Join us April 17-19 for the BioLogos national conference, Faith & Science 2024, as we explore God’s Word and God’s World together!

Forums

Sally Bingham | Churches Leading Change

Sally Bingham discusses the influential role that churches and faith communities can play in the effort to reduce climate change impacts.


Share  
Twitter
Facebook
LinkedIn
Print
2 Comments
2 Comments
Watercolor of church with solar panels

This image was created with the assistance of DALL·E 2

Sally Bingham discusses the influential role that churches and faith communities can play in the effort to reduce climate change impacts.

Description

Sally Bingham, the founder of Interfaith Power & Light (IPL), and the Canon of the Environment for the Diocese of California, shares the story of the inception of IPL and discusses the influential role that churches and faith communities can play in the effort to reduce climate change impacts.

Subscribe to the podcast


Transcript

Bingham:

There are churches that have done things that we never thought of. They have composting, they’ve ripped up their parking lot and put in gardens, they’ve got solar, they have gray water, they have recycling for all their parishioners. There were so many things we were pushing like compact fluorescent light bulbs, which now are passe, and shutting down on water use and getting rid of all the styrofoam. Those were sort of the initial beginning things. But many of these churches went far beyond that and were doing almost anything you could come up with that needed to be done, some church has done it.

Hoogerwerf:

Welcome to Language of God. I’m Colin Hoogerwerf. Our guest today is Reverend Sally Bingham, an Episcopal priest, the Canon of the environment for the Diocese of California, and the founder of Interfaith Power & Light, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping people with faith take action on climate change. We had originally planned to meet at Grace Cathedral in downtown San Francisco for our interview, but as fate would have it just before our scheduled meeting time, we learned that the power too much of downtown was out, so we quickly changed plans and ended up walking into the Presidio, which is a park that sits at the base of the Golden Gate Bridge. The background of bird song was a perfect score for a conversation about how the church is called to care for the planet and was a good reminder of the abundance of creation.

Reverend Bingham has had a long and successful career helping churches to become a catalyst for environmental action. We talk about how she came to this work and about the impact that churches can have on our ecological future, whether through installing solar or retrofitting their lighting or simply igniting meaningful conversation about climate change. Let’s get to the conversation.

Interview

Hoogerwerf:

Well, Reverend Sally Bingham. Glad to have you here. We’re in the Presidio.

Bingham:

Yes. And you’re at El Polín.

Hoogerwerf:

El Polín in with your dog, Stevie, who we might hear a bit from in the interview. We’ll see.

Bingham:

That’s correct.

Hoogerwerf:

We like to start by learning a little bit about a person’s background. So I’ve heard you tell this story where you’re sitting in a pew in an Episcopal church, and you have this realization maybe where you realize that if we’re supposed to care for our neighbors and we also have to care for the planet, I want to talk a little bit about that. I want to dig in because I wonder if you have any ideas what led you to that moment? Because first of all, that was pretty early in that environmental movement and there presumably were a bunch of other people in that church that didn’t come to that realization. So, why you? Why then?

Bingham:

Well, I think probably I was inspired by being on the National Board of Environmental Defense Fund because I was learning all the really awful things that humans were doing to the planet, and at that time it was overfishing, it was lead and gasoline, it was antibiotics being in our poultry that we were then eating. And just as you said, I would hear the church whether I was in our Episcopal church, which is right nearby or some other church in some other place, talk about loving our neighbors as ourselves. And I thought if we thought… This was not an overnight thing, it was not what would you would call an epiphany. This was a long period of time, or I should say long period. It was probably a couple of years with paying attention to the liturgy and what we say we believe in, and even in our baptismal vows, it says that we denounce anything that would destroy God’s creation.

And so I had that in my head, I had love your neighbor as yourself, and I had God put Adam in the garden to till it and to keep it. And these things were just festering in me because I thought, “Well, how can we say these things and not pay any attention to our behavior?” We’re throwing trash out the window. We’re driving those great big huge cars. We are not paying one bit of attention to our neighbors if our neighbors are people in the south of the world, in the southern part of the world. And EDF was giving me this information, and I think that I would have to attribute my sense of knowledge and sort of worrisome attitude about what humans were doing to the planet came from EDF.

