Greening Small

Thanks to Rev David Giuliano for sharing this story about greening at St. John's United in Marathon, Ontario.

It’s been more evolution than revolution. As with most change in small communities of faith, greening at St. John’s, in Marathon, Ontario, has come about organically.  There was no master plan, no environmental concerns committee but over more than a decade a small, thoughtful congregation has made some surprising headway in reducing their carbon footprint.

Some were baby steps. Early on Styrofoam coffee cups were replaced with ceramic mugs. Growing awareness of the human and environmental costs of the coffee in those mugs led to serving and selling fair trade coffee.

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On a larger scale, in 2010, St. John’s installed the first solar array in town. The manse was sold. Most congregations invest the money realized from the sale of manses in GICs and use interest earned to pay a housing allowance. St. John’s persuaded their presbytery to instead allow them to invest in green energy and took advantage of the province’s Micro-FIT program.

Those solar panels stand witness beside the cross. They have so far resulted in about a 50 tonne carbon offset (equivalent to planting 5 acres of forest or powering 5 stadiums for a day) and paid the minister’s housing allowance. At the same time congregational members, inspired by the church, installed solar arrays on their homes. Since then the municipality and other residents have followed suit.

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Ongoing maintenance shaped by environmental awareness resulted in changes. When the incandescent light bulbs in the sanctuary needed changing, low energy CFC bulbs were used. Now the shift is to LEDs is underway.

Windows and siding needed replacing. An additional layer of insulation was added first. On the south side, the coloured glass was replaced with clear high-efficiency windows to capture more of the natural heat of the sun. The number of windows on the north side of the building was reduced by half.

One environmental update was in response to disaster. The outdoor oil tank that fueled the old boiler system in the church basement leaked contaminating the soil. An $80,000 cleanup and ongoing ground water monitoring was paid for by the insurance company. A new, double lined oil tank was installed. Within two years it leaked too.

The congregation decided to get out of oil all together. However, given geographic location, natural gas is not available and hydro costs are so high that the building would have to be sold to pay its electricity bill. Geothermal options were entering the market and also far beyond the financial means of the small community of faith. A propane-fueled, high efficiency boiler system, with computerized zone and timing management, replaced the old furnace.

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The core ministry of St. John’s is “radical and intentional hospitality”. That commitment to hospitality includes maximizing the use of the building and property. A community garden run by the local food bank occupies the front lawn. When finances forced the Anglicans and Baptists close their buildings, St. John’s welcomed them into theirs. Now, three denominations worship in the building every Sunday. Coffee times sometimes overlap.

During the week A.A., N.A., yoga, meditation and craft groups meet. Opening space for birthday parties, anniversaries, baby showers, a monthly community potluck and other gatherings are a regular part of the congregation’s ministry to the community. American Scouting groups, choirs, traveling United Church youth groups and walkers and riders crossing the country raising awareness about all manner of causes, often bed down for a night or two in the hall downstairs.

There are no rental fees. The congregation asks only for cleanup and a donation if possible. Paradoxically, “rental” revenues have increased. More importantly there is deepened understanding of hospitality and awareness that the difference between the energy and environmental costs of an empty building and a full building, are marginal.

St. John’s is small in membersip and financial resources.  They are rich with creativity. They pay attention to their impact on the planet. A gradual evolution has reduced their carbon footprint and expanded their practice of greening their community of faith.