As the sun lights up the brilliant stained-glass windows of this 19th-century Gothic sanctuary, the small congregation at St. John's Episcopal Church listens intently to a sermon from a visiting layman.
"As people of faith, we are called in different ways to love our God and to love our neighbors," says Steven MacAusland, a fellow Episcopalian. "I am with you today to discuss energy. What is the connection?"
The cofounder of Massachusetts Interfaith Power & Light (MIP&L), Mr. MacAusland speaks of the effects of energy consumption and the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to stabilize the earth's climate. He isn't preaching political activism, he says, but is offering a way for the church to practice its own ministry of care for neighbors and future generations. Next week, members will vote on whether to join MIP&L.
As evidence of global warming has mounted, congregations across the US are examining their habits and asking what their faith demands of them in response. Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish groups have turned to scripture for guidance.
Houses of worship, it turns out, are some of the biggest wasters of energy on a per capita, per hour-of-use basis.
With help from an interfaith power and light movement now spreading around the country, churches and other religious institutions are cutting back on energy consumption, investing in more efficient heating and lighting systems, buying renewable energy, and even, on occasion, joining the effort to "build green."
Congregations that practice environmental stewardship can save 30 percent on their utility bills, says the US Environmental Protection Agency. If all US congregations did the same, they'd save an estimated $573 million annually and prevent 6 million tons of CO2 from polluting the air - the equivalent of taking 1 million cars off the road.
Conserving congregations see direct financial as well as environmental benefits. For instance:
• By installing solar panels on the roof and changing lighting, Christ Church in Ontario, Calif., saw its summer utility bills drop from $600 to $20 a month.
• All Saints Episcopal Church in Brookline, Mass., which installed a new boiler with zoned heating, programmable thermostats, and more efficient lighting, was rewarded with annual savings of $17,000. They've used 14 percent of the savings to buy 100 percent renewable energy, further reducing pollutants.
• Hebron Baptist Church in Dacula, Ga., revamped its lighting system, converting fixtures and exit signs. They're saving $32,000 a year in church expenses and 450,000 kilowatt hours of energy.
Churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples get help for stewardship efforts in EPA's Energy Star program, which identifies equipment, appliances, and lighting products that are energy efficient and provides some funding (www.energystar.gov).
The interfaith power and light movement, now active in about a dozen states, aims to help congregations by providing ready access to technical services for efficiency upgrades; information on funding resources; and a means for purchasing solar, wind, or landfill gas power.
The movement - sparked in California by an interfaith discussion on how to respond to global warming - began in the late '90s in the Episcopal church. After gaining backing from the state's bishops, MacAusland and Sally Bingham, a priest at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, formed Episcopal Power & Light (EP&L) as California was deregulating the electrical industry.
"Suddenly people were going to have choices about where their electricity came from, and we focused on clean energy," says the Rev. Ms. Bingham. Within two years, 60 Episcopal churches were buying renewable energy from Green Mountain Energy and using conservation measures.
"Renewable energy is the most exciting part of the program - getting power from the sun and wind," says MacAusland. "But you need to build your base on energy conservation and efficiency, and by saving energy and money you can begin to afford premium grades of power."
Green-energy products will cost more until they are fully developed. In Massachusetts, one product, ReGen, currently costs 3 cents more a kilowatt hour, about 60 cents more a day for an average home, MacAusland says.
In 2000, other churches and synagogues joined the effort with the formation of California Interfaith Power & Light. Congregation Shir Hadash of Los Gatos became the first synagogue in the state to install solar panels, spurred, says Rabbi Melanie Aron, by the Jewish teaching of Tikkun Olam about repairing the earth.
CIPL's Youth Lightbulb Program enables faith youth groups to raise money by selling energy-efficient bulbs. But the renewable energy project in the state collapsed. With California's electricity crisis two years ago, Bingham says, green energy companies were forced out of the market.
As other states deregulated, however, interest in the program caught on. MacAusland formed MIP&L, and similar nonprofits are developing in New Jersey, Connecticut, North Carolina, Maine, Georgia, Tennessee, and Michigan. With the growing enthusiasm, a foundation is funding CIPL to act as an umbrella group supporting interfaith efforts nationwide.
But not everyone shares that enthusiasm. Some in the pews remain unconvinced that global warming results from human activity, and see this as part of a liberal agenda. Others resist discussing the environment in a theological context.
Grace Church in North Attleborough, Mass., found the effort challenging. "The majority of the church was very much on board with the idea," says the Rev. Mary- alice Sullivan, but some members were not, "and we even lost a few parishioners. But we felt it was a call to the gospel and to meet the needs of the community."
Along with upgrading an old, inadequate heating system, the church wanted to renovate a connected building to start a middle school for children at risk. MIP&L and Conservation Services Group (CSG), the firm contracted to provide technical services, helped them realize their dream.
They have eight new boilers with zoned heating for church and school (which opened in September); their monthly utility bill has dropped from $4,000 to $2,400, although building use has gone up. Another church in the diocese loaned them $300,000 for the heating system.
Because systems are often old and inefficient, says Mark Dyen, CSG vice president, churches can save much more on bills by putting in new systems - from 30 to 50 percent - than can households.
One congregation has taken to heart the ambitious idea of "green building." St. Stephen's Cathedral, a historic landmark in downtown Harrisburg, Pa., is undergoing a major renovation that could win it a "gold" rating from the US Green Building Council of the building industry.
That rating in the LEED program (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) "would make us the first historic renovation project ever to get the designation," says the Rev. Malcolm McDowell, dean of St. Stephen's.
The congregation already had an environmental stewardship committee when it decided to renovate church buildings and a four-story parking garage to house its overflowing K-8 school. With the help of Interfaith Power & Light of Pennsylvania (IP&L), they held many potluck dinners to discuss how green they wanted to go.
"We were able to see it made theological, economical, and environmental sense," says John Dernbach, an environmental lawyer who is committee chair.
Along with turning the garage into a school building, the project upgrades and integrates the entire cathedral complex with a glass atrium and hallway.
IP&L receives funding from the Heinz Endowments, and can offer free audits, technical services, and help in upgrades. It also provides churches with a curriculum to explore connections between faith, religious spaces, and the environment. St. Stephen's benefited from $30,000 of IP&L planning and technical services.
Churches have lagged far behind commercial and government entities in green building because it requires a lot of costly planning, which St. Stephen's couldn't have done without IP&L's help. They hope to finish the project by the fall.
Not everyone needs to be that ambitious to have an impact, says Scot Horst, IP&L director. "We tend not to focus on global warming - it's such a big issue. But churches have a tool right under their noses that allows you to do what you can right now - your own building."