Hoogerwerf:

Bring us in a little back even further. You grew up not too far south of here. You’ve said you were an outdoorsy kid. Any memories of seeing the wonder in the world as a kid?

Bingham:

Absolutely. I mean, I never was indoors, as a child, I grew up below Stanford, which is down— And it really, in the ’40s and ’50s, it was country. There are big houses there now, but they weren’t there when I was growing up. And I rode my bicycle to the country store. I rode my pony to pony club. It was a whole different life than it is now, but nature was part of me. I mean, that’s sort of who… And to this day, still is. I’m much happier outdoors no matter what the weather is. But we had chickens and we had one horse that I shared with my brothers, and I went to pony club every Saturday and learned about animals. And the property right near us was open space, belonged to the Stanford University, and we had Easter egg hunts on horseback in this open space.

And so I didn’t know what it was like to be in a city. And we moved to San Francisco when I was 14 and I was miserable. I really wasn’t happy in a city. And as you know, Colin, you just saw my house. I live right next to a park and open space. If I didn’t have that location, I probably wouldn’t live in San Francisco. So it’s very much… Oh, I mean it sounds like a cliche, but I was certainly a child of nature. I mean, I ran around naked in the backyard. We had a creek that wasn’t too far away and we floated corks to see where it would come out a quarter of a mile later. And my brothers were the same way, we made mud pies and threw them at each other, and there was no television. I remember when we got our first television in the 1950s, but by that time I was eight or nine years old.

So when Mickey Mouse came on, we used to glue ourselves to that, but we were allowed one hour of television. So I really believe that how I grew up in the country has made an enormous difference in my attitude about nature now. I mean, I’m not scared of poison oak, I’m not scared of ticks. And the fun thing when you’re a kid is to get lost in the woods. And then if you find your way back, you feel like a hero and it builds your confidence. And I just think nature is a wonderful teacher.

Hoogerwerf:

What about the faith tradition of your childhood, was that Episcopalian?

Bingham:

Yes and no. My mother was Roman Catholic and my dad asked her to convert to the Episcopal church because he thought that the Catholic Church had too much superstition in it, and that was the word he used superstition. But I did go to Sunday school, Woodside has a little white church and over this steeple way out in the back, and they took us to Sunday school. The interesting thing is my dad would drop us off and I’d go to Sunday school for an hour, an hour and a half, and he’d go home and read the Sunday newspaper and then come back and pick us up.

But here’s where the spiritual or the sense of God entered my life was whenever I had been somewhat some suspicious activity, my dad would say, “Only you and the old man upstairs know what happens.” And it took me for years to realize that God is probably not an old man in the sky with a long beard McCain. At the same time as a child, I had this feeling that not only was God going to look after me, but I had to be accountable to God. And that was before I’d taken any serious religious courses or anything. But I did have this sense of accountability for the person or the entity that created all of this that we’re looking at and my behavior.

Hoogerwerf:

Any tensions between science and faith in your childhood that you had to overcome?

Bingham:

No, that happened much later. And I’m sure you’ve encountered that too. When people say, “Well, I don’t believe in climate change.” And I can say, “Well, it’s not a belief, it’s a fact.” And the wonderful thing about science is it’s true and you can prove it. You can’t prove necessarily that there’s a God or that we need to love our neighbors and that you can believe in. But science, it isn’t about belief, it’s about scientific fact.

Hoogerwerf:

So maybe we’ll get to this place where some of this stuff comes up for you. At some point, you have several kids in school and you’ve had this kind of gradual realization. You decided to go back to school first for a bachelor’s so that you can go to seminary. I’m curious, how was your goal of bringing together these environmental ideas with the Theological ideas? How was that met when you go to seminary?

Bingham:

Well, this was an organic, definitely grew up organically because I told you I would sit in a pew and be listening to love your neighbor and feeling very uncomfortable that I wasn’t behaving the way I was being asked to by the 10 Commandments. So I went to the rector of our church many times, and I said, “Why can’t you preach about stewardship of creation? You’ve got a boy who’s a river guide in Colorado and he must see the difference.” And Peter said, “Sally, you’ve pestered me with this enough times. Why don’t you go to seminary and find out where the disconnect is between what we say we believe in and how we behave?”

