Spiritual and Sustainable

November 10, 2014
Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas
The Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas speaks during the "Spiritual and Sustainable" conference. / Photo: Ann Wang

It's considered a serious threat to the future and it's what HDS Dean David N. Hempton called one of the topics of our lifetime.

Climate change and its impact on the world are why HDS holds among its values a commitment to sustainability and being a good steward of an environment we all share. It's why HDS is succeeding with its part of the University's goal to cut greenhouse gas emissions. And it's also why the School hosted scores of people at a conference organized by HDS staff to examine ways religion can respond to climate change.

Through tangible efforts, the School reduced its emissions by 32 percent from fiscal year 2006 to fiscal year 2014, according to data from the Office for Sustainability. The School's energy use also decreased nearly 9 percent over the same time period.

But at HDS, the effort to help the Earth goes beyond numbers and includes conversations and calls to action. A day-long conference, "Spiritual and Sustainable: Religion Responds to Climate Change," was held November 7 on the HDS campus and brought together activists and faith leaders from various traditions to discuss ways in which religions can and should talk and take action on environmental issues.

Addressing the conference attendees who gathered in the Braun Room of Andover Hall for a sustainably-sourced lunch, Hempton said the forum touches on many of the values held by the HDS community, "especially our commitment to the work of sustainability and good environmental stewardship."

"We've kind of practiced this on our campus for a long time now, in the way we design, heat, and cool our facilities, the way we produce our food, recycle our waste, and all the other ways we try to lower our impact on the environment. We're proud to have been leaders of this work at Harvard," he said.


Rev. Jim Antal, president of the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ, discussed a preacher's role in being a leader not just of his or her congregation, but also in the effort to heal the environment. He said he believes faith leadership should be edgy and risky and that he urges his pastors to occasionally preach a "pack your bags" sermon, one that would push the thinking of the congregation enough to seek the removal of the preacher.

"Every time I meet with any group of our UCC pastors, I tell them that they should be at least touching upon climate change every third or fourth sermon and they look at me like I have forgotten everything I ever learned in seminary," said Antal. "Let's use the bell in the church steeple for its original purpose, to sound the alarm and rally the town. It's time for the sleeping giant of the church, the synagogue, the mosque, and the temple, to awake to the challenge or our age."

The Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, who serves in the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts, offered a framework for climate activists to respond wisely and creatively to the challenges they face.

"All the world's religious practices, from mindfulness meditation to practicing gratitude, are disciplines we've been given to help our hearts awaken," she said. "Experiencing and claiming our God-given preciousness is a powerful antidote to the messages we hear that human beings are a cancer on the planet, a virus taking down life."

The conference is just the most recent example of HDS's ongoing effort to help the environment. This fall, more than 70 solar panels were installed on the roof of the Center for the Study of World Religions, the first renewable energy installation on the Harvard Divinity School campus. In 2008, HDS received LEED Gold certification after renovating Rockefeller Hall. And every day, HDS makes a continuous effort to capture waste for recycling and composting.

Part of the reason why HDS is able to successfully implement changes and reduce its energy use is the support from administrators, students, and staff who recognize the effort as a moral calling, said Leslie MacPherson Artinian, an organizer of the conference and the leader of the HDS Green Team.

HDS's director of operations Ralph DeFlorio, who also helped organize the conference, sees it not as a last step in the climate change effort, but as a beginning.

"This conference is a first step in bringing people together from many different traditions to talk about an issue we all have in common," he said.

—by Michael Naughton