Skip to main content
Religion and the Environment
Jul 1, 2002

When Rev. Sally Bingham steps up to the pulpit at San Francisco's Grace Cathedral, her mission isn't to save souls, but to save the environment. The Environmental Ministerher official job title is converting Episcopal congregations across the nation to the life of energy conservation.

No institution is better suited to preach clean air, water, and land than the institutions that profess a love of God and God's Creation, Bingham says. There's no place in the New Testament where it says we should use energy-efficient appliances. But everything we know about Jesus says that he identified with the poor and the marginalized and that he loved his neighbor. Global warming is hurting creation at a rapid rate and will soon cause great harm to the developing nations, who are as usual hit harder and sooner than the rest of us. Already we are seeing more severe storms, disease, drought and floods leading to famine and malnutrition.

Along with Steve MacAusland, a video producer from Dedham, Mass., Bingham founded the Episcopal Power and Light ministry, and later spin-off interfaith programs in states ranging from power-strapped California to oil-rich Texas. In California alone, the group persuaded 27 churches to install solar panels and 61 churches to switch to a renewable power company called Green Mountain Energy. By consolidating the purchasing power of the state's churches, EP&L was able to secure green energy at a great price.

Unfortunately, the chain of events surrounding deregulation of the state's power industry forced Green Mountain Energy to pull the plug on their California customers. In turn, churches had no choice but to again power their sacred spaces with fossil fuels. We carry tremendous guilt knowing that we are polluting out neighbor's air every time we turn on the lights. We have been forced into sinful behavior that frightens us. We may end up in a place so hot it will make global warming seem like a cold shower.

Bingham: I am a member of the Episcopal Environmental Network, a national group of people that come together once a year to talk about the issues that the church wants to get involved in. I've been a member of it when the national church first formed this organization It's also kind of a support group for those of us around the country who are feeling pain over the degradation of the environment. We kind of lament and pray and support each other. If you feel like you're the lone person crying in the wilderness, it's important to have a group come together and talk about these things.

A man from Massachusetts, Steve Causland, came on the committee in about 1996. We were on a long hike one day and talking about our committee, and we decided we really wanted to do something to make a difference. So we had to figure out what we saw as the most important issue facing the world today and it was climate change.

So over the next year, he and I founded Episcopal Power and Light (EP&L). I had already founded a 501 (c)(3) called the Regeneration Project, an interfaith ministry to link people of faith with their ecology. I hadn't done anything with this yet I'd been in seminaryso it was just waiting there for a project.

Thompson: What denominations have been working on this?

Bingham: Well, here in California, the California Council of Churches is all the Protestant churches across the board. And then we have a member of the board of rabbis and a member of COEJL, which is Coalition for Environmental Jewish Life, and a fellow down in Los Angeles who is Muslim. So it truly is interfaith. And each one of us has a responsibility to get our constituency on board. We have a congregational covenant which you can download from the Internet. There are all these different areas where you can check off the things your congregation are willing to do. It's targeted at the leadership of the church, whether it be the director of a Presbyterian church or a rabbi of a synagogue, because it asks them to educate their congregation on global warming. I'm in the process now of putting together materials that they'll be able to use to take this education into their congregation.

Thompson: How does your message differ from that of environmentalists who address the issue from a secular point of view?

Bingham: We bring the moral component. We see energy conservation and efficiency as a responsibility for people of faith, as loving one's neighbor. So it comes from the heart rather than the pocketbook. Conserving energy with the consciousness that what you say, someone else might be able to use is putting your faith into action.

Thompson: I like your update of a familiar parable: Harder for a wasteful consumer to get into heaven than an SUV to pass through the eye of a needle. You're preaching some messages that are pretty uncomfortable for people to hear, messages people have heard many times in many forums but not necessarily taken to heart. What do you think it will take to shift thinking away from overconsumption and consumerism?

Bingham: It's true. I think they need to hear the message more than once, but with our ministry we plant those seeds. With our train the trainer program, more people will be able to articulate the message, and I think we'll have a huge impact. The more people out there preaching this kind of thing, the more effect it can have.

Last Sunday was the first time I'd given an environmental sermon at the 11 o'clock service. There was such a positive responseeveryone was clapping at the end that doesn't happen here very often. That told me that people are ready to hear this message. It was affirming to folks who are already beginning to think that way because of what they're reading in the newspaper about energy and global warming. Now they hear this and think Oh my God, the church is with me on this.

