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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Climate Change II: Plea from the Pulpit

Air Date: Week of

Some religious leaders are beginning to speak out from their pulpits about the consequences of climate change. Emilia Askari reports from suburban Detroit on an interfaith initiative to address the issue.


CURWOOD: Warnings about climate change can be expected from scientists like Alden Meyer. But now, some religious leaders are also beginning to address the problem—from the pulpit. Detroit Free Press reporter Emilia Askari has this story from suburban Detroit, on one interfaith initiative that hopes to make climate change a moral issue.

MORRIS: Just put aside all the problems of the day, everything else. Put ourselves in the presence. That we are in the presence of the holy.

ASKARI: At St. Elizabeth's Catholic church in the working class Detroit suburb of Wyandotte, Father Charles Morris opens an unusual meeting in the church school.

MORRIS: I'm here because, looking down the road, this may be the greatest challenge, the greatest moral issue that we face as a community.

PALAZOLO: I'm Joe Palazolo. I'm also here to learn about global warming and any environmental issues.

NESTER: I'm Vernon Esther, and I'm concerned for my children, my grandchildren, and great-grandchildren to come.

ASKARI: The topic of discussion today is climate change and the concern that pollution from power plants and vehicles, like the ones made right here in Michigan, is causing the atmosphere to heat up and may be disrupting weather patterns.

MORRIS: What can you gather about God's intentions for the balance of nature?

WOMAN: He had a plan and he planned it all out. And he's taking care of it and keeping it in balance, just for what everything needs.

MORRIS: Mm hm. What we're essentially doing is, we're breaking it down rather than helping him.

ASKARI: St. Elizabeth's is one of dozens of congregations in Michigan where religious leaders have begun raising the issue of climate change. The meetings are part of a campaign that aims to educate people of faith in four key states about climate issues. Steven Johns-Berma heads up the Michigan effort. He's the director of the Michigan Interfaith Global Warming Campaign, and a minister of the Christian Church Disciples of Christ.

JOHNS-BERMA: The first environmental movement was really the commandment that was given to Adam and Eve in the Garden, is to tend the Garden. We in the religious community have a call to tend, to care for the Garden, to care for the Earth. And therefore, global warming, climate change, is at its fundament a religious issue.

ASKARI: With a $23,000 grant from the W. Alton Jones Foundation, Reverend Johns-Berma and the Interfaith Campaign hope to spread this doctrine and educate people about climate change science in 100 Michigan religious communities within a year. Eighty-three of the state's Christian and Jewish leaders attended a three-day workshop on the issue earlier this year, and Reverend Johns-Berma says he hopes to get members of the Detroit area's sizeable Islamic community involved as well.

JOHNS-BERMA: What this campaign seeks to do is to bring a moral consensus to an already scientific consensus that indeed the earth is warming. And that indeed it is likely that it is warming from the actions of humans. It will happen not only in this community of faith, but also we intend to really have delegations visit the auto industries.

ASKARI: Through its member congregations, the Interfaith Campaign hopes to push Michigan's auto companies to move faster toward production of cars that will burn less or even no gasoline. It also hopes churchgoers will contact local reporters and politicians, like Congressman John Dingell, the powerful Michigan Democrat who has helped block efforts to combat climate change. Reverend Johns-Berma says whether it's through political action or just changing the way they use energy at home and at work, Michiganders of faith can make a big difference.

JOHNS-BERMA: The faith community made a significant impact in terms of the civil rights struggle. And one could almost look at this as a civil rights struggle for the earth.


ASKARI: It's not just the presence of the auto industry that makes this issue hit home in Michigan. Over the last hundred years there's been a subtle shift of animal and plant species northward in Michigan. Southern hardwood forests are moving into the territory once dominated by northern pine and spruce forests. Some scientists think these are the first visible impacts of climate change here. There are still climate change skeptics, though, including a number of religious conservatives. Among them is Father John Sirico, a Catholic priest and president of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He says religious leaders have no business bringing the debate over climate change into places of worship.

SIRICO: I think the majority of the religious activists involved in this do not have any more scientific background than I do on the question, and therefore would be prudent to keep their mouths shut about it.

