Minister Preaches a Green Message

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Minister Preaches a Green Message
Groups, Politicians Reach Out to Priest Who Works to Improve Environment

January 27, 2010
By Yukari Iwatani Kane
The Wall Street Journal

When a San Francisco nonprofit was pushing a controversial California bill last year to remove the restrictions on energy that residents can generate from solar and wind systems, the group needed supporters.

So it turned to an ordained minister named Sally Bingham.

"We have very few voices that are embraced by all levels of society as moral arbitrators," says Adam Browning, executive director of the nonprofit, Vote Solar Initiative. "But Sally speaks with moral authority."

As the environmental minister at San Francisco's Grace Cathedral, Ms. Bingham is sought after by more than just Vote Solar. Other environmental groups and political leaders are also reaching out to the 67-year-old, who operates a nonprofit interfaith environmental outreach group dubbed the Regeneration Project out of a modest office in the city's Financial District.

As one of just a few "canons to the environment" in the Episcopalian Church, Ms. Bingham focuses her ministry efforts on improving the environment. She helped Grace Cathedral become greener with energy-efficient lightbulbs and appliances and negotiated with Pacific Gas & Electric Co. to put solar panels on the cathedral. Ms. Bingham also launched Interfaith Power & Light, a nationwide network of 10,000 congregations that are committed to fighting global warming by reducing their carbon footprints and lobbying for environmental policies.

All of that has put Ms. Bingham at the forefront of increasing the influence of religion in the environmental debate, along with other religious leaders like Rick Warren, the evangelical pastor of the Saddleback megachurch in Lake Forest, Calif., and organizations such as the Catholic Coalition on Climate Change in Washington and Jewish environmental group Hazon in New York.

"God created all these amazing natural resources and put us in charge of taking care of it," says Ms. Bingham, adding that every mainstream religion has a mandate to protect creation. "This isn't for us to destroy, this is for us to enjoy and use sustainably."

"Bringing a diverse group of religious leaders can have a tremendous impact," says Vote Solar's Mr. Browning. "People tend to sit up straighter and listen a little more attentively."

But others say the role of religious leaders can be limited. Those leaders' "priorities aren't necessarily shared by the other members of the religious tradition," says John Green, a political science professor at the University of Akron in Ohio.

Still, some lawmakers are tapping into the religious influence. Ms. Bingham has worked with Democratic politicians such as U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, state Sen. Fran Pavley and state Rep. Nancy Skinner to help amass support for environmental initiatives. Last year, Ms. Bingham was part of a coalition of religious figures that U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman (D., Calif.) depended on to support the House climate bill that includes a cap-and-trade system. She was also recently appointed to the climate and energy task force of President Barack Obama's council on faith-based and neighborhood partnerships, which works to improve communities.

Ms. Bingham says she struggles with the compromises that must be made to pass legislation. She viewed Mr. Waxman's climate bill last year as inadequate, for example, but decided to help because something was better than nothing. The bill passed by eight votes in June.

Ms. Bingham says she has always felt a connection with the environment and couldn't understand why her church didn't. A Bay Area native, she enrolled in an undergraduate program at the University of San Francisco at the age of 44 in the mid-1980s so she could qualify to study at the local theological seminary and explore environmental issues. Ms. Bingham, who has three children and is divorced, was ordained as a priest in 1997.

Ms. Bingham says most religious leaders aren't opposed to environmental initiatives, but it's sometimes difficult to convince them that it's a priority. So she relies on cost arguments.

One member of her interfaith network of green congregations, the San Francisco Zen Center, for example, has 128 solar panels installed in its San Francisco location, decreasing its energy bill by a third, says Linda Cutts, a senior dharma teacher at the center.

Scharmel Roussel, a staff member of Pulaski Heights United Methodist Church in Little Rock, Ark., says such efforts by other faith organizations made a difference with her. After seeing "Lighten Up!", a documentary Ms. Bingham made about environmental stewardship in 2003, Ms. Roussel helped set up an Arkansas chapter of the interfaith network last year.

"Seeing people from so many different faith traditions united in their desire to care for creation" was inspiring, says Ms. Roussel.

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