Local synagogues and churches rewilding to welcome migratory flocks and other creatures

Editor's Note: This story is part of our series, Sacred Earth which will examine the intersection between climate change — and faith, worldview, philosophy, psychology, and the creative arts. This series is sponsored by the Fetzer Institute whose mission is to help build the spiritual foundation of a loving world.

KALAMAZOO, MI — As a national movement to replace grass-dominated lawns with native plantings catches on, several local faith institutions are rewilding part of their land. 

The hope is that not just congregational members will come to 'prey' — and that these native planting waystations may sustain migrating bees, birds, and insects, connecting wild spaces as an ecosystem highway (also called a Homegrown National Park). 

In the face of climate change, many people at faith institutions feel that humans have let their obligation to steward God's creation down.

However, churches and synagogues in the Kalamazoo area have begun taking steps to help correct the situation.

Some have been influenced by a book titled “Nature’s Best Hope,” a bestseller published five years ago. Its thesis is that the omnipresent grass lawns in this country use inordinate amounts of water and harmful fertilizers, insecticides, and pesticides; they are not home to pollinators like bees, moths, and butterflies; and they restrict what could be a beneficially diverse environment. 

The author, Douglas W. Tallamy, a professor of entomology at the University of Delaware, contends that replacing half of the lawn grass in the United States with native plants and trees would greatly improve the earth’s ability to sustain people and wildlife.

“What if each American landowner made it a goal to convert half of his or her own lawn to productive native-plant communities?” he writes. “Even moderate success could collectively restore some semblance of ecosystem function to more than 20 million acres of what is now an ecological wasteland. 

“How big is 20 million acres? It’s bigger than the combined areas of the Everglades, Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Teton, Canyonlands, Mount Ranier, North Cascades, Badlands, Olympic, Sequoia, Grand Canyon, Denali, and the Great Smoky Mountains national parks.”

Tallamy writes, "If we restore the ecosystem function of these 20 million acres, we can create this country’s largest park system. It gives me the shivers just to write about it. Because so much of this park will be created at our homes, I suggest we call it Homegrown National Park.”

Some places of worship are taking baby steps in that direction, starting small because many churches and synagogues sit on large lots — 12 acres for one (Congregation of Moses) and 18 acres for another (New Day Church). 

Recently a group discussion of “Nature’s Best Hope” was held at Portage United Church of Christ, 2731 W. Milham Ave. Twenty-seven people attended and had a fruitful discussion, says Mary Ann Laurell, leader of the church’s Green Future Team, formed two years ago. 

Mike WenningerThe rain garden at the Congregation of Moses.Last fall five church members planted a pollinator garden in the building’s front lawn facing Milham Avenue. The garden measures 24 by 18 feet and has 25 varieties of flowers that will bloom from spring to fall. “My heart has always been with the earth, with our planet and nature, so that’s where I just naturally wanted to put some effort,” Laurell says about her leadership of the Green Future Team. “I just got involved with the environmental end of it.”

The recent book discussion was planned by an organization called Hope for Creation, an interfaith group formed 10 years ago. It’s a network of churches and synagogues that work together to deal with climate change. About a dozen faith communities are represented.

Laurell says, “I’m real pleased to be a part of Hope for Creation. I think it’s trying very hard to help other churches think about what they can do and also share information between us.”

Members of Hope for Creation are all lay people except for the coordinator, Pastor Ruth Moerdyk of Skyridge Church of the Brethren, 394 S. Drake Rd. in Kalamazoo. Regarding the group discussion of “Nature’s Best Hope,” Moerdyk says, “About half of the folks who were there are pretty active participants in Hope for Creation and half were new to us, and that was just really nice for us as an organization.”    

Several years ago at Skyridge Church, native plants and grasses were planted in a small water-retention area, and future plans include a pollinator garden in the front lawn and possibly converting parts of the big lawn to prairie. 

“One of the reasons I enjoy doing native planting is because it sequesters carbon and helps the ground absorb more water,” Moerdyk says. “If we’re taking care of the planet, we need to take care of the soil and the creatures on the planet, and native plantings are one of the most immediate visible ways to do that. I think that’s one of the things that’s really satisfying to people.”  

Rev. Ruth MoerdykShe continues, “One of the most important things is that working in a church organization has a bigger ripple effect and it’s a point of visibility; lots of churches have more visibility physically because of their locations. It’s good for folks to know that people of faith are trying to do something about the environment because that hasn’t always been the case very much.”

The Homegrown National Park project at Temple B’nai Israel, 4409 Grand Prairie Rd. in Kalamazoo, focuses on trees instead of flowers and grasses. Member Steve Bertman says, “We started a green team a couple years ago. One of the things that people were excited about was this idea of increasing the amount of native vegetation that is useful to native plants and animals.”

