Gainesville religious communities use faith to inspire climate action

<p>CLEO member Ellen Siegel stands in front of Temple Shir Shalom on Saturday, March 30, 2024.</p>

CLEO member Ellen Siegel stands in front of Temple Shir Shalom on Saturday, March 30, 2024.
Photo by Gabriella Aulisio | The Independent Florida Alligator

Some people find their religion through crisis or a calling. Jim Harper found his through climate change.

Harper, 56, had spent years as a climate activist and educator. In 2018, he attended an environmental workshop at the United Church of Gainesville.

“I thought, ‘What is this place? This is really cool,’” Harper said.

After the workshop, Harper became involved in the church, bringing his environmental activism with him. Harper helped his church become officially designated as a Creation Justice Church, which involves a congregation demonstrating a commitment to caring for the environment.

In communities around Gainesville, the idea of “creation care,” or a religious responsibility to the environment, is becoming increasingly common. As the threat of climate change persists, people are using faith as a launching point for environmental action.

For Sue Blythe, caring for the environment is at the core of her Baha’i faith. The 77-year-old Gainesville resident believes creation care is about combining religion with science and that people of faith are obligated to protect the Earth.

“We believe this is God’s creation, and we have a moral responsibility to take care of God’s creation,” Blythe said. “And that’s not only the planet itself but everything on it.”

In 2013, Blythe and a few other members of the Baha’i faith wanted to put their beliefs into action. They started the interfaith climate group, an organization that unites members of different religions under the umbrella of climate action.

Even though the members of the interfaith group come from very different religions, Blythe said, they’re able to bypass any prejudices in favor of their shared passion for the environment.

“The differences are much less important than the goal of working together,” she said.

Blythe is also a member of Community Organizations Active in Disasters. The COAD places faith-based organizations in a position to help Alachua County in the case of a natural disaster, such as a hurricane.

COAD Emergency Management Coordinator Francine Vincent’s inspiration for recruiting faith-based groups is their versatility in the community alongside their efforts to always give back.

Vincent said through these groups, more outreach can be done to communities residing in rural parts of Alachua County and not just Gainesville.

“I really thought that faith-based organizations had great insight,” she said.

Vincent recruited about 10 to 15 organizations last summer. She said she has already structured ways in which the groups would be able to assist the community, but the fundamental reason comes from creating more outreach.

“I figured they would be the best people because they know everybody in the community,” she said. “They know where the people who were hit or who need the most help.”

Through donations, cleanup procedures, food distribution, long-term recovery support and more, the organizations have the capacity to help in many ways, Vincent said.

Hani Rayes, a human resources business partner with Alachua County, who also oversees volunteer and donations with the county’s Emergency Operation Center, has been assisting in creating more communication with the faith-based organizations.

“We’re still building, so eventually we’re going to have more proper organization,” he said.

Different initiatives like an assessment tool and monthly meetings are being implemented to operate more effectively with the groups, Rayes said.

He said a lot of time can be wasted when there is no immediate procedure to assist in natural disasters and always having a plan is crucial.

“We want to make sure we know everyone, and whatever happens, we have a communication and we have groups, and we know what they are capable of doing,” he said.

The COAD meetings vary from month to month with different groups hosting as well as sometimes taking place in the Emergency Center at the sheriff’s office.

Rayes said it’s important to emphasize communication and collaboration, and with small but significant steps, a lot of people will benefit.

“We want to encourage people to join us and try this COAD,” he said.

Ellen Siegel, a member of Temple Shir Shalom, is part of both the COAD and the interfaith climate group. Siegel expects that many of the disasters the COAD will respond to will be worsened by climate change.

In the face of a disaster, there could be needs in the community that government resources are unable to fill, Siegel said. Faith-based groups are well-positioned to respond to these disasters because they’re already organized, she added.

“They’re already existing, and they already know how to work together,” Siegel said.

While Shir Shalom is a small synagogue, Siegel said, it is already taking aggressive steps in terms of climate action. The synagogue plans to have a net-zero carbon footprint by 2050, and to construct a $50,000 carbon-sequestering garden.

This is part of the Hebrew idea of “tikkun olam,” or repairing what is wrong with the Earth, Siegel said. Some religious interpretations imply that people have the right to use the Earth’s resources how they wish, she said. Yet Siegel, and other members of the interfaith group, believe in the idea of stewardship.

“We’re tasked biblically with not dominating the Earth, but stewarding the Earth,” Siegel said.

At the United Church of Gainesville, the congregation is planning to host a special Earth Day sermon, Jim Harper said. One of the purposes of combining religion with environmentalism is to breed hope, he said.

When trying to solve an issue as daunting as climate change, it’s common to become burnt out or overwhelmed, Harper said. The goal of faith-based environmentalism is to provide hope and the belief that things can get better, he said.

Harper’s goal is to use that hope to fuel real action. While faith-based groups are working to reduce their own footprint, he said, it’s important to understand that large industries are still pushing the climate crisis forward.

“There isn’t going to be a spiritual solution to that,” Harper said. “There has to be a practical, on-the-ground solution to that.”

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