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Episcopal Power And Light

An interview with Sally Bingham

The Reverend Sally Bingham, a priest at San Francisco's famed Grace Cathedral, believes that the faith community can take a powerful stand for the environment—especially on the issue of global warming. Episcopal Power and Light is a program that does just that, uniting communities, empowering congregations, and building bridges between different religions–all with the aim of cooling the planet. Fortunately, as Bingham points out, the Episcopal Church is but one example of a faith-based community that has chosen to act on climate change.

Tracy Rysavy: How did Episcopal Power and Light get started, and how does it work?

Sally Bingham: Global climate change is probably the most egregious environmental issue facing us. Global warming crosses all boundaries and affects all phases of life and culture. Episcopal Power and Light (EPL) is a national initiative to have the Episcopal Church lead the faith community into being emission-free institutions.

Episcopal Power and Light started in California, where the electricity market has been deregulated. A church that decides to be part of the EPL initiative signs up to buy electricity that comes from nonpolluting sources. It also gets a free energy audit through GreenMountain.com.

After the audit, the church then picks out the ways it can save energy, which also saves money. It might decide to change all the lightbulbs to compact fluorescents or put caulking around the windows and make sure the thermostat is off at night.

When the church moves into the retrofitting phase of the building, it creates jobs. We're working with ReEnergize, a branch of the Department of Energy, which has a welfare-to-work program where eligible people are trained by licensed electricians to do the retrofitting of the churches.

So when a church decides to buy green, it's also going to save money, save energy, and create jobs.

San Francisco's Grace Cathedral very recently decided to buy green power. The cathedral sets the example for the diocese. Thousands of people go in and out of Grace Cathedral every week, including many tourists. By this time next year, I hope that all of our churches in the Diocese of California will be buying green power. When we can announce that we are not burning fossil fuels with our electrical use, it's huge, amen.

We are meeting with all of the bishops in Pennsylvania to set up an EPL program for them, because Pennsylvania is another state where electricity is deregulated.

We also regularly speak before religious leaders from different denominations about how they can create programs like EPL.

Tracy: In my experience, Christian churches haven't traditionally looked at stewardship of the Earth as part of their mission. What brought you to the point where you saw caring for the human spirit and caring for the Earth as being interconnected?

Sally: Caring for Creation has always been a ministry of the Christian Church. The first endangered species act was between God and Noah: God's covenant was with Noah and all living things.

Churches don't intend to neglect Creation but have, until recently, been very anthropocentric.

When the environmental movement took hold in the '60s, the Church decided that the secular environmental organizations were doing a good enough job, and they would stick with saving souls.

In 1985, I became a trustee with the Environmental Defense Fund, and I was getting firsthand scientific facts about what was happening to our Earth. I began to understand that certain species were becoming extinct because of people's inability to understand or respect the dignity of creatures, and I just had the feeling that this wasn't God's plan. I've always had this very strong sense of God in nature and of the connection between all living things, and I felt that environmental degradation was literally turning our backs on God.

Also, I have had breast cancer. I am not what you would call a likely candidate: I don't smoke; I had my children when I was young; I'm athletic. I'm none of the things that doctors say make you susceptible to cancer, and yet I had it. I can't help but think that the chemicals I've been ingesting into my body over the last 30 years are to blame.

We can't be healthy people if our air and water quality and the land that we're growing our crops on are not healthy.

Being involved with the Episcopal Church all my life, it occurred to me that the people who sit in pews every Sunday and profess a love for God should be leading the parade to save God's Creation. Jesus identified with those who suffered, and it's the rain forests and the old growth trees and the land that are suffering.

So once I made these connections, I started preaching about it from the pulpit. It was then that I discovered that there were numerous other people around the country who were having these same thoughts about Creation, but they were feeling isolated.

Now, all of these isolated voices are starting to come together, and many different denominations have ministries that are focused on the stewardship of Creation.

Tracy: Wonderful! Is there anything specific to the Episcopalian faith that makes it more feasible to do something like this, or do you think that this is something that any denomination or any religion can do?

Sally: Any denomination and any religion can do it, and they are doing it.

Steve MacAusland and I were invited to speak at the National Council of Churches in Chicago this year, only to discover that global warming had been the focus of several conventions around the country put on by many different religious groups.

Tracy: As a priest, you've encouraged your congregation to make their church emission-free. Beyond voting for such a move, how does your congregation get involved?

Sally: If all the churches in America were to go green, it would be a wonderful step in the right direction. But our goal is even more ambitious. We hope all the parishoners switch to green power and conserve energy in their homes.

Most people understand that if you love your neighbor, you're not going to pollute your neighbor's air. You don't put engine oil in the storm drain behind the house, because it goes to your neighbor.

People aren't hurting their neighbors intentionally. They just haven't reached a level of understanding that every single one of our behaviors affects someone on the planet.

The majority of the Episcopalians we talk to get very excited about the fact that the church is getting involved in the stewardship of Creation. I think that some lapsed Episcopalians are coming back to church, saying, “Wow, the Church is getting involved in something that's important, that speaks to me, and that's going to make the world a better place for my children.”

The very enthusiastic way that we've been received—by people inside and outside of the Episcopalian church – gives me a tremendous amount of hope. I'm very optimistic about people of faith being able to make a difference.


Contact the Rev. Sally Bingham, The Regeneration Project, 7 Laurel St., San Francisco, CA 94118; Web: www.theregenerationproject.org.


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