We're still on the cutting edge of the ministry. I don't know if there were 400 or 800 people in that congregation on Sunday, but I know that probably half of them are hearing this message for the first time. But they'll hear it again.

And it is such a perfect thing for the church to do. Often what we read in the paper about religious organizations is the bad newssome clergy member who broke his or her vows in one way or another. This is good news about the church. Here we are at the forefront, doing a positive thing that's going to hopefully save the planet.

Thompson: It's one thing to preach to a liberal, environmentally-minded congregation in San Francisco, but how do you see your ministry winning conservative Christians who support Bush's energy policies? Have you done any work in the Bible Belt?

Bingham: One of the interfaith programs is in Texasit isn't founded yet, because we've just started our work, but I have been an advisor to the dioceses of West Texas on renewable energy, and we are planning a launching event there in October. In June I flew into Corpus Christi, Texas, which is the heart of the oil country, and talked to the bishop there about powering their council meeting in February with wind. They haven't agreed to do that yet, but I think they're going to. Green Mountain has already agreed to buy the wind and resell it back to the dioceses council.

The Episcopal Church powered its 15,000-person convention in Denver last July with wind purchased from the border of Wyoming and Colorado. It was the first convention in this country to be powered by renewable energy. Then we challenged the Democratic and Republican conventions to do it; the Democrats did. At the Episcopal convention, the National Renewable Energy lab, which is in Boulder, Colorado, set up a display right next to the EP&L booth. We also a little bucket on our booth and asked everybody to contribute one dollar to the extra cost of wind (it was literally 10 cents per day per person to have wind for the ten-day conference).

The idea blew the general convention. When we got back to our offices, we started getting calls from people all over the country. A woman in Tennessee was so eager to switch to renewable power that she did the research herself and made it happen. Now we're going to Tennessee to do an event there in November, and we're going to Detroit to do the same thing. The reason I was in Texas was that the women down there decided they wanted to power their convention with wind. So it really started something. In Nashville, the first big cathedral there (get name) is buying green power from the Tennessee Valley Association.

Thompson: What has inspired you personally to do this work?

Bingham: I grew up down in Woodside, Calif., which is a pretty rural communityor used to be, before Silicon Valley started building all these huge houses down there. I spent so much time alone in nature that I developed a very strong sense of divine companionship in the wilderness. Then way later in lifeabout 1985, and I was living in New York, and I was a trustee for the Environmental Defense Fund. Every one of board meetings has a presentation by a staff scientist. For 10 years I listened to the threat of global warming, overfishing, dying coral reefs, and deforestation. I just at one point began to think: Where is the religious community in this problem? Why don't we hear the religious voice? These are the people who sit in the pews on Sunday and say they love God and probably deep inside them love what God loves, and therefore love Creation, but they just haven't paid attention.

Thompson: You've preached about the effects of global warming severe storms, disease, drought, floods, famine...Sounds like the Apocalypse.

Bingham: It's interesting that you say that. My 21-year-old son answered the door yesterday, and some Bible-toting folks were out front. He said: You don't have to talk to us because my mother's a priest and she preaches about the environment. Right away the woman started quoting Revelations and the end of the world.

I don't know. I don't pretend to have knowledge of God's intentions. But I'm more hopeful than thinking about the end of the world. Because I think that human hearts can and will change, and that we will stop this destructive way and bring things back together.

Thompson: What obstacles have you faced in this work, and how have you overcome them?

Bingham: The internal ones are relatively minor today. Ten years ago, it was great turmoil, because I felt alone in this work. There were not other clergy who would agree with me on any of this. They thought that I was mixing politics with religionit wasn't seen as something that involved human souls, which was what the church all about. People would say isn't the church about people? Those first few years were very difficult, and this is why I believe that there is so much hope. The change between a few years ago and today is just phenomenal. People are there; they understand the connection between faith and the environment and religion.

I stillbut not anywhere near as oftensometimes meet people who say that global warming isn't real. In fact, yesterday I got an e-mail from someone who heard my Sunday sermon saying that I was wrong in saying that human behavior was causing global warming. He said it was actually being caused by a volcano in Hawaii.

Thompson: How do you respond to that?

