Sally Bingham was seated in a pew in St. James Episcopal Church in the late 1980s when she was struck by an epiphany. For a faith that calls on Christians to protect all life on Earth, why was environmentalism largely left out of Sunday sermons?
Puzzled, she brought this question to her rector, who told her that if she was interested in examining this disconnect, she should consider going to seminary herself.
“Much to his surprise, she did,” said Susan Stephenson, the executive director of California Interfaith Power and Light, a Bay Area-based program focused on a religious response to global warming.
By the late 90s, Bingham had become an ordained priest at Grace Cathedral while also extending her preaching beyond the pulpit. She founded Regeneration Project, a nonprofit that works to deepen the connection between religion and ecology, and Interfaith Power and Light (IPL), a program that brings together a diverse array of faith groups to confront climate change.
“Many people in pews are not members of the Sierra Club and don’t hear about environmental degradation, so it is very powerful for them when it comes from their pastor or religious leader,” said Bingham.
Today, Bingham’s nonprofit is part of a growing movement of local churches, religions, and faith communities putting environmental preservation front and center, framing the fight for climate solutions as a moral imperative to protect all life on a planet – now and for future generations.
Although climate action looks different across denominations, Interfaith Power and Light has expanded across the country, encouraging its growing network of churches and faith communities to switch to clean power, calculate carbon their footprints, attend advocacy days in Washington D.C., and vote for climate-friendly candidates.
“As far as I know, every one of the great world religions and all of the tribal religions with which I’m familiar, hold the Earth to be sacred,” said Rev. Dr. Marc Handley Andrus, the eighth bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of California.
The Book of Genesis instructs its readers to be guardians of the planet. The Quran tells its faithful to walk gently upon the earth. The Upanishads teaches its followers to live a simple life and not to overuse the earth’s natural resources.
But as the world industrialized, Western Christianity and other world religions became distanced from sacred texts’ environmental teachings. “We have been living in an extractive culture, a consumerist culture, and a culture that objectifies both the Earth and any living beings on the Earth – so we’re emerging from that and recovering.”
This recovery comes when the impacts of human-caused climate change have become devastatingly clear. In California, residents are grappling with intensifying wildfires, ongoing drought, and rising sea levels – all of which climate scientists say will worsen if we don’t halve greenhouse gas emissions globally, and soon.
“People say we’re already experiencing climate change in California, and I have to beg to differ,” said Andrus. “We are experiencing the leading edge of climate change. If we think this is terrible – the fires, the drought – we should understand that this is a fraction of what the full-blown climate change effects will be.”
Still, Andrus, who has worked on climate issues for over three decades, thinks that the faith community plays a critical role in the solution. Churches across the world have the largest presence of any social institution, which makes this message of planetary preservation particularly powerful.
“The reach of the church is down to the smallest community,” said Andrus. “We’re everywhere.”
This physical footprint also provides church leaders with a massive opportunity to green their infrastructure. Decarbonizing churches was a top priority for Bingham early on. In 2008, she helped architect a deal with PG&E to install solar panels on Grace Cathedral above the south nave.
Now, over 300 churches within IPL’s network have installed solar panels on rooftops, said Stephenson, and IPL now includes nearly 22,000 congregations across the United States. In addition, some churches, including the Church of Saint Martin’s in Davis, have become fossil fuel-free by replacing gas appliances with electricity. Others encourage their congregants to bike to services or provide EV charging stations in parking lots.
“What we want to do first and foremost is walk the talk. We want to practice what we preach and preach what we practice,” said Stephenson. “We try to say, look, we are doing it. Faith communities are doing it. If we can get to zero carbon now in 2022, surely the United States, with all of its resources, can get there by 2030, 2040.”
But for some, returning to an earth-based theology can dredge up deep traumas. Rev. Dr. Ambrose Carroll, a pastor and founder of the Oakland-based nonprofit Green the Church, has faced resistance to what he calls ‘green theology.’ For some parishioners, he said, this call to return to the land can feel like a latent threat.
“Even our young people in 2022 say, I don’t want to do no farming, I’m not a slave,” said Carroll. “The land became a space and a place that we had to get away from – that we escaped. Our theology became, ‘this world ain’t my home.’ Our music became, ‘I’m going up yonder, and I’m leaving this wretched place.’”
Today, much of Carroll’s work is focused on reestablishing the Black Church’s relationship with the environment. By putting solar on Black Churches, hosting green job fairs, and advocating for a clean and equitable economy, this work, he said, is ultimately about reconnection.
“Our language is not environmentalism. But our language is revival,” said Carroll. “When we start talking about making the connection to the South, to our grandparents and to native people, then we begin to open that up. As we talk about ourselves, I believe it will help the growth of the movement.”
Other voices left out of the mainstream environmental conversation are also starting to emerge as a powerful force of change, said Sevim Kalyoncu, the executive director of Green Muslims, a nonprofit based in Washington D.C.
This is in part because the political and social climate hostile to the Muslim community has shifted in recent years. “I feel that the Muslim community feels a little bit safer now and has more energy to put into paying attention to climate issues than we did before,” she said.
Kalyoncu, who grew up among the dense forests in Alabama always felt closest to God in nature, but this connection was seldom brought up during her childhood. “I never heard anything about it, and that was so weird to me because nature was directly related to my personal faith.”
But as more people experience the impacts of changing climate, Kalyoncu has seen an explosion of concern, especially in the Muslim American community. “Islam teaches that humans are the stewards of the Earth,” said Kalyoncu. As the awareness grows, she said, “I think more connections are going to be drawn between what our religion teaches and how we’re supposed to act on this planet.”
That theme is particularly poignant this April, a holy month for many world religions observing Ramadan, Passover, and Easter. This month is also Earth Month, which represents another opportunity for faith leaders to remind congregations of the interconnectedness of people and the planet.
“Climate change is affecting every aspect of human life on the planet,” said Bingham. “If the people who say they love God and their neighbors don’t take this on, how can we expect the secular population to?”