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Unitarian church embraces environmental stewardship with green initiative

Three years ago, Larry Lile became his own boss. He started a consulting group that does energy audits of businesses and helps plan sustainable buildings.

His favorite part is the short walk to work: “I have about a 15-step walk to the office.”

But Lile also finds purpose in his work. Energy decisions, he said, are some of the most important issues we as a culture are making. He is dedicated helping businesses see that sustainable decisions are not only more ethical, but also economical. His personal life is proof of that.

“In the last five years, I have managed to cut my carbon footprint in half,” Lile said. “By changing the vehicles that I drive, the way my house is heated… Every time I’ve done one of these things, I’ve done it because there was an economical advantage to it.”

Credit Abigail Keel, ColumbiaFAVS.com
Sun shines on the roof of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Columbia. This section of the roof faces south, making it ideal to house the solar panels the church will install.

  Three years ago, Lile discovered a way to bring his practical skills to a community he is involved with – the Unitarian Universalist Church of Columbia.

Lile said that during a conversation with a fellow member about converting incandescent light bulbs to compact fluorescent ones, he realized that in order to make a real impact, the church would need to do more.

“So I started looking at doing a whole analysis of the whole system,” he said. “And I figured out what that we could integrate several projects together that would save a significant amount of money – almost a third of our electric bill.”

The projects included controls on the AC system, switching to natural gas for some sources, and a solar panel array that would provide electricity to the church – all in all, a $12,000 plan.

Committing to Environmental Justice

Credit Abigail Keel, ColumbiaFAVS.com
The Rev. Molly Housh Gordon describes the importance of giving back to the community during her homily one Sunday at the Unitarian Universalist Church.

  The Rev. Molly Housh Gordon said this project, while expensive upfront, was well aligned with her congregation’s mission.

“It puts what we preach into practice as far as sustainable energy,” she said.

She also said that the congregation worked together to raise the money.

“We had some substantial gifts, but we had a lot of $5 to $25 gifts,” she said. “And that really adds up.” She added that the project will pay for itself in five years.

Housh Gordon said the solar project is a great example of how her church has embraced the calling of environmentalism. Unitarian Universalism has a long tradition of activism of all kinds. The local church decided last fall that they wanted to focus on environmental justice.

“Our engagement with the environment was really one of the things that came out of that period of study and discernment,” Housh Gordon said.

Ellen Thomas is a member of the church. She said environmental work is a natural extension of Unitarian Universalist principles.

“We have respect for the interdependent web of life, of which we are all a part,” she said.

The ecosystem, and all life on earth, hold equal status in this web, Housh Gordon said.

“We would be more likely to say that our responsibility comes from our relationship with creation rather than our place above other parts of creation,” she said.

Green Team in Action

Thomas and Lile are both members of a special team at the church: the Green Sanctuary Team.

Credit Abigail Keel, ColumbiaFAVS.com
Fair trade coffee beans sit on a table in front of a solar panel on display. The Unitarian Universalist Church's Green Sanctuary Team sells fair trade coffee once a month, and the church has invested in solar panels, which will be installed this spring.

  The Green Sanctuary Team started about eight years ago, but has recently decided to pursue national recognition and certification from the Unitarian Universalist Association. The solar project is part of their work to achieve certification.

But the group has been working on other projects to show their commitment to the environment for years. They host a local harvest supper in the fall with food sourced from local producers. They maintain a Missouri native prairie garden behind the church. They also sell wholesale fair trade items to the congregation in order to provide fair trade coffee for the church’s coffee hour.

Thomas said that being involved in environmental work through the spiritual avenue of the church has led her to a deeper understanding of both.

Credit Abigail Keel, ColumbiaFAVS.com
Volunteers chat behind a table while selling fair trade coffee in the lobby of the Unitarian Universalist Church. The Green Sanctuary Team started selling fair trade goods eight years ago.

  “We believe in the inherent dignity and worth of all people,” she said. “So how do you believe that people have inherent dignity and worth and then have an energy system or a food system that exploits people? It seems to me that you can’t have that.”

Thomas also said the group gives her the motivation to continue her commitment to the environment at home.

“It makes it easier for me to do the things that I kind of know that I should do, but sometimes they’re not always the easiest thing to do.”

Taking Root in Tradition

The new projects at church are exciting for the congregation, Housh Gordon said, but they aren’t outside the scope of the church’s past.

Credit Abigail Keel, ColumbiaFAVS.com
Natural sunlight streams into the sanctuary of the Unitarian Universal Church during services on a Sunday. The Rev. Molly Housh Gordon, pastor of the church, said the original members were inspired by the natural surroundings when designing the sanctuary.

  She said the group who started the Unitarian Universalist Church of Columbia didn’t have enough money to build a church after purchasing the land on Shepard Road. Instead, they planted trees.

“And it was in an area that was still not developed by the city,” she said. “So there was no water access. So these early members would haul buckets of water out to these trees for a couple of years before there was ever water access and a building there.”

Housh Gordon said this anecdote shows how her faith tradition considers nature and the environment an important spiritual and ethical dedication.

The continued commitment to this tradition will be visible in the new solar panels, which the church hopes to have installed by Earth Day.

This story was produced in partnership with Columbia Faith & Values, mid-Missouri's source for religion news. Find more news stories, commentaries and more on ColumbiaFAVS.com.