Beyond belief: Faith communities embrace environmental stewardship

In a mechanical room below the sanctuary of Asheville’s First Congregational United Church of Christ, pumps circulate water through a closed geothermal heating and cooling system. Photo by Virginia Daffron

As Asheville’s First Congregational United Church of Christ approached the century mark, some of the systems that power the gray granite building on Oak Street were showing their age. In 2012, the church’s massive gas-fired boiler gave up the ghost, and the congregation had to consider its options.

A new boiler would cost about $25,000, Minister of Music Gary Mitchell recalls. But the forward-looking congregation, which had a strong commitment to environmental stewardship, wanted to explore other options. A geothermal heating and cooling system, which draws heat from the earth during the winter and returns heat to the earth in warm weather, seemed like the perfect complement to the solar array the church had installed in 2011.

But when the estimate came in at $450,000, says Mitchell, he thought, “Of course we’ll go with the $25,000.” So he says he was “flabbergasted” when the congregation opted for the geothermal system. “I thought: These people are really willing to put their money where their mouth is,” he marvels.

They’re not alone, notes Scott Hardin-Nieri, director of the Creation Care Alliance of Western North Carolina. And while there are as many approaches to environmental stewardship as there are churches dotting our region, more and more local faith communities, he says, “are seeking ways to heal the planet from a place of compassion and morality,” investing time, money and effort to align their buildings and practices with their spiritual commitment.

Going deep

Once First Congregational had decided to go geothermal, members opened their wallets. All the money for the project, says Mitchell, had been pledged before construction began.

But if the fundraising effort went smoothly, the construction process soon ran into an obstacle. Engineer Bob Wiggins had originally hoped to install eight 750-foot-deep geothermal wells, but drillers kept hitting the water table. In the end, the contractor bored 10 550-foot wells around the perimeter of the church’s property. Water circulates through the wells in a closed loop comprising over a mile of piping, either pulling heat from the ground or returning it there.

Although the system requires no energy for heating or cooling, it does use electricity to power the pumps that move the water through the pipes and the air-handling units that circulate warm or cool air through the building. Overall, geothermal systems use about 40 percent less energy than any other type of heating and cooling system, says Wiggins. He estimates that the system, which was finished in June, will produce a 5-7 percent annual return on the church’s initial investment.

The technology, though, is most appropriate for heavily used buildings, says Wiggins. “For a church that’s occupied a few hours on Sunday and then shut up most of the rest of the time, the economics don’t work out.” But with over 65 community groups using First Congregational’s building during both day and evening hours, those lower operating costs will make up the larger upfront cost in 15-20 years, he predicts. The church also received a $10,000 rebate from Duke Energy, notes Wiggins.

Show me a sign

At the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Asheville, rain gardens allow rainwater to filter into the ground rather than running into storm drains. Photo by Virginia Daffron
At the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Asheville, rain gardens allow rainwater to filter into the ground rather than running into storm drains. Photo by Virginia Daffron

Over at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Asheville, what would become known as “The Welcome Project” started with a sign — though not one “from above,” quips member Bob Roepnack.

What began with the simple desire for a new sign reflecting a change in the church’s name became an 18-month, $1 million construction effort. One thing led to another, and the church gradually found itself expanding the project’s scope to address building accessibility, stormwater management, energy use and fire safety issues.

The most fundamental goal, the Rev. Mark Ward explains, was removing barriers to welcoming people of all ages and physical abilities. To improve building access, a paved parking lot, ramps, railings and an exterior lighting system were added. Interior changes to the architecturally distinguished structure include a lobby that connects the sanctuary with the social hall and a family-friendly restroom that also serves churchgoers with mobility challenges. Inside the sanctuary, the floor level was raised to create a stepless entrance off the new lobby, while a sound loop system aids those with hearing impairments.

Since the project’s completion this fall, says Ward, he’s seen “more folks using walkers and wheelchairs coming to our services, and I’m betting that will continue.”

But environmental stewardship is also a key value: For the past 10 years, the Unitarian Universalist Association has certified the church as a Green Sanctuary. And stormwater management, already a concern, demanded immediate attention after flooding in August severely damaged an adjacent structure on the property. As the Campus Development Committee huddled with architects and engineers to consider design alternatives, the idea of creating rain gardens came into focus. Now, says Ward, all the rain that falls on the church’s nearly 2-acre property will stay there.

Landscape architect Hutch Kerns designed a system that directs rainwater from the building’s roof, parking lot and new outdoor terraces into collection tanks. From the tanks, which have a total capacity of 4,300 cubic feet, the water is slowly released into specially designed gardens that slow the absorption rate, so the water gradually filters into the ground rather than pouring into storm drains.

“You can do all that invisibly,” says Kerns, but the church wanted to make the rain gardens a prominent feature. Placing one right outside the building’s front entrance, Ward explains, makes the new design a model for the community.

Meanwhile, new terraces at the corner of Charlotte Street and Edwin Place provide outdoor spaces for social events. At night, 19 energy-efficient LED fixtures shed a soft glow, lighting up walkways and illuminating the sign that started it all.

Some longtime congregation members, says Director of Administration Linda Topp, found it painful to lose the trees and plantings that had to be removed, but the project’s many benefits have won over those who initially questioned the need for it.

