Light From Above: Divinity Meets Sustainability

Father Charles is obsessed with efficiency. It's in everything the downriver priest does. His speech is a rapid-fire slur of crammed-in detail and half-finished sentences that erupt and then halt as if his words are in danger of going to waste. His silver hair is cut close to his head and brushed to one side in a hip but spare style that probably takes a minute and a half to get exactly right. When I call to say I'm stuck in traffic and going to be late for our interview, he seems preoccupied with the route I've chosen, mentioning quicker freeways I could have taken (and when it's time for me to go, he makes sure to prescribe a faster way back).

But after a short while in his generous company, it's clear that Father Charles's frugal focus is driven less by scarcity than abundance. While a similar preoccupation might reveal a dearth of spirit in someone else, Father Charles's urge to make the most of everything comes across as the natural result of his great care care -
not just for the two parishes he leads but for all of God's gift of creation. And for the past 20 years he's worked to put that care into action, converting an otherwise by-the-book Catholic parish into a marvel of sustainability, energy efficiency and organic consumption while leading interfaith efforts to help congregations follow suit.

For Father Charles, going green isn't just part of his personal ethic. It's part of his ministry.

St. Elizabeth church sits a few blocks in from the Detroit river in a neat but sagging little Wyandotte neighborhood. Driving by it'd be easy to miss the eight 80-watt solar panels fastened to the plain brick rectory's slanting roof. Or the four 120-watters on the awning. There's a wind turbine too, tucked somewhere out of view, as well as a solar attic fan that, when shined on by the sun's rays, blows 1,200 Cubic feet per minute of air, keeping out excess hot air and moisture. Combined, these gizmos provide enough kilowatts of juice that Father Charles often doesn't need to tap into the city's power grid at all. In fact, it's not uncommon for area blackouts to happen around him while he goes about his daily business unaware and undisturbed.

Such state-of-the-art toys would seem out of place even among a more upscale suburban setting, let alone the aluminum siding, cracked sidewalks and missing shingles common on St. Elizabeth's humble block. But they're only one component of Father Charles's comprehensively green agenda - a rare emphasis in a vocation typically more concerned with saving souls than saving the planet.

Eleven years ago, after requesting an energy audit, Father Charles began steadily retrofitting his parish, beginning with replacing their 28-year-old boiler. "It paid for itself in seven years," he says. Block glass soon replaced the basement windows, followed by weather strips and a programmable thermostat. Exit signs were changed from incandescent to LED. Polyethylene mesh was applied to the main church windows, reducing solar glare by 93 percent.

The upgrades never stop and Father Charles has trouble remembering them all. Water conservation alone has entailed installing low-flow shower heads, Conservacaps to reduce the amount of flow used when flushing toilets, and a system that draws on groundwater, when available, instead of the city supply for things like watering the grass. He's currently waiting on a bid to replace the church roof with one that meets modern insulation standards.

Then there are the health-friendly changes, beginning with the improved ambience of softer, more efficient lightbulbs and continuing with low-VOC paints, safer cleaning products and organic foods brought in weekly by local farmers. The staff till an organic garden in the warmer months, supplying part of their fresh food supply.

According to Father Charles, even the grass at St. Elizabeth is organic.

It's obvious the relentless improvements to the church's energy lifestyle couldn't have come about without the gentle coaxing of its priest. And that coaxing would not be possible without the surety Father Charles feels about the importance of energy conservation for today's believers.

On the one hand, he'll tell you it's an issue that's broader than any one faith. "It's like JFK said, we all breathe the same air." On the other, he sees no difference between care of the planet and God-loving stewardship. "It really all comes from my theology," he says, "that we're a part of creation, not apart from it."

But he says the connection between faith and green practices was a gradual thing for him. The sensibility was always there - "Even as a kid I had an interest in living environments, what we would now call Eco-psychology" - but the real shining light moment for him came in 1988, what he calls his conversion. (When I ask if he means an environmental conversion or a religious one, he laughs and says, "Well, the two are the same for me.")

That summer, after watering his mind with the writings of Thomas Berry and warnings about climate change from environmentalist James Hansen during months of record-melting heat, he was ripe for a change. And then it happened during a performance at Orchestra Hall by the Paul Winter Consort, an early experiment in world music that mixed jazz with outdoor sounds - wolf howls, whale noises - to create the effect of nature's ambience. Father Charles stumbled out of it, awakened.

"It wasn't rational," he says. "It was one of those moments where you just know. My Dharma. My path. I thought, what can I do? I'm a priest." 

His new inspiration led him to check out the Interfaith Coalition on Energy in Philadelphia, a charitable organization formed by the Council of Churches, Jewish Federation and local archdiocese to sponsor energy audits, provide workshops and help their congregations become more energy empowered.

Following the Philadelphia example, Father Charles got involved locally, eventually taking a year-long sabbatical to found Michigan Interfaith Power and Light to carry out that energy-aware mission through shared resources, service discounts and education. MiPL is currently 200 member churches strong.

Though activism occupies a huge part of his energy and focus, Father Charles is careful to keep it in balance and avoids a heavy-handed approach with his fellowship, low-income Michiganders who might be slow in recognizing the urgency of shrinking global resources in light of their own economic stricture.

"They say that good preaching is the story of the community, the story of the text, and the story of the preacher," he says, and points out that his personal story is one where both the thrust of the text and the community have already come together to create a unified conservation-centered worldview. (Sustainability never far from his mind, he makes an awkward but endearing metaphor about all of these blending together in a compost to form a perfect mulch.)

Mostly, Father Charles says, he tries to urge the people to live more simply, or to lower their carbon footprint, which he says is the same thing. He talks about the church's next class on sustainability, a workshop on building your own root cellar, and how this and many other old-fashioned techniques suddenly have new value in light of modern concerns.

"There is a hunger out there for this," he says. "These values are timeless."

Daniel Johnson likes to write, among other things. His last article for Metromode was A Secondhand Economy.


Father Charles of St. Elizabeth's in Wyandotte

St. Elizabeth

Wind turbine and solar panels help cut energy costs by one third at St. Elizabeth

Unless noted, All photographs by Detroit Photographer Marvin Shaouni
Marvin Shaouni is the Managing Photographer for Metromode & Model D.

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