Lay leaders tie faith and environmental action

Volunteers at the St. Eugene garden
BETTER TOGETHER: Volunteers with St. Eugene Catholic Church in North Asheville gather in the parish's Friendship Garden, which grows vegetables for the needy. Photo by Cynthia Gibbs

“What else has your church, business or home purchased that writes checks whenever the sun shines?” asks Bill Maloney, a parishioner at St. Eugene Catholic Church in North Asheville. He’s referring to the 147 solar panels that grace the church’s south-facing roof, installed in 2015, which have since generated over 238 megawatt-hours of electricity for the parish.

Although St. Eugene’s pastor, the Rev. Pat Cahill, lent his full backing to the solar project, its genesis came from the church’s Care of Creation Ministry. That group of lay leaders, inspired by Pope Francis and his 2015 letter “Laudato si,” has also worked to transition the parish away from disposable serving ware and established a church garden that donates vegetables to those in need through Catholic Charities Diocese of Charlotte.

Grassroots efforts among the members of faith communities such as St. Eugene have gained ground in Western North Carolina over the past few years, says the Rev. Scott Hardin-Nieri, who directs the Creation Care Alliance initiative of Asheville-based environmental nonprofit MountainTrue. Congregations beyond Buncombe County, including churches in Henderson County, Waynesville, Bryson City and other farther-flung locations, are seeking to establish or grow their own environmental ministries.

In light of that momentum, Hardin-Nieri is opening the CCA’s annual retreat to include not just clergy but also lay leaders for the first time. While the first day of Resilience and Restoration in the Mountains, taking place at the Montreat Conference Center on Friday and Saturday, Feb. 7-8, remains focused on ordained ministers only, its second day will offer “learning, grieving, inspiration and training” for all who connect their faith with creation care.

“In so many places, people are becoming more and more isolated, with the fabric of community being torn apart on many fronts,” Hardin-Nieri says. “At their best, faith communities are some of the few remaining places where people are encouraged and trained to be in right relationship with others, self, God and the planet.”

People power

St. Eugene solar array
LIGHT OF MINE: St. Eugene Catholic Church installed a 147-panel solar array as part of a lay-led creation care effort. Photo by Warner Photography, courtesy of St. Eugene.

Lay leaders are critical to creation care work, Hardin-Nieri explains, because even supportive clergy can find themselves pulled in many directions. He shares that, in a previous job as a full-time pastor in Colorado, his own deep concern over climate change sometimes took a back seat to the immediate needs of his flock.

“To keep climate at the top of my priority list was difficult after preparing a sermon, visiting people in the hospital, offering pastoral care to those grieving, people contemplating suicide, struggling with an addicted child, working on community homelessness initiatives, leading Bible studies, Sunday school and worship and trying to keep teenagers engaged with their faith community,” Hardin-Nieri says. “Lay leaders who prioritize climate change and creation care can be gentle, and sometimes not so gentle, reminders to the congregation and clergy people about the moral imperative to care for the earth.”

Vicki Ransom, the chair of St. Eugene’s Care of Creation Ministry and a scheduled presenter at the CCA retreat, agrees that clergy sometimes need a push in the right direction by passionate congregants. She points to her parish’s efforts on eliminating disposables; even after showing how washing dishes instead of using plastic foam products would save money while reducing waste, she says, her team had to campaign for a churchwide policy.

“We did have to talk with Father Pat about why it was important that using reusable dinnerware not just be a Care of Creation effort — it needs to be something the whole parish embraces,” Ransom says. “He’s been very supportive, but on the other hand, he is not always as vocal as we would hope he could be. Sometimes we have to give him some prep work that makes it easy.”

When clergy do speak out, Ransom adds, they can unify parishioners with different political or social views under the common cause of faith. “We may disagree about many things, but we do agree that we feel that God loves us, that what the creator made was good and we need to take care of it,” she says.

Global perspective

Other lay presenters at the CCA retreat will include keynote speaker Emily Askew, an associate professor of theology at the Lexington Theological Seminary in Kentucky; Deke Arndt, an Asheville-based climate scientist with the National Centers for Environmental Information; and Sarah Ogletree, program coordinator for N.C. Interfaith Power & Light. Each will offer insight, Ogletree says, into why a focus on creation makes sense for people of faith.

“We know that disenfranchised populations are the most impacted by climate change. That’s people of color, people in poverty, people with different abilities — those are the people that Jesus called us to care for,” Ogletree explains. “When we do something like put our money into solar, we mitigate the impacts of climate change that are hurting those folks the most.

“It might seem a little bit indirect, but I think we both have to feed the hungry person in front of us, care for the poor person in front of us and prevent that person from being hungry or being really harmed in the future,” Ogletree continues.

Outside of the retreat, many resources are available for congregations looking to get involved. Ogletree says her organization offers free speakers, presentations and energy audits for churches across the state, while Hardin-Nieri points to the CCA’s online Guide for Cultivating Care for Creation, which provides specific action items in areas such as waste reduction and worship experiences.

There’s no time like the present, Ogletree emphasizes, for leaders in faith communities to rise up around creation care. “Going into an election year, I think this work is really important,” she says. “If you’ve been thinking about doing this work, now really is the time to dig deep, to find your passion and to talk about it.”

WHAT: Resilience and Restoration in the Mountains
WHERE: Montreat Conference Center, 401 Assembly Drive, Montreat
WHEN: Friday, Feb. 7, 12:30-6 p.m. (clergy only) and Saturday, Feb. 8, 8:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. $40 two days, $25 one day, group discounts available. More information available at


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About Daniel Walton
Daniel Walton is the former news editor of Mountain Xpress. His work has also appeared in Sierra, The Guardian, and Civil Eats, among other national and regional publications. Follow me @DanielWWalton

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