When the Olympic Games came to Salt Lake City in 2002, the momentum to “Light the Fire Within” for the common good came not only from international visitors but from Salt Lake City’s own backyard. In preparation for the Winter Games, an official Olympic Interfaith Committee formed in the late 1990s, bringing together a religiously diverse group of local citizens to provide religious and spiritual support. The group organized chaplaincy services, held an interfaith concert, and produced a book. While the Games may have brought them together, Elaine Emmi, a Quaker and founding member, recalls that the group “just really liked being together,” so much so that they formed the Salt Lake Interfaith Roundtable (SLIR) that same year. SLIR was, from the outset, inspired by denominational initiatives championing social justice causes. One cause in particular caught their attention: environmental justice.
During her tenure as chair of SLIR, Emmi invited representatives from Quaker Earthcare Witness, a religiously motivated environmental action group, to speak to her SLIR colleagues. Inspired by this group, SLIR members asked how they could make an interfaith religious and spiritual commitment to environmental justice in Utah. The answer came from one of Emmi’s Quaker Earthcare Witness friends, who said: “Have you heard of Interfaith Power and Light?” Interfaith Power & Light is a national interfaith environmental advocacy organization with thirty-eight statewide chapters across the United States. Founded as “Episcopal Power & Light” in 1998 by the Reverend Sally Bingham in California, the small group quickly added religiously diverse partners, growing in focus and influence. By the time IPL came to the attention of Emmi and SLIR, the national IPL organization found itself leading the way in faith-based environmentalism. As recognition spread, new chapters were frequently added. SLIR decided to join.
“It was very funny,” Emmi remembers, “because the Episcopal Church and actually the Diocese in Salt Lake had just made contact with Sally Bingham and had invited her to come and speak to them, because they wanted to start an Episcopal group! So, we decided that we would cosponsor that meeting with the Episcopal Diocese.” The meeting turned out to be SLIR’s most popular event at the time, with over sixty people in attendance. Together, Salt Lake City Interfaith Roundtable and the Episcopalian community in Salt Lake City co-founded Utah Interfaith Power & Light (UIPL). Within two years, the group became independent, formed its own 501(c)3, and hired its first staff member, executive director Diana Johnson. Susan Soleil assumed leadership of UIPL in July 2011 upon Johnson’s retirement.
Soleil was raised in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS), left the Mormon community in her youth, and returned to religious and spiritual traditions later in life. As an interfaith community organizer, Soleil feels empowered by UIPL’s commitment to interfaith work and is excited by the support of the LDS Church. While individual LDS “wards” (worship communities) are unable to become member congregations of UIPL for complex administrative reasons, Salt Lake City’s broader LDS Church has been increasingly engaged with UIPL initiatives. For instance, the LDS Public Affairs office was recently equipped with energy-efficient Prius vehicles and other LDS initiatives are outfitting construction projects with LEED-certified status.
The importance of the LDS Church in Utah’s religious landscape cannot be overstated. Salt Lake City was founded in 1847 when Brigham Young – leader of the pioneers of the LDS tradition – stopped and declared the land a prime location to settle and avoid religious persecution. Since that time, Salt Lake City has had a majority LDS population, but the LDS Church is now opening up to growing religious and international diversity in Utah. “I really love the fact that I can work with the diversity here. You don’t think of Utah and think of religious diversity, right?” Soleil explains. “… I think that was one of the reasons they [the LDS Church] were so strongly supportive, because it was their attempt to show and celebrate the diversity here.”
UIPL’s relationship with the national IPL is a key element of their success. Emmi and Soleil both cite the national program as a means by which Utah Interfaith Power & Light can approach policy issues more effectively and launch interfaith programs more successfully. While the Salt Lake City Interfaith Roundtable had its own assets, SLIR organizers often felt limited resources prevented them from tackling “big picture” issues. The national IPL movement provides the “brand” for Utah IPL to carry greater political clout, as well as marketing and communications support. In addition, the national organization offers funds to local affiliates for programs tailored to their own local needs and interests. Utah IPL chose to use its grant to create a popular “Music and Sermon Awards.” “We asked people to write a sermon, or write sort of spiritual music, based on our concern for climate change,” Emmi explains. “We decided we would give awards of $350, after [Bill McKibben’s famous environmental campaign] 350.org. And it was so successful!” The Music and Sermon Awards were so successful that the following year, UIPL was able to raise the funds independent of the national organization in order to host it again. The national IPL is also responsive to trends within the states. If enough states express interest or concern in a certain topic—such as food justice and clean water, as is the case with Utah IPL—the national IPL will agree to shift their organizational focus to reflect these priorities.
Despite the benefits and responsiveness of the national IPL, Utah IPL faces key challenges at a local level. Close relationships with the Utah state legislature are difficult to foster. Leaders within Utah IPL speculate that this is due, in part, to the brevity of the legislative calendar and in part to many legislators’ aversion to developing partnerships with interfaith or environmental organizations. UIPL also struggles to assess the impact of their programming within local communities; after UIPL’s energy audits or guest appearances are over, the extent to which local congregations incorporate interfaith environmental themes into their community life is difficult to track. Despite these challenges, Emmi and Soleil are full of dreams for the future of Utah Interfaith Power & Light, dreams that include finding effective ways to engage Utah’s youth in the work of environmental stewardship.
When Soleil is asked about her vision for Utah IPL’s future, she responds with a quote from Children’s Defense Fund founder Marian Wright Edelman: “…‘[S]o often we think we have got to make a difference and be a big dog. Let us just try to be little fleas biting. Enough fleas biting strategically can make a big dog very uncomfortable.’ And we’ve got some big dogs to annoy.”