By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published October 1, 2020
ATLANTA—In the five years since Pope Francis issued his encyclical on the environment, Catholics are taking steps to use clean-energy technology to help the climate crisis.
Stephen Gregory-Augustine McMullen was the first parish Green Team leader at Christ Our Hope Church, Lithonia. Starting from nothing, the parish quickly embraced the idea of creation care, swapping out old air and heating systems for updated technology and adopting new habits.
“We had an initiative to have everybody responsible. It was not just a team, it was everybody,” said McMullen. “People want to help.”
At a parish picnic before the pandemic, members of the senior citizens club went out of their way to roll out bins to encourage people to separate trash from recycling, before he got around to it, McMullen recalled.
Immaculate Heart of Mary Church, Atlanta, took another step on its path to being a green parish.
Solar panels at the rectory generate electricity now. The renewable resource is projected to provide some 60 percent of the rectory’s energy usage.
Msgr. Al Jowdy, the church pastor, is convinced this investment is prudent, looking at it from a perspective of finances, environmental concern and faith.
It is to reduce energy costs by tens of thousands of dollars in the coming years and for the environment, the 34 roof panels are the equivalent of 7,000 trees planted, 650 barrels of oil not consumed or 60 gas-powered vehicles off the road, he said.
“On the spiritual level, all of that helps us respond to our vocation to be good stewards of God’s creation,” said Msgr. Jowdy.
Caring for our common home
Like many others, the Atlanta parish and its parish Laudato Si’ team have been making environmental inroads inspired by Pope Francis’ 2015 environmental message.
The pope issued “Laudato Si’, On Care for Our Common Home”—linking care for the earth with Catholic social teaching.
“Living our vocation to be protectors of God’s handiwork is essential to a life of virtue; it is not an optional or a secondary aspect of our Christian experience,” wrote Pope Francis.
In recent years, Catholics have joined the ecumenical celebration shared across Christian traditions for the Season of Creation.
The season spans five weeks between the World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation and the Feast Day of St. Francis of Assisi, from Sept. 1 to Oct. 4.
The Archdiocese of Atlanta released its Laudato Si’ Action Plan in November 2015 to provide options for parishes to reverse environmental degradation, adopt better technology, build community gardens and develop other related community projects.
St. John Neumann Church, Lilburn, among others, has introduced a community garden to add fresh food given to families in need. Invasive plants have also been ripped up, giving native Georgia species room to grow.
Christ Our Hope Church installed clean-energy technology, a dozen Wi-Fi thermostats around the parish for better temperature adjustments, along with the HVAC systems and more than 100 light bulbs in the church to cut energy costs.
“Everything was energy efficient. This way you can take control of the energy bills,” said McMullen, the parish Green Team leader.
McMullen’s service with the ministry broadened his awareness of how faith is connected to caring for creation not just for today’s convenience, but for future generations also.
The parish embraced the initiative, contributing money and tapping into existing resources to make the work go farther, like applying for energy rebates and working cooperatively with the county government on recycling, he said.
At the Atlanta parish, donations to its #iGiveCatholic campaign paid to install the new cleaner technology, said Msgr. Jowdy.
He said the parish was building a new rectory and wanted to incorporate the pope’s message in Laudato Si, and “it just seemed the right thing to do.”
The parish’s Social Justice Committee and the Laudato Si’ Action Team have encouraged these efforts throughout parish life, he said.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the parish introduced a waste reduction program at a church picnic. The pilot project took 450 pounds of plates and food and recycled 85 percent of it.
The solar panels were next. The whole project cost about $40,000 for the 34 roof panels and the battery storage. The funds were raised on Giving Tuesday 2018 through iGiveCatholic.
He said the savings add up over time as the power bill goes down. The solar panels are expected to save about $77,000 over 30 years.
The parish worked with Georgia Interfaith Power and Light to find contractors to do the work. Creative Solar was the selected vendor, which did the design, permitting and installation. The company worked with Georgia Power at the end to bring the system online.
Although it varies by month because of available sunlight and demand for electricity, the system is expected to generate about 57% of the rectory’s annual power needs, he said.
Workers installed the panels in June. The system was connected to the electrical grid in September. This completed the 2018 campaign goal.