Biblical mandate

The Jewish faith has enshrined a responsibility for caring for God’s creation in a codified legal tradition that dates back at least 1,800 years, says Rabbi Justin Goldstein of Congregation Beth Israel. Jewish written law is based on an oral tradition that is even older, including the creation narrative in the book of Genesis, Goldstein explains. “Don’t mess this up, because if you do, no one will come to fix it for you afterward,” he says, paraphrasing God’s instructions to Adam and Eve.

There’s also a strong sense of obligation to preserve the earth for future generations, continues Goldstein. “We are tenants here: The divine is the landlord,” he explains. “We are partners in creation, and a critical part of our role is to keep things in balance.”

Goldstein cites the concept of the “shmita,” or “sabbath year,” as one way the Jewish tradition strives to maintain a healthy balance between human use of the environment and care for it. As the Torah commands (and modern Israel still observes), fields are allowed to lie fallow every seventh year. The shmita, notes Goldstein, reflects an ethos similar to the permaculture principle of self-regulation. Many modern Jews, he says, find value in reflecting on the attitudes and practices that would enable a community to sustain itself through a full year of agricultural rest and renewal.

Beth Israel is just beginning to consider what to do with its ’60s-era building, says Goldstein, but the congregation hopes to embark on a capital campaign next year.

And over at Congregation Beth HaTephila on North Liberty Street, a renovation and expansion project completed 2 1/2 years ago has injected new life into a tired and inefficient complex. The renovations gave the facility about 33 percent more space without increasing energy usage, according to Bob Davis, chair of the synagogue’s House Committee. And the sanctuary, social hall, classrooms and administrative offices are now far more comfortable.

“With our old steam boiler, we had pipes clanging and banging in the sanctuary walls. It made a racket on cold winter days,” Davis recalls. New insulation, high-efficiency air handling units, programmable thermostats and energy-efficient fluorescent lighting were all part of the project. The new facility was designed to LEED standards, but the congregation decided not to pursue certification due to the increased cost.

Meanwhile, the changes are paying off in ways that go beyond dollars and cents. “Now we can do more, because we have better space,” Davis reflects. “Our membership is growing. At most temples around the country, that’s not the case. And the building is part of that.”

Here comes the sun

Hardin-Nieri of the Creation Care Alliance points to Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical “Laudato Si’: On Care For Our Common Home,” as another sign of how larger institutions are recognizing that faith and environmental awareness belong together.

In his passionate, 40,000-word appeal, the pope wrote:

“Regrettably, many efforts to seek concrete solutions to the environmental crisis have proved ineffective, not only because of powerful opposition but also because of a more general lack of interest. Obstructionist attitudes, even on the part of believers, can range from denial of the problem to indifference, nonchalant resignation or blind confidence in technical solutions. We require a new and universal solidarity. … All of us can cooperate as instruments of God for the care of creation, each according to his or her own culture, experience, involvements and talents.”

But the congregants at the Parish of St. Eugene weren’t just persuaded by the pope’s message: They were out in front of it. Back in July 2014, a group of parishioners proposed a bold environmental initiative. Fundraising started last March, and by October, 147 solar panels had been installed on the church’s roof.

The 46-kilowatt setup provides about 25 percent of the church’s electricity and is net-metered to sell surplus power back to the grid.

The Rev. Pat Cahill says that while there were some skeptics, the parish overwhelmingly supported the project.

Another local congregation, the First Christian Church of Black Mountain, has also embraced solar, says Hardin-Nieri. Working with the Appalachian Institute for Renewable Energy, a Boone-based nonprofit, the church financed its solar project through a limited liability company. Since the beginning of this year, the system has produced more power than the church has used.

A central component

As the cost of alternative energy systems comes down and techniques for boosting building efficiency improve, faith communities can increasingly justify environmental projects in financial terms as well.

Energy audits, says Hardin-Nieri, can help congregations identify opportunities to save money that can then be directed toward providing more care for the community. “That’s a goal shared by every denomination,” he observes.

Wiggins, the engineer who designed First Congregational’s geothermal system, also worked with the First Baptist Church of Asheville to upgrade its mechanical and electrical systems in 2006. By choosing highly efficient systems, he says, the church reduced energy usage by 20 percent.

In Mills River, Unity of The Blue Ridge has undertaken many environmentally conscious efforts in recent years, board of trustees President Jim Reed reports. Installing remotely programmable thermostats was expensive, he says, but the church’s monthly energy bills immediately went down. Reed and sustainability team leader Geri Conley say the congregation is working to become one of the first certified EarthCare Congregations in the Southeast. Achieving the standard, which was established by Unity Worldwide Ministries’ EarthCare program, will require extensive collaboration within the congregation. “We’re setting a high bar for ourselves,” notes Reed. “We plan to keep on going to become as green as we can be.”

Increasingly, people of faith are seeing concern for the earth as a central component of their religious beliefs and a natural expression of their fundamental moral and spiritual values. And as boilers break down and other challenges arise, says Hardin-Nieri, the opportunities to meet practical needs while nurturing the environment will produce ever more creative and inspiring solutions, both in our region and beyond.



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About Virginia Daffron
Managing editor, lover of mountains, native of WNC. Follow me @virginiadaffron

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