Well, I thought it sounded like a great idea because my youngest child was at that point in school all day. I think he was in second or third grade, and there’s a big gap. One was the end of high school and the other one was in college. So I had the time to go to school, and I went down to visit Bishop Swing, who was the bishop of the Diocese of California at the time. And I said, “I want to go to seminary.” And he said, “What for?” And I said, “Well, I’m not sure, but it has to do with this disconnect between how we behave and what we say we believe in.” I’ll never forget this. He pulled out one of those sliders on his desk and a form, and he looked up at me, and he said, “Where’d you go to college?” And I said, “Well, I didn’t go to college.” He said, well, “What makes you think you could go to seminary and get a masters when you don’t have an undergraduate degree?”

So I was very, very disappointed. But I came home and looked up the University of San Francisco, which is almost in my backyard. And at 45 years old, I entered college as a freshman. So in college… And I took religion, and I took the environment, and I took psychology. That was to find out what I was doing in college at 45 years old. But it was quite an adventure and I learned so much. It’s a Jesuit education. So I got a really good Christian education as well as Judaic studies.

And one thing led to another, I’m still on the EDF board learning all these terrible things, and it’s only getting worse as to what humans were doing to the planet. And I wanted to go to seminary, so I finished college and went back to Bishop Swing, and said, “Okay, I have a magna cum laude degree from the University of San Francisco. Can I go to seminary now?” And he said, “Yes.” But he said, “What for? What is your goal?” And I did not have holy orders in my head. I just wanted to know how you could sit in a pew and say you love your neighbor and then treat them badly. So he signed off on it, and I went to the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley for three years.

And after I graduated from there, I had started the Commission for the Environment for the Diocese of California. And I had 10 or 12 Episcopalians who cared tremendously about the environment and wanted to see the church get involved. And we met in my house at my dining room table every third Tuesday of the month for about a year. And they said, “Sally, you need to get ordained.” And I said, “Why?” And they said, “Well, basically just politically, you can’t even vote at general convention unless you’re a priest.” So I molded over, but I really didn’t have that in my… It wasn’t on my agenda. And I was married and I had children. So I resisted for a while, and I looked at all of them, and I said, “Why don’t one of you get ordained?” And they said, “No, it has to be you.”

So I proceeded to go back to Bishop Swing, and say, “Okay, well, it looks like it might be holy orders.” And he put me in a church out in Marin for three years as a seminarian because I had to learn how to preach. I had to learn how to teach Sunday school and help people who were in distress. And so that’s a three-year process that most people do while they’re in seminary, but I had to do it afterwards. So after 10 years, College Seminary and the Seminarian Adventure, I was ordained to the priesthood in 1997. And then because the environment was definitely my call, we started this friend of mine and I had this regeneration project, which was to link religion in the environment.

However, we didn’t really have a mission. I mean, yes, our mission was to link people of faith to their responsibility to stewardship. However, we had no real structure. We didn’t have an office, we didn’t have any money, we didn’t have any staff. But as I mentioned to you earlier, there was an article in the Wall Street Journal saying that the Episcopal church was working on connecting people to renewable energy, which was what they were interested in at that time. And they sent me some money and I hired a staff, and we got our own 501C3 called the Regeneration Project. But because climate had become a big issue at that point, and I was learning this from EDF too, we called it was Episcopal Power in Lies to begin with. And then after two or three years when other denominations were calling and saying, “Is this just for your church or can we do it too?” We became Interfaith Power & Light. So I think now you’ve got almost a whole history.

Hoogerwerf:

Yeah. And we’ll come back to a few of those pieces. So I want to talk about Interfaith Power & Light a little bit. I actually came to know the Michigan Chapter of IPL. I was working for another environmental advocacy organization doing a bunch of different projects, but some on energy efficiency and renewables. And I was always impressed with how clear and compelling the message was, which is essentially that a church can help save the planet, and all they need to do is make their building more comfortable in high-tech and save a bunch of money at the same time. I’m sure it wasn’t always that easy, but maybe just start with the basics. What is IPL? It’s not a utility, right? What is it?

Bingham:

Well, the mission is to engage people of faith in the climate issue because that was really our subject rather than so many other things like saving trees. Well, as we got further into it, we found out that trees were very valuable to saving the planet and connected to climate change. But in the beginning, we wanted clergy to stand in the pulpit and talk to people about the seriousness of the climate issue and to put in compact fluorescent light bulbs to put solar on their roofs if they could. And, yes, have the congregation serve as an example to the community with solar up on the roof. They’re saving money and they’re saving the planet at the same time. And that was what we had hoped to do, and we were just so much more successful than we thought we’d be. I mean, people were falling over themselves to find out how to put solar on the roof.

