How a Greener Church Benefits People and the Planet

In Illinois, the nonprofit Faith in Place is spreading the environmental gospel to churches, synagogues, temples, and mosques.

This is one story in a three-part series on the intersection of faith and climate change. Read about other religious groups taking action on climate and how faith shapes the work of several Audubon staff members.

Just outside Chicago in Lynwood, Illinois, the Vernon Park Church of God grows four acres of food crops, including tomatoes, squash, peppers, and lettuces. The church sells its produce to more than 100 Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) members and donates more than 10 percent of the harvest to local food pantries. It avoids synthetic pesticides (many of which harm birds by depleting insect food sources or accumulating in the soil), produces honey from its own beehives, and uses vermiculture, the practice of turning compost into fertile soil with the help of worms.

The church’s farm not only provides healthy, affordable food to people in the community—it also goes a step further to feed pollinators like butterflies, birds, and bees with its one-acre native-plant sanctuary. 

The Vernon Park farm began in 2013 with support from Faith in Place, an Illinois nonprofit that works with religious groups on issues surrounding climate change, food, water, and advocacy. St. Matthew Lutheran Church in Urbana founded a similar CSA farm in collaboration with Vernon Park and Faith in Place. Veronica Kyle, Faith in Place’s Chicago outreach director, has made it her focus to engage predominantly African-American congregations in the metro area. She received a 2013 fellowship from Toyota TogetherGreen to work with Vernon Park and other congregations on sustainable food, conservation education, and nutrition.

Putting Stewardship Into Practice

All religions include a mandate to be good stewards of the Earth, Kyle says. Faith in Place helps groups make that tenet a reality. In addition to the CSA farms, it helps set up Green Teams at area churches, synagogues, and other religious groups. These teams do customized makeovers on places of worship to help congregations use less energy, produce less carbon pollution, and reduce waste. They start small, such as changing light bulbs and employing reusable coffee cups, then build up to bigger steps such as installing solar panels, using permeable pavement in parking lots, and planting native gardens. The Green Teams don’t just stop there: They also encourage congregation members to spread the message of sustainability to the wider community.

Kyle sees faith groups as a unique place to reach people who are already part of a strong community and have weekly gatherings. But Faith in Place also works on branching out—Kyle says that all of their environmental work aims for a “ripple effect” as people share what they’ve learned. She believes that religion has the capacity to go beyond reaching people on Sundays or whenever groups meet—its positive effects can spread throughout their whole lives.

This social ripple effect mirrors the way that people’s actions affect each other and the natural world. Kyle sees the issues of food, social justice, and climate change as interconnected. “We should be able to breathe clean air, drink clean water, and eat healthy food,” she says. “And quite frankly, if we did those things . . . I don’t believe that we would have the issues we have with climate change.” She points out that industrial agriculture produces and transports food in a way that makes it a major contributor to carbon pollution and habitat destruction.

Home Is Where the Habitat Is

Beyond the grounds of these congregations, Faith in Place also engages religious communities to restore wild habitat across the state. Kyle worked with Audubon Chicago Region through a 2012 Toyota TogetherGreen grant to design a curriculum called Migration & Me, which connects the stories of human migration with the migrations of wildlife. Now a program run by Faith in Place, Migration & Me hosts storytelling circles, leads field trips to connect people with nature, and does hands-on habitat restoration in state prairies and forests, making them “a friendly place for migrating birds and other species,” Kyle says.

Kyle relates to these stories of migration; She grew up in the South and moved north to Chicago at age seven. While struggling to fit into her new home, she smelled the same foods she’d been eating back home—sweet potatoes, collard greens, and fried chicken—and knew she was somewhere safe. And that’s exactly what migrating animals want, she says. “They want to look down and see the berries that they want to eat, or the milkweed that they want to lay their eggs underneath.”

As climate change continues to alter habitats and food sources, birds and other animals may not be able to find their necessary creature comforts. And it may be difficult for them to shift their home range: “Humans can pack up and go—we may not want to; we’re going to see more climate refugees and all of that—but our four-legged, eight-legged species don’t have that luxury,” Kyle says. That’s why Faith in Place is putting up a fight—not only because they see it as a moral responsibility, but because people and wildlife are in this together.