The Climate is in Crisis. Old South Church is More Committed Than Ever to Fix It.
By Old South Member Steve Holt
Early this spring, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere reached its highest level ever recorded—despite a decline in emissions during the COVID-19 pandemic—a grim reminder just how difficult preventing the worst-case scenarios of climate change will be. And yet, Old Southers remain undeterred, leaning on a one-two punch of individual and collective action to care for God’s creation.
“It is important for people of faith to make our commitments real through action,” says Pastor Katherine Schofield, Old South’s Interim Associate Minister, who works extensively with the church’s Climate Crisis Task Force. “When we take steps to decrease our carbon footprint, or advocate for environmental protections, we get to embody that invaluable connection between what we believe, what we say and what we do. It helps us to reconcile the teachings of our faith with our lived experience.”
Old South’s journey toward being a greener congregation has been almost a decade in the making. Following a 2014 retirement of the church’s oil-based heating system, a subsequent conversion to gas energy, the installation of heat pumps throughout the building, and switching to LED lighting throughout most of the building, carbon emissions from Old South’s 19th century Gothic revival building dropped 39 percent, according to a 2020 analysis. Three years ago, members formed the Climate Crisis Task Force to more actively reduce the congregation’s carbon footprint and advocate for policies around clean energy and environmental stewardship. Numerous education events—from speakers to film screenings to retreats—educate Old South members on the causes and consequences of, and solutions to, the climate crisis. Most recently, Old South earned a Level 3 distinction in the United Church of Christ’s Green Congregation Challenge, which recognizes churches for action to curb emissions and advocate for the environment. Just seven out of 344 UCC Massachusetts churches have achieved Level 3.
Included in its application, shepherded by Richard Hassinger, chair of the Environmental Stewardship Working Group, were the following actions Old South Church has taken in the last year:
Hosted two Community Hour Forum presentations on Agriculture and Climate Change during Earth Week 2020. The Environmental Stewardship Working Group also developed some fantastic resources around Food, Agriculture and Climate Change including maps of local farmers markets, articles about the impact of the U.S. agricultural system and cooking tips to reduce food waste in your kitchen.
The transition to organic maintenance of Old South’s urban garden plots in front of the church. No pesticides or chemicals are being used.
As of the end of 2020 the Board of Trustees investment committee has restructured Old South’s investments so that 60% of investments are in ESG funds, which integrate environmental, social, and governance factors into the investment process. The committee is going to continue to look for ways to increase that percentage.
15 of 18 toilets are low-flow and some faucets are either auto shut off or motion activated.
In the Fall of 2020 we worked diligently to engage our congregation in the Climate Justice Voter Challenge. 132 members signed the Creation Care Voter Pledge, leading the Southern New England Conference of the UCC. We mentioned the Creation Care Voter Pledge regularly in worship throughout the fall, hosted a “Faithful Vote” Community Forum, and included the pledge as part of a “Get out the Vote” event.
A successful virtual climate care retreat in Fall 2020.
Played host to a variety of educational Community Forums on the topics of Climate Justice and Climate Migration.
Advocated around issues of Climate Justice, particularly in our protests against the Weymouth Compressor Station, the removal of trees as part of the Melnea Cass Blvd. development project, and the proposed East Boston Eversource Substation.
“The Green Congregation Challenge has really helped our church set benchmarks for progress and engage in an annual evaluation of the work we are doing,” Schofield says. “We have goals as a Task Force that we have not yet fully realized, including building better partnerships with other faith communities and eco-justice organizations, and advocating for legislation that will ease the financial and environmental burdens currently on the shoulders of communities of color in Boston.”
While Level 3 is currently the highest designation within the UCC for climate action and advocacy, the Southern New England United Church of Christ (SNEUCC) Environmental Ministries Team will likely add a fourth level as soon as later this year. The church will continue its education campaign and advocacy work, as well as improving the efficiency of its building in Copley Square. Future updates to the building’s control systems and to re-commissioning of the systems will reduce the church’s emissions by another 11%, bringing the total decrease in emissions to 50%.
But Schofield says that, as important as changes to the building and individual commitments from members may be, Old South won’t stop there. Old Southers, led by members of the Climate Crisis Task Force, have engaged in collective action to advocate for state policies that curb emissions and hold pullutors to account. In March, for instance, Old South members worked with other climate activists across the Commonwealth for the passage of the most sweeping climate and environmental justice bill in Massachusetts history: An Act Creating a Next Generation Roadmap for Massachusetts Climate Policy. “When we advocate for bills on the state and nation level we have the ability to cause lasting change that will shape the behaviors of corporations, government entities and communities for years to come,” Schofield says.
Hassinger adds: “One of the great commandments is to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. I think we're talking about survival and caring for ourselves caring for families and caring for friends and by extension, the people in our community, and the society that we live in,” Hassinger says. “We’re the [Earth’s] stewards, and we have been making a mess of it. We are now in a critical time to shift to an all-out effort to correct the mistakes of the past.”
In conjunction with Earth Week and Climate Care Sunday, the Climate Crisis Task Force is asking Old Southers to fill out a short survey, “Small Steps Toward a Healthy Climate.” It only takes a few minutes and answers are anonymous. We hope it will stimulate thinking about our own attempts to lower our carbon footprint and be kinder to the earth, highlight what the congregation as a whole is doing, and maybe share some tips. We want Earth Week to be every week.