Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Midway Christian Church wins national recognition from denomination for its environmental stewardship

Midway Christian Church Board of Trustees Chair Sandy Gruzensky, Trustee Adele Dickerson and Pastor Heather McColl
pose in the church's rain garden, which uses native plants to conserve water and limit runoff. (Photo by Austyn Gaffney)
By Austyn Gaffney
University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Media

Midway Christian Church, known locally for its environmental stewardship, is now nationally recognized for it.

For at least the last decade, the church made changes to its structure and services in line with the goal of “creation care,” a term for environmental stewardship representing the congregation’s belief that humans are stewards of divine creation. They believe creation care enacts God’s plan for a healthy and livable earth.

These changes were nationally recognized in 2015 when the church was honored in the “Cool Congregations” challenge organized by a religious non-profit, Interfaith Power and Light, that identified inspiring responses to global warming.

According to the challenge’s website, “Our unique stewardship program helps congregations engage their members in creation care by reducing individual greenhouse gas emissions and helps save hundreds of dollars in the process.”

The church's colorful bike rack is made from used bicycle parts,
from the Bluegrass Cycling Club. (Photo by Austyn Gaffney)
The church was one of six runner ups in the “Sacred Grounds Steward” category. Now certified as a Sacred Grounds church, the award recognizes changes to the church’s campus, including native landscaping and water conservation through two rain gardens, bicycle racks to promote cycling, and a robust recycling and composting program.

Also, the church’s improvements to its historic sanctuary, built in 1894, and its fellowship hall, included the installation of LED and motion-sensing lights, water-saving toilets and high-grade insulation.

“Creation care is now in the DNA of our church,” said the Rev. Heather McColl, pastor to about 60 regular attendees and 300 members. “It took a long journey to get us to this place.”

Sandy Gruzensky, chair of the church’s board of trustees, said she hopes the influence of creation care in the church’s decision-making will influence the broader community.

“We hope that the more people who see us choosing sustainability, the more our congregation and community will start to make changes intuitively,” Gruzesky said. “The changes become integrated. We’re leading by example.”

Green Campus

One catalyst for the church’s mission of creation care was a broken heating and air-conditioning system. In 2005, the church chose to replace duct-taped repairs with an energy-efficient system. The new system had a higher upfront cost, but saved money in the long run, Gruzensky said.

“The green philosophy was already there,” she  said. “We’re a small congregation and limited in our funding. When our first major project came along we decided to look at it as a long-term investment.”

The church’s dedication to environmental work continued to grow.

“I think our biggest project when we were going green was our kitchen, certified by the health department,” said McColl. “We were already pretty close, but we had to add a three-base sink and a mop sink. It really wasn’t that much.”

The certified kitchen allows the church to serve the general public at
monthly community dinners like this one at Thanksgiving in 2015.
McColl said this helped the church in two ways. First, it followed the church's mission to be a welcoming place for serving the community. A certified kitchen allows it to host free community dinners for the public every month, and during the annual Iron Horse Half Marathon, it feeds more than 100 visitors Weisenberger Mill pancakes in the fellowship hall. The kitchen also allows them to offer space to community members who want to make food products for the local farmers’ market.

Secondly, the kitchen moved the church forward in its mission of greening its campus. While planning how to serve such large groups of people, church leaders decided to stop buying styrofoam plates and instead took the dusty, reusable dishware out of the cabinet. Along with serving food on real plates, the church invested in eco-friendly cutlery and cups that are recyclable and compostable.

“People really appreciate it, when they know that they’re using sustainable stuff,” McColl said. “People notice that.”

The church’s creation care recently reached new heights dealing with a colony of bats occupying the belfry. Estimating a population in the thousands, Adele Dickerson, a church trustee, joked, “I think we probably had a case study.”

Dickerson, along with church members, found an ecologically sound way to remove the bats without exterminating them. She noted their importance in the life cycle, which includes eating mosquitoes.

“The method of bat exclusion works like a revolving door,” said Dickerson. “The bats can leave the belfry, but they can’t come back in.” The bat-friendly solution also required the church to upgrade the belfry’s insulation, reducing a potential fire hazard.

Green congregation

One of biggest promoters of the church’s “green” changes is Carol Devine, pastor of Providence Church in Nicholasville and minister of the Green Chalice program of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). 

One side of the church's historical
marker. (Photo by Austyn Gaffney)
“Midway’s identity has really become creation care, and I think the spirit is really strong in their commitment,” Devine said. “They’re a great example of walking more gently on the earth and doing their part. Churches large and small can learn from Midway, and [changes] don’t seem so overwhelming. Midway can take their vision to a national level and hopefully that will have a ripple effect.”

To become a Green Chalice congregation, the church followed three steps. Beginning in 2010, the church formed a Green Chalice team and adopted the Alverna Covenant, an agreement recognizing the human causes of climate change, and promising to create a more sustainable lifestyle, congregation, and community. Then, it declared three specific, identifiable acts of creation care: the new heating and air-conditioning system, the commercial kitchen, and the rain gardens.

One of 124 Green Chalice congregations in North America, the church is only one of eight that has received a Green Chalice certification, an honor bestowed on churches that show a strong devotion to creation care. It requires a rolling three-year commitment to continually improve four areas of the church: its buildings, its other property, its worship practices, and its education and outreach.

 “The Green Chalice program is a grassroots ministry that began in Kentucky,” Devine said. “In 2011, our ministry grew from a few passionate people in Kentucky to a movement throughout the U.S. and Canada.”

The Disciples of Christ’s work for ecological justice began much earlier, in 1977, when its General Assembly formed a Task Force on Ecology. The task force, made up of 18 Disciple members and staff, met at the Alverna Retreat Center near Indianapolis, and wrote the Alverna Covenant. The document is named after Mt. Alverna in Italy, where Francis of Assisi, patron saint of animals and the environment, occasionally lived.

Forty years later, the church is still using this initial framework. Each year, before Earth Day on April 22, the congregation re-confirms its commitment to the Alverna Covenant. McColl emphasized its value, stating, “It’s important because it signals that it’s not just words. It’s a pledge, a covenant, a promise.”

Green Community

Church members didn’t accomplish these accolades alone. Their conservation efforts created partnerships with Midway Renaissance GreenSpace, Bluegrass Greensource, Third Rock Consulting, Woodford County High School, Equus Run Vineyard, Bluegrass Cycling Club, and other churches within the community.

The church was built in 1894. (Photo by Austyn Gaffney)
Gruzensky said her congregation’s reason for creation care always comes back to its larger community. She quoted Dr. Sharon Watkins, president of the Disciples of Christ: “We care about the earth, because we care about the people.”

After the presidential election, Dickerson and Gruzensky started organizing Food for the Soul, a bi-monthly Sunday dinner at the church. They discuss topics such as climate change and immigration.

McColl has considered moving their sentiment for community care into local advocacy.

“We’ve had conversations that our role may be changing from educators to advocates, and we’re asking what will that look like in this new political landscape,” McColl said. For example, McColl voiced her opposition to this month’s congressional vote to repeal the recently enacted Stream Protection Rule, allowing coal waste to continue leaching into Kentucky waterways.

With this possible new direction in mind, McColl will take the church’s story to the General Assembly of the Disciples of Christ in Indianapolis in July.

“We want to show that small churches can go green, and they don’t need major, expensive changes,” McColl said.

Reflecting on the future of her congregation and community, McColl said the church “will follow our basic tenet of faith: take care of our community and love one another.”

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