For many, the movement to "go green" can seem superficial.
But that's not the case for Emmanuel United Methodist Church in Howard County, Maryland. The church, which has been an institution in the county since its founding in 1894, has made a lifelong commitment to sustainability. And in the 121 years since its founding, that legacy of environmental stewardship has helped the church flourish.
In 2014, Emmanuel received Interfaith Power and Light's Cool Congregation Blue Medallion certification, awarded to churches with demonstrated commitments to carbon footprint reduction. And through their Green Team's hard work, they've switched the full church (and numerous congregation members) over to 100% wind power with Groundswell!
A few weeks ago, we stopped by Emmanuel UMC to speak with Liz Feighner, congregation member and head of the church's Green Team. Feighner has been a Laurel, MD local for over 20 years, and is a longtime volunteer with HoCo Climate Change and Transition Howard County, two local environmental groups. She knows closely the amount of work Emmanuel congregation members have put into the climate change movement.
“Green is a big part of what we do here," she says.
While we were in the area, Feighner offered to show us an up-close look at their sustainability successes.
The church is proud to support clean energy, as seen in their "100% wind-powered!" sign out front. Feighner (pictured) believes that a church should serve as a role model institution for congregation members, helping provide members a chance to follow in the church's footsteps. “We’re doing it at church, so why not at home, too?" she says. "You can do it at home!”
In 2009, Feighner joined Emmanuel's Green Team, hoping to make a difference in just a few small ways.
"It started out for me with recycling—I lived for a few years in Germany, and they make recycling a real priority," Feighner says. "It became second nature to me while I was there, so when I moved back to the US, I was shocked that there was nothing of that sort here. I didn’t want to lose that routine, so I figured out how to recycle better here, and then got used to it.”
“I think that the moral obligation is the hook to get churches onboard," says Feighner. "It’s not new, the idea of sustainability, of earth stewardship, of being a responsible citizen of the earth.”
Emmanuel has supported wind energy since 2009. Feighner herself switched to wind power at home, thanks in part to Emmanuel's leadership. “I think it’s a great program. Renewable energy and climate change are my passions," she says.
Cherishing and celebrating the church's history is an important part of the community at Emmanuel—and a major reason why sustainability works for the church.
Back in 1894, Emmanuel was a single-room white-frame wood church, located in rural Howard County. The church has grown and modernized since then, but elements of the simplicity of its founding are still visible today: the former full church structure was incorporated into the design of its new sanctuary. The stained-glass windows (shown above) are original to the church, and were moved to the new sanctuary during the church's expansion years ago.
"There’s a lot of history throughout the church, and in the land we own around the church," says Feighner. A cemetery (as old as the church) sits on the grounds of the church, bordered by a nature trail. "Most of the roads are named after families from around here. Some of the people who attend church, their ancestors helped create this town."
Feighner credits much of the success of green programs at Emmanuel to a dedicated, passionate church staff, including pastor Stephanie Vader and Green Team founder Wanda Roberts. "The pastor is very, very supportive—and you know, can’t do much without the support from the pastor, the board, the trustees, and the congregation members," says Feighner. "Their backing has been critical, and I'm very thankful.”
The church, which sells Fair Trade coffee (and plans to use the proceeds to both support mission work and purchase wifi-connected thermostats), has also made one unique achievement since the founding of the Green Team in the early 2000s: removing disposable kitchenware. "First we got rid of disposable plates and silverware. We bought dishes, got some donated... and now we use nothing disposable in the full kitchen," says Feighner proudly. "As a trade, the Green Team became responsible for washing all the dishes when they're used. But I think that's worth it!" She laughs.
The Green Team also coordinates with Goodwill (in partnership with Dell) to offer e-cycling on the church grounds, to help community members all over the local area recycle old electronics.
As part of their continuing efforts to sustainability education, Feighner helps to coordinate an environmental resource center (pictured above), complete with a lending library, environmental brochures, and recycling bins.
The goal of the center is to reach people where they are, believes Feighner. "Information on the environment isn’t always easily available; you often have to go searching for it," she says. "How do you reach other people who are so busy that they don’t have time to care about the environment?”
"To me, church is where people who are passionate about the environment can gather with people who may not understand the issue, and where they both learn how to take action together."
“Being with other people who care about the environment helps so much, and gives me hope for the future," says Feighner. "When people ask me questions about sustainability—when I’m seen as a resource for them—that gives me hope that I’m breaking through somewhere.”
Thanks to Liz Feighner for her wonderful tour, and for sharing the story of Emmanuel UMC's green legacy. We at Groundswell are so proud of the achievements you've made in sustainability, and we're thrilled to be a part of your commitment.