ASKARI: Father Sirico travels around the country making speeches about the folly of linking religion and the environment. He believes that God intended for people to revere the earth, but also to use it. And he thinks the global warming effort may be a well-intentioned but dangerously misinformed campaign which could needlessly cost jobs and drive people away from religion.

SIRICO: What this represents is a national and to some extent international movement of eco-spirituality, eco-theology, which in some instances borders on neo-Paganism. I think this will not have an appeal in the minds and hearts of the average Michigan churchgoer.

ASKARI: But dozens of Michiganders are not only convinced that the Interfaith Campaign is the right thing to do. They think it's going to work.

(A door opens; voices)

GREENER: A lot of people think more like me than don't. But they don't know what to do. Because it's hard. It's hard—when you're working 50 hours a week and keeping a home and running the errands and putting the groceries and making the meals and all the other things that we have to do in a day-to-day world—to be an environmentalist. So what do you do? Well, what if there's a discussion group in your church or your synagogue, or if there's a way to be active, even a little bit, through religious organization? I say that's a role for other interfaith environmental movements, is to make it a little bit easier on a day-to-day basis to be an environmentalist.

ASKARI: Katherine Greener is an executive with an auto supply firm. She's invited several of her friends over for dinner in the artsy Detroit suburb of Royal Oak, to organize a chapter of the Committee on Environment and Jewish Life.

GREENER: That's in the Midrash: See to it that you do not destroy my world, for there is no one after you to repair it.

(To a guest) Did you get from this?

MAN: I did.

GREENER: Okay. This is yogurt.

WOMAN: This is yummy.

ASKARI: Ms. Greener and her friends say they will approach the auto industry as people of faith. And they expect auto executives to respond. Mike Sklar is an engineer.

SKLAR: There is nothing in the automobile that is inherently bad for global warming. It's how we've chosen to power those cars. If you look at the work that the auto industry is doing, looking at fuel cells, looking at hybrid vehicles that can get much higher fuel efficiencies, there are enormous opportunities to make a positive contribution here in Michigan.

(St. Elizabeth's church; applause)

MORRIS: Three, two, one.


ASKARI: At St. Elizabeth's Catholic church, Father Morris greets his flock in a flowing, rainbow-colored robe after delivering a message about climate change at his Sunday service. Some parishioners are convinced they need to take action. Others aren't. But most at least seem comfortable talking about it in church.

(Ambient conversation in the background)

WOMAN: My husband's a construction pipe-fitter, but right now he is working at Ford’s. But I think that we don't need to produce so many cars. Everything that we produce in our country seems to be an overproduction. Cutting back, I think, would be a start. For us to start using the legs God gave us and walk, use our bikes. That will cut back, I think, on some of this bad effect we're getting. But it's not just, one person can’t do it. We all have to do it.

MAN: I'm one of the really evil people in the world. I design cars for a living. (Laughs) According to the environmental movement, the automobile is the worst thing that could have possibly happened to the planet. I don't see it that way. It pays my bills and it puts food on my table.

ASKARI: So what do you think of Father Charles's, your church's involvement in this issue?

MAN: I don't totally agree with it, as you can tell. (Laughs) But I'm glad they're looking at it.

ASKARI: Are you going to the meeting on Thursday?

MAN: I'm going to try. Since he said that even the dissenters were welcome. (Laughs)

WOMAN 2: I've been around a long time. So, I've seen the world so much different. I've seen winters were winters, summers were summers. We had four definite seasons. And I believe a lot of pollution is causing this global warming. It's all the emissions from the cars and from the steel mill, we have a steel mill close by. So I'm really concerned about the environment, and I'm glad that people are taking a stand on it. I think that we can do a lot, because Father Charles is very dedicated.

(A car engine starts up; children in the background)

ASKARI: The leaders of the Michigan Interfaith Global Warming Campaign hope that if their effort makes an impact in this politically important state, they'll have a good chance of succeeding elsewhere and perhaps affecting the debate over climate change in the presidential election. Religious leaders are already launching similar climate campaigns in Iowa, home of the first presidential caucus; West Virginia, a major producer of coal; and Pennsylvania, an industrial state that's also key in presidential politics. For Living on Earth, this is Emilia Askari in Detroit.



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