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Building in Good Faith - Green Building Resource for Religious Institutions
 

Three Religious-Environmental Themes

The world's great religious traditions share several important theological and ethical principles that can be mobilized in support of green, healthy building. We want to highlight three of these themes.

Creation reveals God's power. Green building strengthens our relationship with Creation, and thus with God.

One widely-shared religious belief is that the earth and universe were created by and belong ultimately to God. Though this point is elementary, we cannot overemphasize its significance in relation to green building. Its ethical implications are clear. Human beings do not have unrestricted freedom to use Creation. It does not belong to us.

As example, Living Waters Lutheran Church purchased land in Flemington, New Jersey, several years before it had the funds to construct its sanctuary. Following the purchase, the congregation began to gather on its land on a regular basis, both to conduct outdoor worship services and to learn more about the beyond-human community for whom this land was home. Children in the church school worked to identify the resident plants, birds, insects and animals. The congregation prayed for these creatures during worship and, as an extension of their beliefs, sought to develop a construction plan that would do as little harm as possible to their new neighbors. "This just seemed like the right way to approach our building project," said the congregation's pastor, Matthew Cimorelli.

Stemming from this belief in the Divine origins and ownership of Creation is another belief many religions share - that a strong relationship with Creation draws us closer to the Creator. Islam, for instance, teaches that Creation is an "aya," a "sign" that points towards the reality of Allah. Psalm 8 expresses humility in the face of the Creator's majesty when its author writes, "When I look at the moon and the stars that you have created, what is humankind?" Whether through the sight of the Milky Way or of a small branch swaying in the breeze, religions share the belief that a strong relationship with Creation brings us closer to the Divine.

If human beings can draw closer to God by deepening our relationship with Creation, green building and environmentally-healthy building management - themselves a way of drawing closer to Creation - can be seen as a spiritual practice. Writing about her work with "green nuns" in the United States, for instance, Sarah McFarland Taylor comments that "95% of sisters identified such things as conserving water, paper, and electricity as spiritual practices. Sisters who did not explicitly identify them as such instead spoke of them as practices in 'daily mindfulness.'"1 Seen from this perspective, green building is not only about avoiding environmentally harmful building products or techniques. It is about developing a more meaningful relationship to Creation and, through this, to the Creator.

In sum, green, healthy building and maintenance practices can be understood as a spiritual practice through which members of a religious community can draw closer to the earth and God.

We are responsible to steward, heal and care for creation.

A second widely shared religious teaching is that people are called to be good stewards of the earth, caring for a planet that does not belong to us. In Genesis 2, for instance, God places the human creature in the Garden of Eden to "till and to tend it." (Gen. 2:15) Biblical scholars have recognized that the two Hebrew verbs translated "till" and "tend" can also be translated "serve" and "keep." This produces a reading of that well-known passage that strongly supports an ethic of care and responsibility - of stewardship. Increasingly, religious leaders are recognizing that when it comes to the earth, we are called not to a relationship of exploitative domination but to one of service and care.

An urban congregation that harvests the rainwater that falls on its roof, for example, not only helps prevent groundwater pollution by reducing storm water runoff, but can also support a community garden, creating food for low-income neighbors while restoring their relationship to the earth. A religious day-school that uses non-toxic paints not only reduces the number of poisons in the air and water, but also creates a healthy environment more conducive to learning for the children and teachers who use the building.

In a related vein, diverse religious traditions affirm the value of healing - both physical and spiritual. For example, many hospitals have been founded by religious communities as an expression of the value these communities place on healing and reducing suffering.

This belief is clearly relevant to the arena of green building. Green building reduces environmental degradation and protects human health - a contribution that is deeply consistent with religious values. Religious communities today can become instruments of healing through the way in which they build and maintain their facilities.

In summary, there are many ways that green, healthy building practices exemplify a religious commitment to stewardship and healing.

Religious traditions call us to act justly towards all people. Green building supports environmental justice.

It is a universal religious teaching that societies owe a debt of care to their most vulnerable members and communities. Research has shown repeatedly that while all people suffer from pollution, communities of color and poor communities suffer heavier impacts. These disproportionate impacts are referred to as environmental racism or environmental injustice. By reducing pollution, green building addresses issues of social, environmental justice.

Understandably, most of us do not know the origin of the raw materials, such as wood, used to construct or maintain our religious buildings. We're generally not aware of the negative ecological impact of certain logging practices on forests and the rural communities that surround them.

We are also usually unaware of the working conditions in the factories where these raw materials become finished products, how these factories may harm the health of workers and surrounding communities, or how the toxic waste resulting from the factories' operations is disposed. Most of us do not realize, for instance, that workers in plants where polyvinyl chloride (PVC) is produced suffer from high rates of cancer, or that workers in cement factories suffer from high rates of respiratory illness. We do not realize that the poor communities and communities of color adjacent to the plants where these materials are produced suffer from similar negative health impacts.

Finally, most of us do not understand what happens to the materials used in our buildings at the end of their useful life, when they become waste. Where is the landfill located where the solid waste is dumped? Where is the incinerator where the garbage is burned? Too often the answer is simply, "in a community of color, or in a poor community."

Green building practices can help to ensure that our buildings, and the processes and materials used to construct and maintain them, do not harm the residents of the communities where these materials are manufactured, assembled, and ultimately disposed. Green building practices help ensure that our building materials and processes do not pollute water, destroy forests, and foul the air in the communities that are already overburdened by pollution.

Too often, the way in which building materials are extracted from their place of origin, transformed through manufacturing processes, and disposed of, creates hardship and suffering for vulnerable communities as well as for the earth. Green building can help reverse these trends. Clearly, this is consistent with fundamental religious, ethical teachings.

Conclusion

These three theological and ethical themes are interrelated and mutually supportive. Building-related decisions that are made with environmental justice in mind tend also to express a sense of environmental stewardship while also strengthening the bond between people, Creation and the Creator.

Green building practices support a stronger relationship between people and God, respect the inherent value of Creation and its many inhabitants, and help ensure that society's most vulnerable members are treated justly. We urge religious leaders to articulate these values in support of their communities' efforts to build green.

1"Green Sisters: A Spiritual Ecology" by Sarah McFarland Taylor, Harvard University Press (2007)


 
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