This data was last updated on 11 November 2020.
Overview: Within the last few years, a movement of religious organizations promoting conservation, stewardship, and environmental action has been gaining strength. One of these interfaith environmental organizations is New Jersey’s GreenFaith. Originally founded in 1992 as Partners for Environmental Quality, GreenFaith “mobilizes religious institutions and people of diverse faiths to strengthen their relationship with the sacred in nature and to take action for the earth.” (1) New Jersey religious communities are inspired to recognize the relation of nature to their own faith, to make local changes within their house of worship, and to advocate for environmental change in their neighborhood and in the state. GreenFaith has organized itself around three central principles: Spirit, Stewardship, and Justice. These core values shape its mission and show three different aspects of its interfaith and environmental work.
Spirit: “Our souls are deepened through a strong relationship with nature.”
For GreenFaith, the central value of Spirit is about making the connection between the theological and the environmental. Speakers from GreenFaith, including Executive Director Reverend Fletcher Harper and Rabbinic Fellow Rabbi Lawrence Troster, give lectures at houses of worship, interfaith gatherings, nature centers, and other locations. (1) Beginning from the belief that many people experience the sacred in natural world, GreenFaith seeks to unite that spiritual experience with the theological teachings of particular traditions.
In giving talks on religious environmentalism, Rev. Harper strives to counter the "despairing" feeling that sometimes accompanies environmental work because of the size of the problems facing the earth. His listeners respond both to the call to action and the belief that their actions can effect change. (3) The Spirit aspect of GreenFaith works to awaken this hope in its listeners, a hope that they have “the power to act, to change—and to protect what they love.” (2) The Splendor education program features classes “to introduce adults and teens to the relationship between religious faith and the environment.” (1)
Although the majority of GreenFaith’s membership are laypeople, the presence of an ordained member of the clergy speaking on religious environmentalism has allowed greater outreach to new religious communities and lent the message a particular spiritual and moral gravity. At this point, the interfaith aspect of GreenFaith occurs through finding the ways that different traditions experience the sacred in nature and making those ways available to others. Their website hosts articles on the connection between different traditions and the environment.
Stewardship: “Our consumption habits can help heal and restore the earth.”
Once this connection is established, GreenFaith works with congregations to make changes in their own use of water, electricity, and food. These “environmentally responsible consumption habits” are described in several brochures published by GreenFaith: “Food and Faith”, “Stewarding Energy in Your House of Worship”, “Stewarding Water in Your Home” and “Stewarding Energy in Your Home.” (1) Church groups can sell water conservation kits as fundraisers; congregations can work with GreenFaith to determine how energy-efficient their house of worship is. The “Building in Good Faith” initiative is a partnership between GreenFaith and the Healthy Building Network to “develop green building and maintenance guidelines tailored specifically for religious institutions.” (4)
One of the most successful programs has been “Lighting the Way.” This project seeks to “place solar panel installations on 25 faith-based sites around New Jersey.” (1) Due to energy supply deregulation in New Jersey, GreenFaith and its partner Sun Farm Network offer participants installation of solar panels with no up-front costs. A percentage of savings from reduced energy use goes to Sun Farm as payment. This “striking, innovative, hopeful statement” began with four participating congregations in spring 2005, and continues today. (1)
This philosophy of stewardship provided a place for agreement between differing perspectives within a congregation. Budget conservation was aided by energy conservation, allowing social action and fiscal responsibility to go hand-in-hand. This joining of different perspectives "creates, in our view, a useful disorientation which provides members of houses of worship with the chance to work practically and learn theologically together." (3)
GreenFaith has a membership of fifteen religious communities (5), primarily Christian and Jewish, including both politically liberal and conservative traditions. (2) Preliminary relationships with Buddhist leaders and New Jersey mosques have been established. In the case of Muslim communities, outreach has been difficult since September 11, 2001; however, increasing religious diversity among its members is one of GreenFaith’s priorities for the future. (2) In its Stewardship aspect, different religious communities take individual action, under the multi-faith auspices of the GreenFaith staff.
Justice: “Our advocacy helps protect the poor, and all life, from a toxic environment.”
