HACKENSACK, N.J. ­-Fletcher Harper is an Episcopal priest who preaches to Jews, Catholics, Baptists and any other congregation who’ll offer him the pulpit.

He’s trying to convert them – but not in the usual religious way.

Harper wants to convince the faithful that being a servant of God also means being a steward of the Earth. Or, to put it another way, being a good Christian, Jew, Muslim or Buddhist also means being “green.”

“When it comes to the environment, we think religious congregations should lead by example,” said Harper, executive director of a group known as GreenFaith.

Harper can be found on most weekends speaking from pulpits throughout New Jersey, where he tries to convert the faithful and also persuade congregations to give their sanctuaries what he calls an “environmental makeover.”

GreenFaith wants churches to install solar panels and adopt windmills. It wants churchgoers to take stock of their own gas-guzzling and resource-wasting ways and to speak out against what it calls “environmental racism” – instances when polluting industries seek to locate in poor communities that lack political clout.

It tells churchgoers to fight for those communities much the way they might feel a duty to work in a soup kitchen for the hungry.

GreenFaith’s message is that taking care of the planet is a moral calling rooted in the traditions and beliefs of most religions.

The mission isn’t a new one. Several religious groups, including the Presbyterian, Reform Jewish and Church of Christ denominations – now have national environmental organizations. In recent years, a national coalition of religious groups has sprung up specifically to address global warming.

But GreenFaith is different from other eco-religious groups because it is attempting to join as many faiths as possible on a variety of environmental causes, said Laurel Kearns, a GreenFaith board member who is a professor of the sociology of religion and environmental studies at northern New Jersey’s Drew University.

Some 45 congregations have joined GreenFaith, which has an annual budget of $350,000. Harper has led the group since 2002, when he was given permission by the bishop to leave his church in Haworth, N.J., and make GreenFaith his ministry.

How successful the group will be at bringing together many faiths remains to be seen. Harper said he has not yet persuaded any Orthodox Jewish, Evangelical Christian or Muslim groups to join.

Some religious groups prefer to form political advocacy organizations within their own faiths, while others have resisted participating in environmental causes because they disagree with the population-control positions some advocacy groups take, Kearns said.

Harper has discovered that his group must carefully navigate the rules of different congregations. Church rules at St Anthony’s Orthodox Church in Bergenfield, N.J., for example, would not allow Harper to give his usual sermon from St Anthony’s pulpit, said Robin Robinson, a trustee on the church council. But the church has conducted an energy audit of its building and will install solar panels this summer, after discussions with GreenFaith and a solar-energy company.

St. Anthony’s is one of 25 area sanctuaries getting solar panels in a program GreenFaith calls “Lighting the Way.” GreenFaith also offers grants to congregations to conduct energy audits and encourages others to “adopt a windmill” by buying power from a company offering renewable energy. It explains ways houses of worship can soften their ecological footprint – everything from installing a water-conserving bank in their toilets to avoiding chemicals when fertilizing their lawns.

On a recent Sunday, Harper led the first of three sessions at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Teaneck, N.J. He read from the Bible’s story of creation – where God entrusts the earth to man – and then asked members to reflect on times when they felt a connection to God while enjoying nature.

Many in the group of about 20 had stories to tell about the spiritual connection they felt while gazing at a sky filled with stars or standing at the top of a mountain. One member told about marveling over the natural changes at work in a compost pile.

Pamela Malone, a Leonia, N.J., resident, said she attended to learn what she can do to protect nature. “I’ve always cared about the environment, but I’ve never thought about what I should be doing to make it better,” she said.

GreenFaith appeals to the faithful who might be turned off by more political environmental groups, said Benjamin Alter, an environmental consultant and member of Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell, N.J.

“I never joined one of the environmental advocacy groups because I always found them very political,” he said.

GreenFaith, however, has begun to take positions on some controversial issues – recently joining in a lawsuit opposed to dredging in Newark Bay and persuading its audiences to write letters protesting examples of environmental racism, such as were pointed out in a recent tour the group led in Paterson, N.J.

As he finds new houses of worship to address, Harper says, he tries to steer clear of politics and the “liberal” label that some opponents have slapped on the environmental movement.

He said his message will never be delivered in a fire-and-brimstone fashion – and it won’t come with the dire warnings that some environmental groups use when speaking about the health effects of air and water pollution.

“Ironically, I find that many within the environmental movement have, without meaning to, tended to strike a very apocalyptic tone,” Harper said. “We believe it is important to use an optimistic and hopeful voice – but one that is not in any way Pollyanna-ish.”

Instead, the group will try to describe environmental problems in religious, moral, ethical and non-denominational language, emphasizing the underlying principle that God gave people the earth as a gift.

David Pringle, a lobbyist for the New Jersey Environmental Federation, acknowledged that “someone wearing a white collar” might do a better job of enlisting average church folks to the cause than professional political operatives such as himself. Likewise, he conceded, his organization might do a better job of reaching atheists and agnostics who think the environment is much more a political than a religious mission.

“The more folks we have working on these issues – for whatever reason – then, the better,” Pringle said.


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