In the Diocese of Maryland, every day is Earth Day

April 21, 2010

On the morning of April 22, the rector at St. Phillip's Episcopal Church in Annapolis, Maryland, recorded a new message; it began "Happy Earth Day," and was followed by a litany of special events, including a farmers' market, a demonstration by a master gardener, a vegetarian meal and an interfaith worship service, with sermon by Diocese of Maryland Bishop Eugene T. Sutton.

"This particular celebration is interfaith," said the Rev. Angela Shepherd, rector, in a telephone interview. "This is the second time we are coming together as a community [to celebrate Earth Day]."

For the past 40 years people worldwide have set aside April 22 to celebrate the earth and create awareness and appreciation for the environment. The celebration at St. Phillip's welcomes people from all Christian denominations and the Jewish and Islamic communities.

"We wanted it to be interfaith because it is one of the common things we share, crossing denominations and religions: We all have one earth that we have to take care of and live on," Shepherd said.

St. Phillip's and the Diocese of Maryland's commitment to environmental awareness and interfaith efforts aimed at education, sustainability and environmental protection don't start and stop with Earth Day, however.

As a nominee for bishop, Sutton talked about his interest in environmental issues and caring for creation, and in his first year as bishop he gave the diocese a list of priorities, including environmental work, he said.

"When I first came here, people would ask how it felt to be the first black bishop of Maryland," he said in a telephone interview. "Ultimately, it's not about the color of my skin, it's about what I do. If anything, I am the green bishop."

Sutton's eyes were opened to the urgency of environmental issues and climate change, he said, during a spring 2007 Anglican Communion Mission Conference held in South Africa.

"In talking with bishops and clergy from other regions about the effects of climate change, one clergy person from the Global South said to me, 'Will North Americans change anything in their lifestyle so we can live?'" Sutton said. "This is an important issue -- people's livelihood and lives are being affected. This is not a thing for the future."

To help the diocese in its mission to make its parishes and communities more environmentally friendly, Sutton formed a 15-member Environmental Steering Committee, with representatives from across the diocese, including its chair, Kim Coble, Maryland executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, who also serves as the bishop's advisor on the environment.

One of the committee's tasks is to look at ways to make the diocese and its 116 churches greener.

"This year we are running some pilot programs to see how best to green them through technology, facilities management and incorporating green into spiritual practice," said John Campagna, a committee member and the bishop's deputy advisor on the environment, in a telephone interview.

The pilot program includes seven churches, from the larger St. John's Episcopal Church in Ellicott City, a green leader, to smaller rural parishes with fewer resources, to assemble a best-practices plan for green congregations, Campagna said.

St. Phillip's in Annapolis is also involved in the pilot program, Shepherd said.

The committee's second big task is to position the diocese to play a major role in advocating for environmental and social justice issues. "And this is where the bishop has said he is really willing to step up," Campagna said.

Sutton uses a Baltimore steel plant as an example of the diocese taking the lead and stepping up with other churches to take public action.

"We have a steel plant here in Baltimore that is pouring toxins into the water in a working class white neighborhood … we want them to clean it up," he said. "The last thing a company wants is people led by people in collars telling them what to do."

The diocese also is a member of BRIDGE, or Baltimore Regional Initiative Developing Genuine Equality -- a congregation-based organization uniting communities across denominational, racial, geographic, and socio-economic boundaries in the Baltimore metropolitan area in order to create equity and justice by changing policies that perpetuate concentrated poverty and deep disparities between communities

"Maryland has a high cancer rate, we are poisoning our water, air and the land … and so what I say to people in the final analysis [when voicing concern for the environment] the bottom line is … love the Lord your God with all your soul, your might and love your neighbor as yourself," Sutton said.