Having faith through climate change


The sun beats down over the Church of the Painted Hills-United Church of Christ in Tucson (Photo by: Emily Huddleston/Arizona Sonora News)
The sun beats down over the Church of the Painted Hills-United Church of Christ in Tucson (Photo by: Emily Huddleston/Arizona Sonora News)

Climate Change and faith aren’t two ideas you often hear in the same sentence.

Yet there is a long history of religious thought about the role of humans as stewards of the environment. In recent years, almost all major religions in the world have taken steps forward in their mission to care for the Earth.

And many are beginning to think that the answer to climate change may lie not only within science, but also within religion.

Changing Mindsets

Katie Hirschboeck has been studying and teaching climate change since the 1970s. She is also a devout Roman Catholic. Hirschboeck attends Our Mother of Sorrows in Tucson and is an associate professor of climatology at the University of Arizona.

“I can use my science, I can use my head, but all the time I have this faith prospective,” Hirschboeck said.

According to Hirschboeck, bridging this divide between science and faith is her greatest calling.

She is doing this through her work as a Catholic climate ambassador, where she delivers Catholic teachings on climate change to local audiences around the country. According to the organization’s website, she works to spread the message that by following the Catholic faith and working together, Catholics can solve climate change and protect the people God loves.

“In order to really do what we need to do for the planet, it is going to take a lot of sacrifice,” Hirschboeck said.  “Dealing with this climate issue is going to be like a really long lent.”

The Rev. Amos Smith of the Church of the Painted Hills – United Church of Christ in Tucson, preaches about climate change a few times a year.

“When I am talking to my congregation, one of the things I try to do is tie it back to the tradition and one thing I really like is the idea of the Golden Rule 2.0,” Smith said. “You all know the golden rule, ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,’ but golden rule 2.0 is, ‘D o unto future generations as you would have them do unto you.’”

The Rev. Doug Bland of Community Christian Church in Tempe, and director of Arizona Interfaith Power and Light, is devoted to deepening the connection between ecology and faith.

“When I ask folks in my church, ‘When do you feel closest to God?’ they never say during my sermon, they always say ‘on top of a mountain, by a stream or in the desert,’” Bland said.

But engaging people with climate issues can seem daunting. “It is such a heavy issue that people are afraid of, so we try to take a lighter approach to it,” he said.

Bland’s creativity has him thinking outside the box, quite literally.

“I created these cardboard boxes that I have painted mahogany brown, cut a little window out of the front of, put a frame around and added drapes,” Bland said. “It is my eco-fessional, we give people a chance to confess their ecological sins and then I have penances that I hand out to them.”

Greening the Churches

Many faith communities in Arizona are also fighting climate change by greening their places of worship.

Patricia Sills-Trausch is director of the Faith in Action ministry at the Franciscan Renewal Center in Scottsdale. The center has a small counseling ministry and a worshiping community.

“When we are greening, we are greening more than just our church and church building, we are greening our entire property,” Sills-Trausch said.

Some of these efforts include the replacement of nine old refrigerators — cutting energy usage of the refrigerators by 78 percent — weather stripping on all 50 lodging rooms and solar panels that power four buildings.

Smith of the Church of the Painted Hills has made subtle changes, such as getting rid of Styrofoam cups, installing low-flush toilets, changing out windows and using reusable tableware. Smith says even the smallest of changes are still important.

“There are these subtle ripple effects that happened at a subterranean level, so everything we do, even if it might seem insignificant, does matter,” Smith said.

Three years ago, the Church of the Painted Hills also began teaching youths about organic gardening. Once a month, instead of coming to church, they spend time in the garden.

Faith’s Role in Climate Change

Fred Bahnson, author and assistant professor at Wake Forest University, gave a keynote speech at the Food Justice, Faith and Climate Change Forum at the University of Arizona in early February.

He believes the most important thing people of faith have to bring to our ecological challenges is religious imagination.

“Through our metaphors, our rituals, our prayers and our focus on the shared experience of the Creator, we are constantly using our imaginations to speak about things beyond the realm of the observable, beyond the realm of what we can grasp with science,” Bahnson said.

According to Bahnson, climate change poses a simple question: how to confront the enemy within?

“That is not first a scientific, technological or political question,” he said. “It is a religious one.”

Emily Huddleston is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service of the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at emilyhuddleston@email.arizona.edu.

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