Green Initiatives Pay Off in Surprising Ways

September 23, 2015

The Rev. Daphne Cody with solar panels at St. Elisabeth's in 2012 The Rev. Daphne Cody with solar panels at St. Elisabeth's in 2012

In Washington earlier today, Pope Francis addressed thousands gathered at the White House for the first official event of his four-day visit to the United States. Environmental sustainability, a central topic of his recent groundbreaking papal encyclical called “Laudato si'” or “Care for Our Common Home,” figured prominently in his remarks.

“When it comes to the care of our ‘common home’, we are living at a critical moment of history,” said Pope Francis. “We still have time to make the changes needed to bring about a sustainable and integral development, for we know that things can change … Humanity still has the ability to work together in building our common home. (Laudato Si’, 13). As Christians inspired by this certainty, we wish to commit ourselves to the conscious and responsible care of our common home.”

For the past several years, congregations across the Diocese of Chicago have been making the commitment to environmental sustainability and reaping both expected and surprising rewards. The Bishop’s Task Force on Sustainability, led by Lisa Rogers Lee and Susan Gibbons, inspired many congregations to benchmark their energy usage and undertake energy audits as first steps to becoming more energy efficient. Thanks to active lay leaders and grant funding, two congregations were able to do even more.

At St. Elisabeth’s Episcopal Church in Glencoe, solar panels have reduced the parish’s energy costs by as much as 50 percent since they were installed in 2012, says Hall Healy, a retired environmental engineer who spearheaded the project.

“It took a village,” says Healy, who learned about the State of Illinois’ matching grant that made the solar panels possible and later shepherded the project through vestry approval, fundraising success, and installation.

“We explained that we might save as much as 25 percent of our energy costs and realize a return on the investment in 14 years. That’s not a return that in the business environment you would jump at, but people were committed enough to do it,” he says. The subsequent 50 percent reduction in energy costs has been a pleasant surprise for Healy and the congregation’s other leaders.

“I think we all understand and realize that we have limited resources, but the fact is that we are certainly experiencing climate change, and if we could do even a small thing to help that, it would be worthwhile as well hopefully setting an example,” Healy says. A local synagogue considering a similar project has recently approached him for advice. 

For the Rev. Daphne Cody, St. Elisabeth’s rector, the benefits of the solar panels have extended beyond energy conservation. Committing to solar panels, whose return will be realized over the next 30 or 40 years, helped alleviate concerns about the societal decline of the institutional church. “We remembered that St. Elisabeth’s is going to be here for a long time. Of course God’s mission is going to go forward in some way, even if there’s change.”

In a sermon, Cody asked parishioners, “What will the people here in our place 100 years from now be looking back and thinking about us?”. That question, she says, led people to ask, “What should we be doing right now? What’s God giving us right now to do?” 

Padilla and deKay in Green Team t-shirts at St. Matthew's Padilla and deKay in Green Team t-shirts at St. Matthew's

Seven miles south of Glencoe, St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Evanston has made environmental sustainability the way of parish life. Since 2013, the Green Team, led by Christina Padilla, has led the congregation to embrace a zero waste policy that involves what the Rev. Charlie deKay, Padilla’s husband and St. Matthew’s rector, calls “a deep dive into composting.” The congregation composts “everything that was once alive,” accounting for about 60 percent of its waste, and recycles another 30 percent.

“There was a real sense in the community that environmental sustainability is a vital moral issue that we needed to look at,” says deKay. “We asked ‘How do we give the the people of St. Matthew’s a sense of urgency about the environment, but also give them something to do that is meaningful?’”

The composting and recycling initiative has supporters not only on the Green Team, says Padilla, but also among others in the congregation who now take advantage of the opportunity to bring their home composting buckets to church and have them picked up along with the church’s compost by Collective Resource Inc., a local composting service.

“It took about a year-and-a-half to get it off the ground, to where it wasn’t just that crazy priest’s wife’s idea,” says Padilla, who is the daughter of two Episcopal priests in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. “It’s been two-and-a-half years and it’s still a work in progress. What we see now is people asking where various items should go, which is a huge leap. I’ve seen people who aren’t on the Green Team sifting through the garbage and putting things in the recycling.”

Like Cody, deKay sees the environmental effort paying off in unlikely ways. “The Green Team is one of the great early successes of lay ministry that works,” says deKay, who was called to St. Matthew’s in 2011 with a mandate to foster lay leadership. “They are leading this charge completely, and showing how someone can get a sense of what God is calling them to do and how they can live out their faith in their life, inside of church or outside. More people are seeing and listening for their own sense of call.” 

St. Matthew’s sustainability initiative expanded in 2014 when the congregation received a grant from the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation to replace more than 650 fluorescent light bulbs and their fixtures with energy-saving LED lighting. The energy savings is at least 10 percent, says deKay, and the project would have paid for itself in less than a decade, “but we didn’t have to pay for it. It was a tremendous gift to us.”

Padilla occasionally speaks about the St. Matthew’s Green Team at other churches that are interested in becoming more environmentally sustainable. The work is sometimes slow, she says, but worth the wait. Her best advice to congregations just starting out is simple, “Be patient. Keep talking about it.

“We feel very strongly that it’s part of our Christian responsibility to care for the earth,” she says. “It’s a creation of God, not a trash can. It’s one of our imperatives as Christians and I want to leave an earth for my kids and hopefully, someday, my grandkids.”