Naked City

The House of Thy Lord Shalt Be Greener

A growing movement is developing among people of faith in Texas to include efficiency and environmental sustainability in their structure of core values. At the forefront of this effort are groups like the Unitarian Universalist Church and Texas Impact, an advocacy group for the poor. This Sunday, Austin's First Unitarian Universalist Church at 4700 Grover Ave. will celebrate its certification as a "Green Sanctuary" by the Unitarian Universalist Association, making it part of a select group of churches nationwide who have met the rigorous standards. "We were just looking at everything we were doing, finding how we could lessen our footprint on the planet in every conceivable way," said Cathy Cramer, chair of First UU's Green Sanctuary Committee.

The process began with the renovation of the church's landscaping using native Texas plants. "Locally native plants are the backbone of any wildlife habitat. They provide the best overall food sources for butterflies and birds and at the same time require little or no fertilizer, water, or pest control," said Dale Bulla, one of the designers. Next, the church stepped up its recycling program, and took advantage of Austin Energy's rebate program to install energy-efficient fluorescent lighting, low-flow toilets, programmable thermostats, and free LED exit lighting. "Last year we saved 28,316 kilowatts and $3,226 in electricity," Bulla said. "As for water, we saved 294,000 gallons and $705.59." Finally, the Green Sanctuary Program required the church to partner with another group to work on a long-term environmental social justice project; First UU chose Austin Youth River Watch Program, an environmental outreach program in which "at risk" Austin-area students learn about water-quality testing.

Don Smith, president of First UU's board of trustees, summarized what the Green Sanctuary program has meant to the church. "We've reduced our energy and water consumption, beautified our property while providing an urban wildlife habitat, reduced our waste stream, and increased congregational awareness on issues of conservation," he said. "And all of this was done through the effort of individual members of the church, in a spirit of teamwork. A lot of the work even involved the children, giving us an opportunity to demonstrate by our actions what we teach them on Sunday mornings." First UU will celebrate its Green Sanctuary certification at special Earth Day worship services on Sunday, April 17, at 10am and 11:30am. This is also their Green-Transit-to-Church day, in which church members and visitors are encouraged to bus, walk, bike, or carpool to services.

Carrying the message that environmentalism is a moral value to an even larger audience is Austin-based Texas Impact, a grassroots interfaith group created by religious leaders to lobby the Texas Lege on public policy issues. Reaching out to Jewish, Muslim, and Christian congregations, Texas Impact's Breath of Life program focuses on improving Texas air quality by urging churches to buy green power like Austin Energy's Greenchoice program and by implementing efficiency programs similar to First UU.

Director Bee Moorhead said Texas Impact's goal is to help churches reduce the pollution attributable to their congregation in a measurable way. "We think Texas congregations can make a big difference," she said. Texas Impact's Brooke Ferguson explained that Breath of Life coincides with the State Implementation Plan, which mandates air quality improvements in exchange for federal highway funding. "Anything congregations can do, even if it's replacing some of the church's lighting with compact florescent bulbs, could make a measurable difference in state emissions," Ferguson said. "There seems to be a new groundswell of religious environmentalism."

For more info, see www.austinuu.org and www.texasimpact.com.

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