Bingham: I haven't, and I'll tell you why. I used to get all wrapped up in one person's view. If there were a hundred people in a room and 99 of them stood up and clapped, and one person said, you're demented, I would go and spend hours with that one person. I just don't do that anymore. I'm sorry they're not better educated, but it isn't worth my time. I may in fact recommend a couple books for this fellow to read, like The Heat is On, by Ross Gelbspanit's a wonderful, very readable book about global warmingor something by Michael Oppenheimer, a scientist and climatologist, who has a lot of good work and a book by Steven Schneider, who's at Stanford. I could put this person in touch with some of this literature and ask them to read about it and then come back and tell me that global warming is happening because of the volcano in Hawaii. If that was the case, I'd probably say, I don't think you know what you're talking about.

Thompson: How do you personally experience God in nature?

Bingham: I ask them to be mindful, really conscious, of every single one of their behaviors. The cups we use, the cars we drive the clothes we buy. I don't condemn people who have the means to buy what they need. But when you buy ten times more than what you need. I live in a neighborhood where the recycling bins are sometimes just shockingin one week the amount of packaging that comes from Saks Fifth Avenue and Wilkes Bashford? You think how can these people possibly wear all these clothes? That's where I draw the line. Now I know there are folks who will say, well if we didn't go in there and buy all these clothes, think of the jobs these people who are selling the clothes wouldn't have, and the people who are making the clothes and on and on and on down the chain. But I think there's plenty to go around in this world for all of our needs. I think wealthy communities have to change their ways.

Thompson: What does the Bible have to say about protecting the environment?

Bingham: As you know, the Bible has lots and lots and lots of stories. I tend to take a metaphorical, not literal, interpretation of the Bible. Throughout Scripture, there are various teachings of restraintnot taking more than you need, loving your neighbor, giving to other people. People often ask me Was Jesus an environmentalist? Jesus identified with marginal people. And probably today he would identify with endangered species and coral reefs and forests, because he identified with pain and suffering, and right now creation is in pain and suffering. So I would go so far to say that if Jesus were here, he would not drive an SUV. He'd be on the White House steps with you. Do you see a relationship between America's spiritual and environmental crises?

In Al Gore's book, The Earth in Balance, he said just thatthe environmental crisis is a spiritual oneand I think it's absolutely true. We've forgotten where we came from. We've forgotten our connection to all Creation. Children walk through the supermarkets and think that the bananas grow right out of the shelves there. Working with my compost, and planting the garden and eating food that comes out of itit's a spiritual experience. It connects you to the land and teaches you the whole cycle of life. We've lost that.

Can we get reconnected to it? I hope so. I think that when we were an agricultural world, it was a lot easier, but being in cities, it's hard to do. I think that some of those summer programs that take teenagers out into the wilderness are probably amazingly life-changing. And I think our parks and national recreational areascity parks and street treesall those things are really important. Everybody should have a backyard. It's very deep inside of us, that connection to the land. But it needs to be awakened. We've gotten so far from the land that something has to reach out and stimulate us.

There are some wonderful teachers now that are starting to teach ecology in schools, and I think the church can play a magnificent role in this. Imagine if Sunday school classes started teaching about the different ways that God made birds' beaks, that they eat the different kinds of seeds because the way their beaks are shapedI think all those kinds of things will help children get the sense that God is bigger than they aresomething that we have to live in awe of.

Thompson: Where do you see this ministry in 10 years?

Bingham: We're getting ready to launch a program out of the Cathedral that's going to be magnificent. Five years from now it will be, I hope, one of the best faith-based programs in the country. We want to have a curriculum that will link theology and ecology for all faith groups and train facilitators from different regions. If we can raise the money and that actually happens, you can imagine we need a bigger budget, we need more people. If it all happens, ten years from now, I see it as a viable ministry coming out of the Cathedral or perhaps the Regeneration Project, which is the home for Episcopal Power and Light will be its own 501 (c)(3) and we'll be teaching this all over the world.

It's hard to say. We've only been in business so to speak for three years. We've tripled our budget. A year ago, nobody was on staffmy partner and I were working for freebut this last year, we've been able to pay ourselves a salary and hire an assistant. We're also looking for an office manager and a development director. So I see this getting huge.

Thompson: Can you leave us with a good quote from the Bible that relates to your work?

Bingham: It's so simple. It's the one I talk about all the time. The first and great commandment is to Love God. The second is like onto it, which is to love your neighbor as yourself. Therein lies this ministryif you love your neighbor, don't pollute your neighbor's air and water. You don't trash something that your neighbor could use. That's really it.