What do you get when you combine an undergraduate degree in sociology and three masters degrees in sociology, divinity studies and urban planning with an intense love for the Lord? A priest on a mission … that’s what!
Since 1998, Rev. Charles Morris has been on a mission to make his church a sustainable place to worship, and the results are quite impressive. St. Elizabeth’s Church, in Wyandotte, Michigan, is not only a place of God, but a place of innovation as well. It has taken Rev. Morris almost ten years, and over $150,000 to make his church a beacon of both religion and sustainability, two things he believes go hand in hand.
It all started with a heightened awareness of the harms of global warming, mixed with a responsibility to to his faith. The more educated the Reverend became about peak oil and depleted natural resources, the more worried he became about the prospects for future generations. At the same time, he could not help but feel that every bit of energy wasted was somehow connected to God. As he put it, "I was worried about our relationship to energy, and about our relationship to God… he is the creator of all everything, including life and energy." Instead of preaching from the pulpit, the Michigan priest got involved.
And the result? St. Elizabeth’s is one of the most environmentally comprehensive churches in the United States. On the roof of the building are solar panels and a wind turbine that provide the electricity for the community rooms and for the basement of the church. There is also a solar collector that provides the building with hot water. Moreover, the roof is home to a solar fan, which removes the hot air from the attic of the church.
But, the innovations do not stop there! The church’s 1,400 square feet of stained glass windows are covered with a solar netting that regulates the inside temperature: it retains heat in the winter, and lowers cooling costs in the summer. The church also boasts compact fluorescent bulbs and LED lighting technology throughout the building. Pretty impressive, huh?
Like I mentioned before, the environmental overhaul cost the church about $150,000. While this may sound like a ton of money (which it is!), it is the money saved that made this project economically feasible. Currently, the church is saving about $20,000 per year on energy costs, which means it cut its former energy costs by over half. If you project those savings through ten years, the church will not only make its money back, but it will have saved over $50,000 in utility expenses.
Aside from what he sees as a responsibility to the Lord, Reverend Morris has some pretty persuasive reasons for going green. As he told me, "we have a responsibility to the next generation, and to the generations after that. To ignore the current state of the environment is not only reckless, it is negligent." Sometimes, it seems as though it is the people with the largest sense of imperative that make the biggest changes for what they believe in.
Becoming sustainable has not exactly been a crystal stair for Reverend Charles Morris, though. When asked about the biggest challenge in the greening of both his church and his life, the Reverend tolds me, "lethargy — it is easy to lose momentum when undertaking such a large task. Also, bad habits. I am no different than anyone else: I have parts of my routine that I need to change to reflect my belief [in sustainability]."
Lethargy and bad habits are just the beginning of what Father Morris has had to overcome to get to where he is today. One of the things he claimed posed the biggest hurdle for him, in terms of achieving a higher level of sustainability, was a lack of support and education. When undertaking something like an environmental overhaul, there will always be people who don’t get it, which is why we need to construct an atmosphere that encourages people to try new things, and to take risks.
According to Father Morris, "We must create the conditions that foster green lifestyles, and education is a good place to start." Reverend Morris is a staunch advocate on environmental education and sees it as a necessary step to making this country more sustainable.
When asked what the biggest environmental harm resulting from the way most Americans live their lives, the Reverend responded quickly:
The poor, the invisible people of this country who suffer the most from the destruction of the environment. It is the people suffering from asthma, heart attacks and other health problems. We, as a country do not acknowledge these people. Because of our consumer culture, they are isolated and the only way to fix that is through education
Education is not the only way in which we can decrease our environmental impact though. The Reverend believes that business must step up and take a leadership role in the greening of this country. He explains,
Businesses need to take charge. They need to not only green their own practices and act as a model for the rest of the country; they must provide the capital and incentive to get us to the next level. We are on the cusp of the ‘next phase,’ but businesses must realize that going green can be profitable. When this happens, you will see a shift in the market and the increased affordability of green technology.
While not all of us may have the resources to undertake a environmental overhaul anytime soon, Reverend Morris has some good advice for those people just getting started greening their lives. "Start reading! It is easy to look at your environmental impact and go from denial to despair. Instead, you must go to decision. You need to figure out what you can change, make the necessary modifications and then celebrate your victories." And celebrate he does. Father Charles Morris is not only a wonderful example of what can be accomplished with a little determination; he is man who truly practices what he preaches.
Photo credit: Detroit MetroTimes