And it’s interesting, you said you were acquainted with IPL in Michigan? I went to Michigan to meet Father Charles Morris, Catholic priest who had a little small wind turbine and solar panels on the roof of his parish house. And he was written up in a solar magazine. And I was flipping through the magazine, maybe in a doctor’s office or something, and there was Charles Morris standing on his roof with his wind turbine going around.

So my son was at Michigan State, and I flew back there and I went to meet Charles Morris, and I said, “Would you be interested in being Michigan Interfaith Power & Light?” And he was very eager. We became quite good friends. And he is still, I believe, an advocate. I don’t think he runs Michigan IPL anymore. Somebody else has taken over. But he was one of the first clergy people who really, really understood this and did it on his own without anybody like me coming and saying, “You have to do this.” He did it on his own. And so Michigan IPL was really one of our first, and that’s kind of how it started.

Hoogerwerf:

Yeah. Any other stories of churches that really just embodied that IPL mission?

Bingham:

Well, there are lots of them, and I wish that I’d sort of researched this before trying to answer that question, but there are churches that have done things that we never thought of. They have composting, they’ve ripped up their parking lot and put in gardens. They’ve got solar, they have gray water, they have recycling for all their parishioners, and we give out, or California Interfaith Power & Light gives out an award every year, people apply for it, and they get money and they get recognition for greening their church. And in some cases, those programs are run by high school kids doing a wonderful job with it. And I can’t say… There were so many things we were pushing like compact fluorescent light bulbs, which now are passe, and shutting down on water use, and getting rid of all the styrofoam. Those were sort of the initial beginning things, but many of these churches went far beyond that, and were doing almost anything you could come up with that needed to be done. Some church has done it.

Hoogerwerf:

Yeah. I have sometimes felt like one of the major messages of the environmental movement is to change your light bulb or to recycle. And it sometimes feels like a single person doing that. It’s not enough. But whether it is or not, churches doing this is a different kind of scale.

Bingham:

That’s right.

Hoogerwerf:

Can you talk a little bit about that scale of things and what kind of impact a community of churches doing these things can make?

Bingham:

Well, it does make a difference because the parishioners see it, the neighbors see it, and they think, “Well, if this congregation can put solar on the roof, maybe I can too.” And so it serves as an example to the community and to people. In a lot of cases where I want to think it was all because of ethics and theology. Some of these congregations did it for the pure reason of saving money, and that often got them started, but then they’d be looking around for, “What else can we do?” So their movement would grow. Then they got into wastewater treatment and saving water in California, people had to find ways to save water too. And I would go around and make little suggestions. When you turn the water faucet on and it automatically goes off, you only get a little squirt. Well, things like that instead because—and we also found that with lights, children would go into a congregation bathroom, turn on all the lights, leave and leave the lights on. So we would have those automatic switches that would go off, and we just found all these ways that you could save money and save energy. And when you did that in your congregation and you had a clergy person walk down the aisle during announcements and say, “We are saving $460 on energy efficiency, and here’s what we’ve done.” Then the people go home and do it in their homes. And I think the outside world, even if they’re not a member of a congregation, they drive by and they see a huge cathedral with solar on the roof, and it makes a statement.

Hoogerwerf:

Yeah. So I have two questions that come out of this. So the first one has to do with this idea of saving money, which it’s great when we can find the solution that helps the planet and also saves money and has all these other benefits. I imagine there’s times though, when that’s not going to be the case. What do we do when that—do we just start with the places where it’s easy and then when we move into the times when it’s not going to save us money? Or I don’t know, do you have—

Bingham:

Well, we’ve had congregations that have put solar on because it’s the right thing to do, where they have raised the money within the people in the congregation and paid for it because they’re doing the right thing. There are lots of cases where they’re doing it because they feel that they’re called to do it. And that was part of our IPL message, which is that… I mean, saving money is what a lot of congregations involved, but there were just as many, if not more, that did it for the right reasons. Saving the world and saving creation and responding to our baptismal vows was one of the really important reasons for people to do it.