The temple’s lot is close to five acres and the lawn is enormous. There are a couple acres of native woods and for two years volunteers have been removing invasive plants from the wooded area. The green team also wants to reduce the lawn area. 

Bertman says, “There’s a section of the lawn near the parking lot where we planted some native trees and mulched the area to try to kill the grass. And we’re hoping to expand that. The idea is to extend the wood lot into parts of the lawn to reduce the amount of whatever chemicals they put down and the amount of mowing that needs to be done and increase the native perennials.”

Steve BertmanBertman is an atmospheric organic chemist who teaches at Western Michigan University; his subjects are sustainability, climate change, and regenerative agriculture. 

“In the face of climate change, everything that we can do to make our world more resilient to the change matters,” he says. “We know that the climate is going to bring changes — this past winter is maybe the clearest example.”

Another church that is taking tremendous steps to steward their land is New Day Church on 3600 Nichols Rd. There, Co-pastors Bill and Marlee Menser are cultivating 18 acres of development-locked land and restoring it to savannah and prairie with trails open to the public.

The extensive habitat restoration, which is part of a unique partnership with the Department of Natural Resources, is being funded through their Southwest Regional Wildlife Private Lands programs and will cost around $70,000. It will include removal of invasives, planting of grasses and wildflowers, cultivation of existing mature deciduous trees, and creation of at least two miles of paths with educational signage. The result will be a savannah with Eastern deciduous trees, natural sedges and wildflowers, and a prairie wildflower meadow. 

Fran DwightFor New Day Co-Pastors Bill and Marilee Menser and their congregation, being good neighbors means sharing the gift of their land. With congregants, they knocked on over 500 doors to share about the new trails.“We have an opportunity to do some restoration here and reach out to neighbors with a beautiful refuge in the middle of development that will attract endangered species such as monarch butterflies and grasshopper sparrows," Mark Mills, Regional Manager for the DNR's Wildlife Division told Second Wave in 2022.

A church doesn’t necessarily have to dig around in its lot to promote better care for our world. Open now is the 12th springtime Westminster Art Festival at Westminster Presbyterian Church, 1515 Helen Ave. in Portage. From its start in 2013, this juried show of visual art and poetry, with several cash prizes, has had themes related to improving our environment. 

This year’s festival theme is “Grounded” and the guide for artists states: “Our words for ourselves and for the earth’s soil (“human” & “humus”) derive from the same root, indicating just how fundamental is our connection to the ground beneath our feet, the land we live on. . . . Would a deeper groundedness help us be better stewards of the land?” The show opened on April 27 and runs through June 13. (Watch for our Sacred Earth story coming soon.)

Another local faith institution on the Homegrown National Park progress map is the Congregation of Moses synagogue, 2501 Stadium Dr. in Kalamazoo. Carolyn Kennedy, a board member there, says, “We’re trying to reduce our carbon footprint, make smart choices inside our building as well as outside our building, and just be generally more environmentally conscious.”

The large synagogue sits on a 12-acre lot and the first step was a rain garden for pollinators. “We have a tremendous amount of water that we have to deal with when there’s heavy rain,” Kennedy says. “We found that we had a lot of water running into our front yard and we had to do something to deal with that.” 

Mike Wenninger A bee visits a flower in the rain garden at the Congregation of Moses.About 30 kinds of flowers and grasses were planted and about half are thriving. “It’s doing what it’s supposed to do, which is trap and encompass large quantities of water and let it slowly drain into the ground,” says Kennedy.

“Another thing that we’ve done to manage our property a little bit better is to try to reduce the amount of lawn that we have. We do not fertilize or do anything like that anymore.  And we’ve also reduced the amount of lawn that we mow; now we leave some unmowed areas, some big sections.”

There has been much removal of invasive plants, and a lawn area close to the building is being converted to no-mow grass, which usually requires mowing only once or twice a season.

Jewish people say efforts to improve our environment relate to the Hebrew term tikkun olam.  “It means repairing the world,” Kennedy says. 

“Judaism is very clear that it is our responsibility to care for our home, the earth. And so now that we know a lot of things that we’ve done in the past were damaging, it’s our duty to repair them and to fix it, whatever it takes.”

Artist: Taylor ScamehornThis artwork was created by Taylor Scamehorn. Please see the Artist's Statement below.
Taylor Scamehorn, artist
Taylor Scamehorn (she/her) of Kalamazoo is a multidisciplinary artist with a BFA from Kendall College of Art and Design. She freelances for Southwest Michigan’s Second Wave Media as a photographer and editorial artist and is a member of the faculty at the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts. She specializes in work driven by concept and narrative, focuses on her sustainability practice, and enjoys spending time in nature. 

This story is part of Southwest Michigan Journalism Collaborative’s dedicated coverage of quality-of-life issues and community development. SWMJC is a group of 12 regional organizations dedicated to strengthening local journalism. Visit swmichjournalism.com to learn more.

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