A Conversation with Sally Bingham
Community Minister, National Activist
The Rev. Canon Sally Bingham, a priest at San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral, is founder and president of the Regeneration Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to greening faith-based communities. Through their Interfaith Power and Light campaign, Bingham and her eco-apostles have helped some 10,000 congregations in 28 states to reduce their carbon footprint.
A stay-at-home mom until she enrolled in college at age 45, Bingham is a recipient of the Purpose Prize, which honors leaders over 60 who are taking on society’s biggest challenges. She is the lead author of the 2009 book, Love God, Heal Earth: 21 Leading Religious Voices Speak Out on Our Sacred Duty to Protect the Environment.
What scriptures or spiritual teachings specifically impel you and others to act to save the environment?
The first and great commandment is to love God and love your neighbor as yourself. Your neighbor isn’t just the person next door; it’s also the generation after us. This is a mandate for environmental protection.
God asked us to be fruitful and multiply and “tend the garden.” We’ve certainly multiplied; now we need to focus on gardening. God gave us dominion—which is different from domination and exploitation; it means taking care of the Earth.
How do you engage average church-going Americans in big-picture issues like the environment, when they may be struggling to pay the bills?
We show people ways they can save money. We gave out 48,000 free compact fluorescent light bulbs to our congregation, and they took them home and reduced their energy bills immediately.
There is a start-up cost to some of the alternatives we promote, but sometimes you have to spend money to save money. For example, we help congregations put in solar panels, which have a payback period of about eight years. Once installed, that congregation will start getting electricity for free, and they receive credit for any excess electricity they sell back to the grid.
You founded Interfaith Power and Light in 1997, when the idea of putting solar panels on churches was revolutionary. Now that “green” has gone mainstream, is it easier to get congregations on board?
We no longer have to be proactive. People now come to us in such swarms; we barely have sufficient staff to deal with the requests, even though our national office employs eight people.
We have some tremendous success stories. Perhaps the most dramatic was when a 10-day blackout hit. The Catholic priest who runs our Michigan office and has a solar panel wired to a wind turbine to supply power to his congregation became a beacon of light by serving up hot food and warm-water showers to the community.
Our “Cool Congregation” program encourages families to compete with each other to have the most energy-efficient home. We hear stories of kids riding their bikes to church and even taking cold showers to decrease their energy use. Once people get the message of conservation, they become admirably creative.
How are you building an interfaith coalition that cuts across the political spectrum?
These days, we’re doing a little more advocacy work than we used to, getting people to ask their legislators for laws that will cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. During our lobby day in Washington in May, rabbis, Buddhists and Catholic priests walk the White House halls to talk about these issues.
An unexpected consequence of our work is that people of diverse religions have put their theological differences aside for this common purpose. We deliver a similar message to politicians: If you are a person of faith, then you have a responsibility to care for creation, no matter your political affiliation.
How can we learn to see living an eco-friendly life as a spiritual practice?
The first step is to understand the present situation of environmental degradation. People generally want to do the right thing. Years ago, I unconsciously behaved in ways that harmed our environment, but now, among other things, I compost, drive a fuel-efficient car and unplug appliances when they’re not in use.
There is a discipline involved in following any kind of spiritual path. But eventually, it becomes who you are; you’ll find that your heart grows bigger in the process.
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April Thompson is a Washington, D.C.-based writer, entrepreneur and consultant whose work has appeared in dozens of books and magazines. Connect at AprilWrites.com.