Hoogerwerf:

And then the second question, and you kind of hinted at this, is it seems important not just to make these changes in a church in secret or in a budget meeting, but to actually talk about it, to bring it into sermons? How important is that kind of communication outside of the kind of bureaucracy?

Bingham:

Well, it’s very important. And talking about climate, particularly now, which people have shied away from because so many folks think that climate is a political subject. And they say, “Well, we can’t talk about political stuff at the dining room table.” But we can and we should, we need to talk about climate because nobody’s going to do anything unless they understand the seriousness of it. I found out the hard way. When I first started preaching about climate, I was really slamming it at people. We are sinners. We are doing too much fossil fuels. Get out of your big cars. And that was not received very well. I found out the hard way to do it a little more gently. Read scripture, if you tell people we were created in God’s image, and most people that go to church have heard that, well, God’s image was to restore creation and make creation and have it be good and healthy. And so if our image is of God, we are the protectors of creation.

And I’ve always said that our purpose as humans is to take care of this garden, not to destroy it. And I don’t know, I just found I had to stop throwing climate at people as much as just the sense of where are the caretakers of this planet and let them figure out, what are they going to do in their lives that changes? Because I think it does change. Once you’re kind of involved in this, ‘I’m the steward of creation’, your behavior changes. I mean, I walk everywhere. I can walk now and not drive around in my car because, well, I don’t need to. And I realize it’s better for me, it’s less expensive, and I’m going to last longer. I mean, health-wise. So what I think people get the message and then they kind of integrate it into their lifestyle and then they change. The only, of course, difficulty here is we don’t have a lot of time. And just as my process into this work took several years, it’s not going to happen overnight. But the more we do and the more people talk about it, the better. And I really do think talking about it is important.

Hoogerwerf:

So I was surprised to find out that the interfaith side of Interfaith Power & Light wasn’t planned, came about pretty organically.

Bingham:

That’s right.

Hoogerwerf:

What have you learned from doing that kind of interfaith work?

Bingham:

Well, it’s been an adventure and really, really eye-opening and an education. What I could tell you now, and I think it’s really true, every single mainstream religion cares about nature and the environment. And they all say it in different ways. The Jewish tradition is particularly responsible for nature. The Muslims say that the Quran said that God put the world together in balance, and we have to keep that balance. And then of course, I’ve already gone through some of the Christian, I mean, God put Adam in the garden to till it and to keep it. And what we found is we had so much in common, and in the beginning, people were worried that we at IPL would try to turn all these different denominations into Christians. Well, that was not the goal, and that didn’t happen. And it actually made my Christianity stronger by learning all these other faiths and what they think.

And to be at an interfaith event and have each person speak in their own tradition about saving creation has been fascinating. And when we talk to the indigenous peoples, I have a friend here who’s the curator at Mission Dolores, and he would come to some of our events and do the North, East, South, West signs with smoke. But the Ohlone people, in fact, you’re sitting on Ohlone land right now. They were great caretakers of the earth. So we learned a lot from the indigenous people too.

Hoogerwerf:

Coming to a close here, I want to end by reflecting a little bit over the span of your career, which has started 25 some years ago. And in some ways things have changed really drastically, I think, since the beginning of Interfaith Power & Light. The technologies, solar and wind, have come a long ways. I think attitudes and acceptance of our own climate change has come a long ways. In other ways, it seems like not much has changed. And I don’t want to diminish the work of IPL or other organization, BioLogos included, but it’s still not the case that Christians in the church are seen by most people as leaders in climate and environmental issues. What have you seen? What’s holding the church back from being a leader?

Bingham:

Well, I wouldn’t say it’s being held back. Certainly not held back. That would be a wrong metaphor. But why hasn’t it stood up on a platform and said, “Hey, if we as God’s children are not protecting creation, then nobody else is going to.” I’ve always thought that churches and congregations should be leading this movement. But I agree with you, they’re not. They’re getting better because they’ve become aware that there is a faith responsibility for looking after creation. But it’s disappointing for me that they haven’t taken more of a leadership role. However, most of these denominations now have a creation care department. The Episcopal Church had an event, it was a webinar just yesterday or the day before where they brought Katharine Hayhoe on so that she could tell, how do you talk about climate change and religion? And she’s wonderful. And they had five or 600 people on this webinar to listen to Katherine talk about that.