GreenFaith casts itself as a “religiously based advocate for the protection of the earth” (1), and through its Justice programs it seeks to act on regional environmental hazards outside the scope of any single congregation. During a set of “Environmental Health and Justice tours,” members of GreenFaith became aware of some large-scale problems that were damaging the health of New Jersey residents. In one case, GreenFaith filed a brief with the Department of Environmental Protection about a paper plant in violation of emissions standards. In another, a tour of Newark led to learning about Newark Bay’s high dioxin levels and plans for dredging the bay. GreenFaith joined a lawsuit that advocated for responsible dredging and careful cleanup. (6) GreenFaith has also extended its outreach into urban congregations to determine what kind of aid they can provide; a campaign about high diesel emissions and the resulting increases in asthma and respiratory trouble is underway. (2)
Reverend Harper believes that the Justice and Stewardship initiatives are closely related, almost two sides of the same coin. Living in an environmentally responsible manner and sending that hopeful message to others leads to creating an ecologically just world; likewise, protecting those most vulnerable to environmental exploitation leads to greater stewardship in one’s own life. (2) Drawing the connection between environmental action and social justice has been one of the major challenges in this arena. (3)
Sustainable Sanctuaries: Uniting All Three Core Values: The Sustainable Sanctuaries program is designed to help congregations “model environmentally sustainable behavior to their members and become centers of religious-environmental activism.” (1) The program is tailored to each individual congregation, which chooses from a “Menu of Options” offering projects in the areas of Spirit, Justice, and Stewardship. Over two years, the congregation may opt for installing solar panels, hosting a series of sermons on the relationship between their tradition and environmental justice, an energy audit, an Environmental Health and Justice tour, and many other methods of becoming more environmentally responsible and active.
Twelve to fifteen sites per year will participate in the Sustainable Sanctuaries program. Due to GreenFaith’s fundraising, the program is available at less than $300 per congregation (depending on the options selected). (1) 2006 marked the second year of this program: “a real chance to work in depth” on environmental issues. (2)
Building GreenFaith, Today and Tomorrow: In reflecting on what has made GreenFaith possible, Reverend Harper says that making the connection between the religious tradition and the environment is absolutely necessary, in order to "find ways to build bridges between experience, belief, and behavior." (3) Creative leadership helps, and a period of “working very hard to define what success looks like” are also important, so that the vision of the group can be defined, communicated, and acted upon. (2)
GreenFaith’s current challenge is the problem of fundraising to meet the programming. Most of the funding for GreenFaith does not come from religious institutions, but from private foundations and public grants directed toward energy conservation and environmentalism. In the next few years, GreenFaith hopes to reach out past its initial base of largely suburban Jewish and Christian religious communities to greater urban and religious diversity. (2)
Over the long term, Reverend Harper muses that any national program of this sort would need a similar local focus—local recognition of influential people, local change within religious communities. However, without connecting individual lay men and women, ordained leaders, activists, and seminary eco-theologians, the effort remains “quasi-systematic” at best. In Harper’s article "Religion and the Earth on the Ground,” he calls for more training for religious leaders, development of standards for local religious-environmental movements, and collaborative work between religious leaders and educators “to identify increasingly powerful actions—verbal and otherwise—that use religion’s symbolic power to break down the artificial and dangerous walls that our culture has erected that separate humanity from the earth.” (3)
“We have the opportunity to provide another way.”
With awareness of environmental problems increasing daily, GreenFaith believes it can offer a means of integrating an ecological dimension into the theology of its member communities. The fusion of religious concern and environmental activism provides new energy for both. In closing, Reverend Harper offers this insight into the religious-environmental movement: “Religions have the opportunity to bear a powerful countercultural witness about what it means to be a developed society—that restraint and simplicity have a place in postmodern society.” (2)
1) GreenFaith main website. Retrieved May 12, 2006 from http://www.greenfaith.org.
2) Harper, Fletcher. Telephone interview. March 20, 2006.
3) Harper, Fletcher. “Religion and the Earth on the Ground: GreenFaith's Experience in New Jersey." Eco-Spirit: Religion, Philosophy, and the Earth. Edited by Laurel Kearns and Catherine Keller. Fordham Press, scheduled for publication in spring 2007. Permission granted by the author.
4) Building in Good Faith main website. Retrieved May 12, 2006 from http://www.buildingingoodfaith.org.
5) “Evangelicals and the Environment.” Religion and Ethics Newsweekly Episode 920, January 13, 2006. Available online at http://www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/week920/cover.html.
6) Martin, F. Timothy. “Activists Oppose Plan to Dredge Up Agent Orange Residue in NJ Bay.” The New Standard January 27, 2005. Available online at http://newstandardnews.net/content/?action=show_item&itemid=1414.