By SAMANTHA SMITH, Staff Writer | Published October 17, 2019
ATLANTA—The annual Green Mass for those who work or volunteer in environmental protection and sustainability was held Oct. 4 at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Atlanta.
During his homily, Bishop Bernard E. Shlesinger III explained that caring for the planet is an expression of God’s love. It was created not as playground to be manipulated, but as a garden to be cared for, said Bishop Shlesinger.
“The environment speaks of God’s love itself for all of us,” he said.
In 2015, Pope Francis released his encyclical, “Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home.” In it, he challenges us to reflect on the ways we use the earth’s resources and care for the earth. Later that year, the Archdiocese of Atlanta released an action plan to help parishes, schools and families incorporate more sustainable practices.
Since the action plan’s implementation, some parishes have created “green teams,” also known as “green ministries” or “creation care teams” to help their faith communities become more sustainable and ecofriendly.
There are nine green ministries in the Atlanta Archdiocese, with other parishes doing sustainable and ecofriendly practices through social justice and garden ministries.
We are not to live for ourselves, but for others and the future of this planet, said Bishop Shlesinger.
“Whatever we do right now is done for the future generations,” he said.
Moving in the right direction
The new Green Team Ministry at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Atlanta is off to a strong start, having only met a few times and with nearly 10 involved parishioners.
Last month, the ministry organized a parish-wide “Skip the Straw Campaign” encouraging their faith community to stop using plastic straws due to the pollution they add to the planet. The ministry provided paper straws to help parishioners get involved in the campaign.
People were gasping not knowing how much waste straws produce, said Chandra Frank Fowler, coordinator for Lourdes Green Team Ministry.
“Hopefully it made a difference,” she said.
In an October meeting, the ministry team finalized its mission statement to support and introduce “specific and impactful measures which protect and preserve the earth’s environment to be implemented by the Lourdes parish, its parishioners and the broader community.”
Currently, the group is working with the Lourdes Lunch ministry, which can feed nearly 400 people each week except in the summer and during some holidays. The Green Team is recycling cardboard boxes and is working to replace Styrofoam cups and plates used to feed visitors.
Next steps for the ministry include providing “green gift” ideas to parishioners for the holidays and getting an energy audit for the parish.
“We’re moving in a good direction,” said Fowler.
Engaging the parish
The recent Immaculate Heart of Mary Church picnic was not only a fun community gathering, it also served as a waste reduction program. The pilot project was to see how much waste could be removed from the trash pile.
There was some 450 pounds of waste, plates, food, and everything else, by the end of the picnic. After sorting, the trash trucks hauled away only 15 percent.
One-hundred percent of the waste a few years ago would have been in the landfill, said Nikki VanDerGrinten.
“Our culture is so focused on convenience, ease, we’ve become so lazy. Well, you know, we have to get over that,” she said.
About half of the waste from the picnic was redirected for composting to be used as fertilizer for gardens, VanDerGrinten said. One-third was recycled.
A long-time conservationist and parish member, VanDerGrinten leads the Atlanta parish’s Laudato Si’ action team.
“We need to think globally, act locally. And Laudato Si’ points just right in that direction. We’ve got to consider what’s going on in the whole world,” she said.
Behaviors are changing here, with small initiatives. VanDerGrinten said she would love the parish to be a role model, educating and spurring people to apply in their homes and work what they see and do in the church.
At the encouragement of the pastor, Msgr. Al Jowdy, the new parish rectory plans to have solar panels. The project is waiting to receive all needed local permits.
In 2016, Susan Varlamoff, retired scientist from the University of Georgia and co-author of the Laudato Si’ Action Plan for the Atlanta Archdiocese, started a creation care team at St. John Neumann Church in Lilburn.
Varlamoff describes it as a diverse team, which includes a farmer, parish staff and some who work for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The Green Team has done a variety of things around the parish, said Varlamoff, including changing to energy efficient lightbulbs, planting a tree, sharing eco tips through videos and the parish bulletin, using motion sensors and low-flow toilets in bathrooms and growing a sustainable garden that stocks a pantry to serve those in need.
According to Varlamoff, the ministry has helped to reduce the parish’s waste by 50 percent and is saving the church $500 per month.
“That money can be best used for the disadvantaged, the poor,” said Varlamoff.
For a parish that wants to start a green team, it is as simple as asking parishioners to get involved during weekend Masses and in the church bulletin.
“You’re going to be surprised at the amount of people and talent you have in your parish,” said Varlamoff.
Believers would be wise to take action while reading Laudato Si’ in a study group when beginning a creation ministry, said VanDerGrinten. People need to understand why Pope Francis made ecology and the environment key to the church, and then a ministry’s efforts are grounded in faith and not just done on a whim, she said.
For additional resources, green ministries can also contact Justice and Peace Ministries at the Archdiocese of Atlanta.
“People are really concerned about the environment—they want to do something,” said Varlamoff.
With the leadership of Pope Francis, there is no reason the Catholic Church cannot be an important force in mitigating climate change, she said.
Staff Writer Andrew Nelson contributed to this story.