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Pope inspires clergy to join environmental movement

Recently, The Buffalo News published an article about renewable energy and the role religious leaders have played in underscoring the importance of adopting renewable energy sources. The author makes mention of “Faith-based environmental activism abounds across the region” and the 72 churches, schools and other diocesan buildings in the Buffalo Catholic Diocese are “green,” with others turning to solar energy for power. Solar Liberty worked with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Buffalo on this initiative and donated the solar energy systems that allowed the Diocese to “go green”.  Following is an excerpt from that article.

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.