Power of the Pulpit: Md. Religious Groups Addressing Climate Change

The Rev. Jonathan Weaver, pastor at the Greater Mt. Nebo AME Church in Bowie, has introduced climate activism into his church's sermons and activities. Photo by Josh Kurtz.

The words “blessed,” “thankful” and “grateful” are stenciled in red on the steps leading to the Greater Mt. Nebo AME Church in Bowie. And for non-congregants, there is a measure of gratitude just finding the place: Many GPS systems take motorists to dead ends or private driveways instead of the church parking lot, which is hidden from U.S. 301 and its neighbors by 90 acres of lush fields and woodland.

But Greater Mt. Nebo faith leaders and their parishioners need no directions when it comes to their relationship with the natural world: They know exactly where they need to go to live in harmony with God’s creations — and what they need to do to become better stewards of the land, water and air.

“We recognize the sanctity of the Earth,” says the Rev. Jonathan Weaver, the pastor at Greater Mt. Nebo. “We realize there are consequences if we don’t speak to that.”

During his sermons on the first Sunday of every month, Weaver asks each person celebrating a birthday that month to stand and be recognized. Frequently, Weaver will ask the parishioner about the state of their mind, body and soul and whether they’ve had a physical check-up lately. That can lead to a discussion about the need to live “a balanced life,” with proper exercise and fresh, nutritious food. And that, in turn, can lead to a lesson for the younger parishioners about where food comes from (“It’s not from the Giant,” Weaver advises) and what they can do to protect the environment.

In the months ahead, Greater Mt. Nebo plans to put those theoretical and spiritual conversations into practical effect, utilizing the land that surrounds the church. An urban garden is being put in place that will provide produce for parishioners, neighbors and local charitable organizations. In another year or two, some of the fields near the church will give way to large solar arrays, which will power the church and supply electricity to at least 300 surrounding homes.

“Once again, Greater Mt. Nebo AME Church is leading the way,” Prince George’s County Council President Calvin Hawkins (D) said during a public forum on climate change at the church last week. “Your voice is becoming the voice for the way forward on the environment.”

Not every religious institution in Maryland is addressing the urgency of climate change on a regular basis, but environmental activists are increasingly depending on congregations across all faiths and denominations to spread the gospel about the need to protect God’s natural creations. That message was brought home last week when the Maryland Democratic Party used Greater Mt. Nebo as the venue for its first forum in a new and ongoing series of discussions on the climate crisis in the state — with faith leaders speaking about the “moral imperative” of the environmental work they are trying to do.

“We’re really at a moment in this crisis where we have to reach past the choir,” said Jodi Rose, executive director of Interfaith Partners for the Chesapeake, an Annapolis-based organization that partners with an array of advocacy groups and religious institutions to do environmental work. “If even half of these congregations around the state were addressing the [climate] crisis from the pulpit, it would be so important.”

There are myriad ways that religious leaders are working to address climate change, the panelists said. Some are incorporating a discussion of the ravages of global warming into their sermons — along with exhortations to their congregations to live a more climate-friendly lifestyle. Others are teaming with activist groups in their neighborhoods and regions on specific environmental projects or policy fights. Still others are, like Mt. Nebo’s Weaver, combining on-site activities with an environmental message.

“It’s really important to demonstrate those projects on church grounds,” Rose said.

According to the Washington, D.C., Maryland and Northern Virginia chapter of Interfaith Power and Light, an environmental group with about 40 offices nationwide, there are more than 100 “solar congregations” in the DMV, which have installed solar energy panels on or around their buildings — including more than 20 in Maryland.

Joelle Novey, the director of the local Interfaith Power and Light chapter, said she likes to call solar arrays connected to religious institutions “our new stained-glass windows” that literally and figuratively have become “beacons in their communities.”

“It’s not just another building in the neighborhood,” she said. “I bet a lot of people go solar at home once they see their church has gone solar.”

Novey said that when religious institutions add solar arrays or community produce gardens to their property, it gives the congregation leaders additional moral authority to talk about environmental protection and climate change. That’s important, she said, because so many discussions about climate change these days are fraught with a political edge and religious leaders can frame the conversation in a different way.

“When we talk about climate change in faith communities, people hear it differently,” Novey said. “They hear it with what I like to call their moral ears.”

When discussing climate change and the church’s environmental work, Weaver said he likes to remind congregants that “Greater Mt. Nebo is not operating in a vacuum.” What’s more, the church’s activism is a way to show that the parish is a small part of a greater movement.

“You may not be able to change the world,” he said, “but you can change somebody’s world.”

Rose acknowledged that while it’s difficult to know whether there are kindred spirits in a congregation who are also committed to fighting climate change, one way to find out is through simple actions at a church social event, like looking to see who takes care to separate their recycling from their trash. Another: Cruising the church parking lot and seeing who has environmentally-themed bumper stickers on their cars. From these pedestrian acts, she said, a movement can grow within a congregation — though she warned it can take 20 or 30 conversations to recruit two or three people.

Weaver agreed, and said people who want to organize around environmental issues in their congregations shouldn’t become discouraged if few people are signing up at first.

“We have to make sure that we remain salespeople,” he said. “We may get 10 no’s. But then there’s the 11th person who will say yes.”

Weaver conceded that in some congregations, especially where there are poorer members who are struggling with everyday challenges, there are “layers of issues that sort of drown out climate change.”

“If you’re hungry, if you’re dealing with police brutality, then climate change can seem esoteric,” he said.

Novey recalled talking to one Black pastor who said he and his parishioners had “bigger fish to fry” than addressing climate change. But she said she looks to the teachings of Pope Francis I, who has observed that “there’s not a social crisis or an ecological crisis. There’s only one crisis.”

“This is one sin,” Novey said, “and repairing it is one crisis.”

Citing the teachings of her Jewish faith, which suggest that observant Jews should only break their Sabbath celebrations to save a life, Novey said that climate action for religious people should become a life and death matter.

“Futz around and ask questions and cause delay — that’s a murder,” she said.

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Josh Kurtz
Founding Editor Josh Kurtz is a veteran chronicler of Maryland politics and government. He began covering the State House in 1995 for The Gazette newspapers, and has been writing about state and local politics ever since. He was an editor at Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper, for eight years, and for eight years was the editor of E&E Daily, which covers energy and environmental policy on Capitol Hill. For 6 1/2 years Kurtz wrote a weekly column on state politics for Center Maryland and has written for several other Maryland publications as well. Kurtz regularly gives speeches and appears on TV and radio shows to discuss Maryland politics.