The Green Heart of an Iowa Congregation

The Green Heart of an Iowa Congregation

Coralville’s painstakingly designed building embodies its wider commitment to sustainability.

Kat McKim
The Sanctuary and Fellowship Hall at the Coralville, Iowa UUS
Images courtesy Neumann Monson Architects


The Unitarian Universalist Society in Coralville, Iowa, has long been deeply committed to climate justice, but after years of thoughtful deliberation, members realized that their much-loved church in downtown Iowa City ultimately wasn’t allowing them to fully live their values of a fully green building, more sustainability, and greater accessibility. Though they had called the building home for over a century, they voted almost unanimously in 2013 to move to a new facility.

“When we talked about living our goals or our values we couldn’t really stay where we were.” 
– Rochelle Honey-Arcement

“When we talk about moving from a church that has been a piece of people’s lives, it’s a hard thing to do,” said Rochelle Honey-Arcement, president of the board of trustees. “That was a beautiful space. I was a kid growing up there. But when we talked about living our goals or our values”—including for a more environmentally sustainable building—“we couldn’t really stay where we were.”

As the congregation planned a move to Coralville, a suburb of Iowa City, they settled on three priorities for their new facility: sustainability, accessibility, and beauty.

Even at first glance, it’s clear that the new campus—totaling about eight acres and completed in 2017—embodies all these principles. A vast solar array is on prominent display, with panels lining the driveway and roof; the parking lot is small (this was a deliberate decision to encourage carpooling and bicycling); and native grasses and trees abound. The property also features several gardens, including an accessible labyrinth garden that was intentionally built at the front of the building to give the local community easy access.

The whole project totaled just over $7 million. The congregation first purchased the land for the new facility with $650,000 from an initial facilities fundraising campaign. The construction of the building and surrounding campus was then funded through the sale of their former building for $2.4 million, a capital fundraising campaign that raised over $2.1 million, and a mortgage.

The building itself—a single story by design, so as to be highly accessible—was constructed using “biophilic” principles, or design strategies that harness the natural beauty of the outdoors to create a beautiful indoor space. For example, floor-to-ceiling windows allow visitors in the entryway to see straight through to the atrium on the other side of the building, and an earth-toned color scheme draws the eye outside to the view of the surrounding woods.

“It’s a fairly frequent occurrence that when I’m leading worship, I suddenly notice that everybody’s looking out the window,” said the Rev. Diana Smith. “And, oh my gosh, there are fawns that have shown up. Or there are turkeys wandering around. So those biophilic principles are wonderful and really enhance our entire experience.”
Though the UU Society of Coralville’s campus is thoughtfully designed, their commitment to climate justice goes far beyond a physical building. It’s long been woven into the fabric of their congregation.

They formed a Green Sanctuary team in 2008 but didn’t immediately seek Green Sanctuary accreditation, a distinction awarded to congregations that meet all criteria laid out in the current iteration of the Green Sanctuary program. The program provides an in-depth roadmap of sustainability and climate justice actions, along with resources and support that any congregation can use, even if they are not seeking accreditation.

Coralville’s Green Sanctuary team started out by making sustainable upgrades to their former building—such as taping heat shrink plastic over windows in the winter and switching to LED lighting—and eventually received Green Sanctuary accreditation in 2017, about a month before moving into their new facility.

Their education, activism, and service projects are undergirded by the idea that in any movement, there are four levels of action: what individuals do in their own homes, what they can inspire their friends and families to do, what they do in their communities, and what they advocate for on a legislative level.

More recently, the congregation has partnered with various local groups to bring sustainability work to the surrounding community.

Since beginning their climate justice and sustainability work, the congregation has engaged on all four levels, starting with small actions such as banning the use of Styrofoam in their building. More recently, they have partnered with various local groups to bring sustainability work to the surrounding community.

Several members developed a workshop about strategies to draw carbon down from the atmosphere. At first, they presented the training locally in Coralville, but the widespread use of Zoom during the pandemic allowed them to reach an even larger audience: seventeen fellowships and churches in Iowa and one in New Mexico. And their efforts don’t stop at education.

After realizing that Coralville didn’t have the same sustainability structures in place as Iowa City (for example, the city of Coralville didn’t yet have a climate action plan or a climate coordinator), the congregation undertook a successful letter-writing campaign to the Coralville City Council.

“It’s [now] on the [city council] agenda. They heard us,” said Deb Scholerman, co-chair of the Green Sanctuary team. “So sustainability is now part of the conversation [about] their upcoming goals.”

As active as they are in the local community, Coralville members also take their climate justice activism and service far beyond the bounds of their home state.

As she was approaching her 70s, member Miriam Kashia made a personal covenant: She was going to do whatever she could to mitigate the climate crisis. As part of that commitment, Kashia participated in the 2014 Great March for Climate Action–an eight-month cross-country walk from California to Washington, D.C., to raise awareness about climate change. Kashia and her fellow activists camped for most of their journey, but when they reached Iowa City, the congregation hosted them overnight and put on a potluck dinner.

“It was one of the best stops on the whole trip,” Kashia said. “I was one of only four people who walked every step across the country, [so] my participation I think upped the ante for our congregation in terms of awareness and urgency.”

Coralville members have traveled even further from home to partner with frontline communities most impacted by climate change, taking several trips to Guatemala to work with the Chico Mendes reforestation project. There, they worked in nurseries weeding and transplanting seedlings, as well as out on hillsides planting trees.

“We would probably plant between five and six hundred trees a week,” said Scholerman. “And we would have Spanish classes and do cultural activities. Those were amazing trips. And we’re still in communication with Chico Mendes. This month there’s going to be a collection for them.”

At Coralville, climate justice work is never done, and the congregation is always thinking about their next initiative. They are currently considering how they can partner even more deeply with frontline communities and researching reaccreditation under the Green Sanctuary 2030 program [see “What is Green Sanctuary 2030?”], which has been updated to include a larger focus on both congregational transformation and justice. They also see their campus as a work in progress, and they continue to make sustainability and accessibility upgrades as their budget allows. For example, they someday want to make their community garden fully accessible by replacing soft gravel with pavers.

For congregations that want to introduce sustainability work, the Coralville team recommends starting with small actions that don’t require much capital, such as forming a Green Sanctuary team, implementing recycling and composting programs, or using nontoxic cleaning products. Given the magnitude of the climate crisis, Smith knows that it’s easy to feel overwhelmed, but she stresses that every action, no matter how small, is important.

“We decide to hope. We decide to act. Because that’s what we’re called to do, and that’s what love means.” – Rev. Diana Smith

“When I first got involved in environmental work over twenty years ago, I already knew we’d gone past multiple targets,” Smith said. “And I faced the question of hopelessness and despair. But I found that writings from lots of incredible justice makers spoke to me about finding hope. We decide to hope. We decide to act. Because that’s what we’re called to do, and that’s what love means.”