At the dedication of a community garden, in a smallish county seat, I met Robyn, whose high school class had sown and nurtured the vegetable seedlings that we planted that day. She told me:
“My special-needs students learn so much as we plant and tend these plants. They may not be successful in regular classes, but here they succeed at making something grow. We bring the seedlings to the community garden, and know that families who are hungry will get fed. I love this project. And what do you do? You gave a prayer. Are you a pastor?”
“I work for a non-profit called Faith in Place, that helps diverse religious communities act on earth care and environmental justice issues.”
“Wow!,” she replied. “That’s a job? I bet you feel really lucky!”
And I do. Every day I get to interact with incredible people whose concern for all who share our planet involves them in energy and climate issues, water preservation, land stewardship and eco-advocacy.
We provide energy audits for houses of worship so that they can lower their energy bills and their carbon footprint. A member of the “Green Team” at First Presbyterian Church wrote us, “Our church is one of the oldest buildings in downtown Champaign and the energy audit made possible by Faith in Place was invaluable for future planning. The energy audit will insure changes that are environmentally friendly.” We can also connect houses of worship with resources to transition to solar energy. Four Central Illinois houses of worship have made this important change. First Mennonite of Urbana was our “pioneer” in 2014, and Decatur’s Prairie Avenue Church just won approval from the Illinois Power Agency to become the newest solar house of worship. Members of our faith partners can learn about how smart meters installed by utility companies open up energy-saving possibilities at home, too. And by promoting solar group buying projects with Midwest Renewable Energy, we encourage folks to learn about the benefits of solar for the environment, and for their home or business.
A second program area is Water Preservation. Water is vital to life. “Our Grandchildren’s Water” is a scientifically based, interfaith adult education curriculum that explores the central role water plays in the religions of the world, and the obligation people of faith have to conserve and protect this precious resource. This four-part series was recently revised by Dr. Ashlynn Stillwell, Assistant Professor in Civil and Environmental Engineering at UIUC. Professor Stillwell is also a person of faith, who believes that “water, like the Divine, is necessary for life and often goes unnoticed.”
Sustainable Food and Land Use has the largest variety of programs associated with it—everything from Community Vegetable Gardens to feed food-insecure neighbors; to habitat restoration for pollinators and native species; to a curriculum about food that is healthy for our bodies, our communities, our planet and our spirits. Religious people of all faiths understand that we have a moral obligation to make sure that everyone has access to the food, shelter and open space that they need to thrive. We care about the interconnectedness of people with the land.
One of our most important program areas is advocacy: helping people who believe responsibility for Creation and love for neighbor are moral imperatives to raise their voices in shaping public policy. At our May 9 Advocacy Day in Springfield, we gathered with over 600 citizen lobbyists, bused in from all over the state, to talk with legislators and petition the Governor for clean energy policy in Illinois. We worked with many wonderful partner organizations, including Sierra Club and Prairie Rivers Network, but we are proud that Faith in Place is the organization that put the most people on the buses. In Springfield, we visited senate offices and committee chambers. We met with representatives “at the rail” to thank them for their support, or ask them to prioritize renewable energy and clean jobs And when we rallied at the Lincoln Statue, a young woman from Faith in Place’s youth empowerment program led the call-and-response: “Tell me what democracy looks like.” “This is what democracy looks like!”
Advocacy Day only happens once a year, but preparing people to be an effective part of our political system is an ongoing process. Faith in Place staff members present Faithful Citizens Workshops in houses of worship and other local settings to teach folks how the process of legislation works in Illinois. We encourage faithful citizens to visit their legislators in their district offices, to show that people of faith are interested and involved in Earth care concerns.
It will surprise no one to hear that in order for a good idea to become law or policy, it is a long and not always straightforward process. The legislative flowchart can seem impenetrable, so it helps to know the points in the process where citizen input can be effective.
We come at this work with the strong assumption that everyone involved is trying to do the best they can, policy makers included. Faith in Place resists identifying people as “bad actors” or pitching our view as the only righteous way forward. However, justice is a religious value, and we pay special attention to groups that have suffered from injustice. We try to find ways to right the environmental wrongs that injure the most vulnerable members of our society, and bring them to the attention of people in a position to make and enforce better outcomes.
We know, for example, that people of color suffer from air pollution at a rate far higher than whites. It’s important that people who live in communities of color be heard, and Faith in Place is one environmental organization that amplifies those important voices.
As an example, our outreach director in Lake County, Celeste Flores, has been very active in the fight to protect communities north of Chicago from plants that sterilize hospital instruments, food and chemicals with ethylene oxide and then release this toxic, cancer-causing gas into the air. The Chicago Tribune quoted her as saying, “I would like to hear more about this from our elected officials. We need to be just as concerned about our health as we are about jobs and livable wages.” Flores has organized petition drives, brought citizens to meet with political leaders, appeared at press conferences and traveled to Washington, D.C. to testify before a congressional committee requesting that the EPA protect her community from this threat. Our advocacy programs mobilize people of faith to effect meaningful change in Illinois communities and amplify those voices in environmental discussions.
Faith in Place is 20 years old, and in that time has worked with over a thousand communities of faith throughout Illinois. We are currently partnering with 342 houses of worship across the state. As a staff, we are racially and religiously diverse, and strive to make our programs relevant to faithful people of any religion, age, race and socio-economic class. Environmental justice and care for our shared home unite us to protect the beauty of our planet and the health of people everywhere.
Cindy Shepherd is Central Illinois Outreach Director for Faith in Place. She grew up in Kansas, went to seminary in New Jersey, and pastored churches in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Illinois. She happily resides in Urbana now and is enjoying that stage of life where the kids are grown and the dogs have died. For fun, she makes music (sort of) at Community Center for the Arts.