Faith-Based Energy Efficiency Aids Climate & Poverty

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Helping the poor, vulnerable, and marginalized is a central tenet in the Christian gospel. The command to care for “the least of these” (Matthew 25:40) has inspired organizations like Christian Aid to help the poor, Habitat for Humanity to provide shelter for the vulnerable, and World Vision to support children in need. And, in North Carolina’s Smoky Mountains, the gospel has fueled a novel, new energy program that cares for the least of these while caring for Creation.

Brad Rouse, a self-proclaimed “climate warrior,” joined the Good Shepherd Episcopal Church in the small town of Hayesville, North Carolina in 2007. He had become concerned about climate change while living in Atlanta and was drawn to the church’s Green Team and the mission that “we be good stewards of what we have been given and love our neighbors as ourselves.” He wanted to use his passion for environmental action and his years working in the utility industry to make a positive change.

But to many in Hayesville, environmentalism isn’t a priority. About 15% of the people who live in the town fall below the poverty line. They aren’t the ones marching in the street for climate action, driving a Prius, or installing solar panels on their roofs; they drive old cars and live in rented homes and trailers because that’s what they can afford. But after finding out that some of them were paying a large portion of their income for heat and electricity, Rouse wanted to do something.

He saw a chance to fulfill his Christian duties to care for the least of these and take climate action.

Rouse started a program through his church to provide free energy upgrades to families in need. Working with the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, church volunteers go out to the trailers and homes of disadvantaged families, perform an energy assessment, identify sources of free or low-cost materials, then fix the problem. Upgrades include such things as LED lighting, weather-stripping, insulation, and replacing inefficient heating and cooling systems.

“The poor are extremely energy inefficient,” said Rouse. “Low-cost housing will meet their housing needs, but it costs a lot to care for a house and they end up paying a lot for electricity. This is what we’re trying to correct.”

Some of the fixes are simple: repair holes, switch out lights, and seal openings in windows. Others require some detective work. Rouse remembers helping a disabled man who was paying an energy bill for his 600 square-foot apartment that was three-times more what Rouse was paying for his 3500 square-foot home. The church’s team insulated his infrared heater water heater, switched out light bulbs, told him to wash his clothes on cold, and bought new filters for the vent. When that didn’t fix the problem, they just took a look at what he was doing. It turns out the man was simply turning the heat button to the least efficient setting.

It’s examples like this that show how helpful the church’s work is for the community. Utility companies and green organizations can publish informational pamphlets to help the poor reduce their energy usage, but the fix isn’t always simple. Sometimes it takes more than a light bulb to help a family afford its electricity bill. “You have to be there and see what they’re doing and talk to them about it,” explained Rouse.

And because the team operates through the church instead of through a government program, more people qualify for their help. There is no need to go through a person’s income and assets to make sure they are below the very low poverty line. People who may be too “rich” to qualify for the government’s help are still deserving of assistance in the eyes of the Good Shepherd Episcopal Church.

This church’s hands-on and open approach has resulted in lower energy bills and reduced carbon emissions for families in Hayesville. When they won Interfaith Power & Light’s Cool Congregations Challenge award on Earth Day, they had helped more than 40 families reduce their carbon footprint by 33 metric tons/year. That’s a CO2 reduction of 10-20% per household and the equivalent of preventing 35,000 pounds of coal from being burned.

But Rouse recognizes that limiting this work to Hayesville won’t make a big difference. He wants to expand the program to make more of the “poorest of the poor, rich in energy efficiency.” To do that, Rouse is getting the word out and looking for funding options. His hope is that more faith-based organizations will see the opportunity to do something that will address the climate and poverty and together they can create some momentum for real change.

Because even if you don’t agree with the EPA’s proposed carbon pollution regulations or accept climate science, it’s hard not to see the value in energy upgrades. The Good Shepherd Episcopal Church team has found a way to help the poor afford the electricity that lights their homes and keeps them warm. They are simply fulfilling their Christian duty to care for the least of these, and that’s something that should appeal to all Christians whether they’re conservative or liberal.

“There are a lot of people who can’t give up their political identity, so they can’t acknowledge climate change,” said Rouse. “But if they’re Christians they have to support what we’re doing.”

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