Two UU congregations honored for climate change work

Two UU congregations honored for climate change work

Iowa and Massachusetts congregations win awards in Interfaith Power & Light’s Cool Congregations Challenge.

Elaine McArdle
Photo of a woman handing another woman flyers at a farmer's market.

Thea Iberall, a member of a First Parish Green Sanctuary Committee–led effort in Medfield, Massachusetts, to limit idling vehicles, hands a flyer about vehicle emissions to Sarah Henken at Medfield Day in September 2018. First Parish UU in Medfield is one of five U.S. congregations honored by Interfaith Power & Light’s Cool Congregations program this year. (Courtesy Thea Iberall)

Photo courtesy Thea Iberall


Two Unitarian Universalist congregations are among five winners of a national award to religious congregations for leadership in environmental sustainability. The Cool Congregations Challenge, open to congregations from every faith tradition, is an annual contest sponsored by Interfaith Power & Light (IPL),a national nonprofit that is mobilizing a religious response to global climate change by promoting energy conservation, energy efficiency, and renewable energy.

First Parish UU Church of Medfield, Massachusetts, won in the Community Inspiration category for forming a town-wide coalition that launched an educational campaign to encourage drivers to stop idling their cars. The UU Society in Coralville, Iowa, won in the Renewable Role Model category for its new “green” church building.

The IPL challenge recognizes efforts to address climate change by reducing a congregation’s carbon footprint and serving as a model of sustainability to its members and community. Winners, each of whom received a $1,000 prize, were announced by IPL on March 8, 2019, and selected for five categories: Cool Congregations Planner, Sacred Grounds, Energy Saver, Renewable Role Model, and Community Inspiration. This year, sixty qualified entries were submitted from a variety of faith groups, said Susan Stephenson, IPL’s executive director. The other winners were Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church in South Charleston, West Virginia, in the Energy Saver category; Binkley Baptist Church in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in the Sacred Grounds category; and Lybrook Community Ministries in Cuba, New Mexico, in the Cool Congregations Planner category.

While IPL tries to avoid choosing more than one congregation from a single denomination, the projects from the two UU congregations were “such impressive projects we wanted to choose both,” Stephenson told UU World. “You guys are really standouts.” She continued, “I think the UU community is strong in general on responding to climate change and building our spiritual and religious movement to address global warming,” adding that the Green Sanctuary Program supports UU congregations to do this work. “UUs are great partners and we love working with you.”

The Rev. Susan Hendershot, IPL’s president, said, “These five congregations are casting a vision for the kind of world in which they want to live, and then carrying out that vision with practical actions that make a real difference in creating lasting solutions to climate change.”

Recognizing the terrible impact of motor vehicles idling in front of stores, banks, schools, and other places, the Green Sanctuary Committee of First Parish UU in Medfield launched a public awareness campaign about a Massachusetts law that forbids drivers from idling their cars for longer than five minutes. To raise public awareness about the state law and the benefits of adhering to it, the committee formed a town-wide coalition of churches, high school students, and other institutions, including the town government. They got the topic into local media, including newspapers and television. As a result, both the congregation and the Medfield community have become more aware of the anti-idling law, according to IPL.

“We’re deeply appreciative of Interfaith Power & Light and for this opportunity to share with other folks the congregation’s” initiative, said Jeanette Ruyle, chair of the Green Sanctuary Committee, adding that the congregation hasn’t yet decided how to use the prize money.

When the UU Society in Coralville, Iowa, decided to move out of its 107-year-old building in downtown Iowa City in favor of building a new church, the congregation decided its mantra would be, “We’re building the greenest church in Iowa.” Through a capital campaign and sale of the old building—which will be preserved as an historic landmark—the congregation raised about $6 million to construct its new church, which was finished in October 2017. Among its features are a geothermal heating and cooling system and on-site renewable energy production through the solar array, which operates as a separate LLC that sells the electricity to the congregation at a rate lower than the city’s power company. Among many other environmentally sound features, the building also has four charging stations for electric cars. It was also designed to be accessible to people with disabilities.

“We knew it would cost a little more for geothermal and solar panels, but we needed to do this because it is part of our Seventh Principle,” which promotes respect for the interdependent web of all existence, said Deb Schoelerman of the congregation’s Green Team. “We hope to be a role model for the community as well as UUs.”