was diverted into a fountain instead of running off into creeks.
“The entire universe of creation is God’s, and we need to make sure we use it in the best way we can and the most appropriate way we can,” said Dr. Khalid Qazi, who is on the society’s board of trustees and president of the Muslim Public Affairs Council of Western New York.
Qazi said he would like to see an even more concentrated effort toward stewardship, including green energy initiatives addressed at last August’s International Islamic Climate Change Symposiumin Turkey. Muslim leaders from nearly two dozen countries issued a declaration, which aligned with Francis’ encyclical. The declaration was based on moral principles fundamental to Islamic law and designed to energize the Muslim community as environmental stewards.
“The whole earth belongs to God. Nothing belongs to us,” said Imam Yahye Yusuf Omar of Buffalo. “Compassion to creation is part of Islam.”
At Mussallah Salaam on Potomac Avenue, the youth hold an annual neighborhood cleanup day and grow a community garden.
“It is noble work to protect the environment,” said Dr. Othman Shibly, an Islamic Society board member.
The ‘Green Patriarch’
Environmental protection was at the heart of an ecumenical statement inked last September in Buffalo between the Anglican and Eastern Orthodox churches.
In the 30-page binding document, dubbed “the Buffalo Statement,” the two churches agreed on fundamental matters of faith governing “dominion” and “stewardship” of the universe.
The Eastern Orthodox Church knows a little something about environmental activism.
Its Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I has been championing the cause for more than two decades.
Nicknamed “the Green Patriarch,” Bartholomew has gained international attention while leading spiritual and political leaders, media and other dignitaries on excursions to the furthest reaches of the planet from the glaciers in the Arctic to the rainforests of the Amazon River in South America.
“For us, it has a spiritual basis,” said the Rev. Christos B. Christakis, the presiding priest at Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church on West Utica Street.
Besides significantly investing in sustainable energy sources with the upcoming multimillion-dollar development of its Family Life Center in Lancaster, Christakis said earth stewardship is a frequent Sunday school theme at Annunciation.
Christakis will officiate the church’s annual Outdoor Blessing of the Waters Sunday at the Erie Basin Marina.
“The earth is given to us not for exploitation, not for domination, but for the care of,” Christakis said. “We are part of creation.”