And then we have a creation season that’s now where the liturgy is all done around creation. And I believe that there are lots of Jewish holidays that have to do with taking care of nature. Why aren’t we leading? Maybe because of the money of the mission of the church, which is love and justice. And they haven’t made the connection between justice and environmentalism, which should happen. In fact, we just in the Diocese of California, have just hired a person to be the Canon for environmental, social, and racial justice. That’s going to be his or her title when they find the right person.

And I think that from the justice point, it’s going to take hold. And now that we know that it’s all wealthy people, wealthy countries that are causing the problem, and it’s the poor countries who suffer the most and don’t have the means to take care of themselves. They can’t put up wind turbines and stop the sea from rising with big sand dunes, and we need to help them do that. And I think at all of the cops, there’s been a big religious community there having an influence. So it’s happening. Why aren’t they leading? Your guess is as good as mine. They should be. They really should be.

Hoogerwerf:

Well, then moving towards the positive because a lot has changed too. What has surprised you since you started? What didn’t you expect on the positive side of what has changed either in the church or in culture?

Bingham:

Well, I think what’s been really fun is I get invited because I’ve pretty much retired. I mean, I don’t work at IPL anymore at all, but I still do liturgical work. And I get invited to go to churches and talk about environmental stewardship. And what’s really fun, none of these congregations have styrofoam anymore. A lot of them have solar on the roof. There’s one right out there that has solar on their roof that’s in the shape of a cross. You only can see it from the sky.

When I see with my very own eyes, the progress that some of these churches have made, it’s very rewarding. And when the congregation does it, the people in the congregation, they go home and do it at home. They have energy efficient appliances. And it seems in a way, when you said something about how has the technology helped, I don’t want to go back and tell these churches to get rid of those compact fluorescent light bulbs because we really pushed them, but now I get it, they’ve got to have the LEDs. And then what comes after LEDs? However, there is so much progress in what people are doing and what they are doing, and the technology is helping these energy efficient appliances. So I think technology has helped tremendously. And with a combination of the human will and technology, we’re going to solve this problem and conversation about it, like what we’re doing, and if anybody listens to the podcast.

Hoogerwerf:

Well, I think they will, and I hope they’re inspired by it. We like to ask our guests what books you’re reading. You have any good book recommendations?

Bingham:

Oh, I don’t want to disappoint you, but I read all of Jodi Picoult books. She teaches me something her, she takes a novel with a current subject, and she’s just an amazing writer and amazing teacher. But I am reading… Or I’ve actually just finished Katharine Hayhoe’s book, Saving Us, and then people send me books often, and some of them are a little wordy and a little… is the word wonky? They get often too much into the weeds, and I don’t find them all that interesting. If somebody could turn it into a novel of a love story, I’d read it.

Hoogerwerf:

Well, yeah. There’s something to that I think in stolen stories since with Katharine Hayhoe says. Well, thank you, Sally. This has been good. Thanks for spending some time with me.

Bingham:

You’re welcome, Colin. It was wonderful to meet you. [conversation fades]

Credits

Hoogerwerf:

Language of God is produced by BioLogos. It has been funded in part by the Fetzer Institute, the John Templeton Foundation, and by individual donors and listeners who contribute to BioLogos. Language of God is produced and mixed by Colin Hoogerwerf. That’s me. Our theme song is by Breakmaster Cylinder. BioLogos offices are located in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in the Grand River Watershed. If you have questions or want to join in a conversation about this episode, find a link in the show notes for the BioLogos forum or visit our website biologos.org where you’ll find articles, videos, and other resources on faith and science. Thanks for listening.


***Learn about or register for the BioLogos Creation Care Summit on October 7th here.***
Podcast listeners can use the promo code LOG at checkout for a 15% discount on registration.

***We’re going to be discussing the book Braiding Sweetgrass on the podcast on October 7th.*** 
If you’d like a copy to read along, podcast listeners can get free shipping at milkweed.org. Enter the code LOGPROMO.
We also made a free discussion guide which you can download here.


2 posts about this topic

Join the conversation on the BioLogos forum

At BioLogos, “gracious dialogue” means demonstrating the grace of Christ as we dialogue together about the tough issues of science and faith.

Join the Conversation