A greener calling?

Panel explores intersection of labor, religion and the environment

By David Courtland 11/29/2007

A green economy strengthened by faith-based initiatives took center stage at a Nov. 26 forum hosted by Congresswoman Lois Capps (D-Santa Barbara) at Oxnard's St. Paul's Baptist Church.

"We're bringing people together and tapping into the resources that are already here," Capps said at the "Faith, the Environment and Green Jobs" forum, which explored the role the religious community can play in raising awareness of global warming and conservation of the environment.

"Green jobs - that's what brings labor and faith groups together," Capps said.

As she introduced the panel of five representatives of Ventura County churches, temples and religious centers who spoke for the first hour of the forum, Capps pointed out the role people of faith have played in the nation's history.

"People of faith have always been important in the history of America," Capps said. "Could it be that today people of faith are leading the way to save our planet?"

The five panelists each referred to scripture from their various faiths to put green economics and conservation in the context of man's role as stewards of the earth, with a duty to preserve the environment.

Bishop Broderick Huggins of St. Paul's Baptist Church cited a passage of Genesis to explain "our conflict and our quest boils down to an issue of economics," then noted Jesus' comment that man does not live by bread alone also has an economic meaning.

"What he was really saying was that money is not the problem," Huggins said. "The problem arises when there is not an ethical, spiritual and moral perspective on how to keep our mandate."

Ferial Masry of the Conejo Islamic Center in Newbury Park said the Quran also gives mankind an environmental responsibility, including rules for conserving water and other resources.

"The roots of Islamic environmental practice are to be found in the Quran and the guidance of Prophet Muhammad," Masry said. "The Quran reminds us by saying, ‘He said Our Lord is He who gives each thing its created form and then guides it.'"

Masry said the Quran affirms a holistic interconnectedness of the natural order: "What is in the heavens and the earth belong to Allah. Allah encompasses everything."

Greater Faith Christian Church's the Rev. Bernice Gomez referred back to her own upbringing in Oxnard's Colonia neighborhood to illustrate her point that people must act directly in their own immediate environments.

"We took care of the land, we took care of each other," Gomez said. "There was never anything wasted, as we see with people who have too much."

Gomez suggested using youth groups like the Boy Scouts and Campfire Girls to do neighborhood or beach clean-ups and set an example of respect for the environment.

"I believe we can give the gift back to the environment by getting involved," Gomez said. "I'm going to help to take care of where I live, because I'm proud of where I live."

Other panelists who spoke during the first half of the forum were Rabbi Daniel Mehlman of Congregation K'hilat Ha'Aloneem and Pastor Edgar Mohorko of Messiah Foursquare Church.

In the second half of the forum, another five panelists described the practical side of the green movement, outlining what their organizations are doing to bring it down to Earth.

Robert Balgenorth, president of the State Building and Construction Trade Council, described several things trade unions are doing to create jobs while cleaning up the environment.

"Twenty years ago, progressive leaders in the building trades recognized that the companies that pay substandard wages, no health care, no pension and no training were the very same companies that cut environmental corners," Balgenorth said. "That prompted plumbing and other building trade unions to insist project permits shouldn't be given to noncompliant companies, forcing a lot of bad projects to either stop or toe the line on environmental standards"

The California Unions for Reliable Energy (CURE), a coalition of building trade unions and environmentalists, has worked with legislators to pass regulations that have cut the emissions of nitrous oxides from power plants by half in the last 10 years, Balgenorth said.

CURE has also made sure that more than three dozen new power plants were not only environmentally sound but built with local union labor, noted Balgenorth, who said building trade unions are also spearheading construction wind, solar, biomass and geothermal facilities in California.

A Casa Grande, Arizona factory is planning to go off the grid to produce potato chips with renewable fuels and recycled water, Balgenorth noted.

"I guess that's proof that when the chips are down, we can all go green," he said.

Nwamaka Agbo of the Ella Baker Center in Oakland outlined the center's Green Jobs Campaign, set to launch next year with 40 green businesses training low-income people for jobs in green trades.

"A green job must be a pathway out of poverty," Agbo said. Talk of melting ice caps and polar bears meant little to people who are concerned about feeding their families.

Rachel Morris of Ventura Climate Care Options Organized Locally (VC-COOL) described her group's technique for getting people to go on a "low carbon diet," a form that lets people identify and scale back the ways they produce carbon dioxide.

"If I drive 60 miles round trip, that 120 pounds of carbon," Morris said. "If I carpool, I save that much."

Huggins said the forum was modeled after a Washington, D.C. conference he and other faith leaders attended last month. The bishop worked with Capps' staff to organize the forum.

"The speakers really inspired me to take another look, to really examine this whole idea of faith and the environment," Huggins said. "It was like an ephiphany."

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