Where heaven and earth converge, conserve
Vermont church lifts spirits and the environment
By Craig Wilson
SHELBURNE, Vt. — All Souls Interfaith Gathering has a reputation for being all-inclusive.
The small congregation, founded in 1999, recognizes just about every faith you can think of. No one is turned away. And that includes Mother Earth.
ASIG prides itself on being one of the greenest churches in one of the greenest of states, and nothing proves that more than its spanking new sanctuary building, which opened in October.
It's a model for ecological correctness: locally harvested wood, bamboo flooring, compact fluorescent lights and a furnace that will heat the facility using grass, corn or wood pellets. The congregation expects to go through 30 to 35 tons of wood pellets this first winter in the new building.
Even the air conditioning is provided by using water from an artesian well.
"I'd like to think we're cutting-edge," says the Rev. Mary Abele, who heads the congregation that numbers 70 but is growing every week. "I suspect some come now because of our environmental practices."
ASIG also took advantage of its prime location. The new sanctuary's west-facing windows capture perhaps one of the most stunning views you'll ever see — rolling farm land, Lake Champlain and the snow-capped Adirondack Mountains beyond.
If you weren't a tree hugger before — or a believer — you'd be hard pressed not to be one after taking in this view. "You sit here and the sun is setting, and oooh," sighs Laurie Caswell Burke, ASIG's environmental coordinator.
When the building opened, Abele told the Burlington Free Press that the views are "an inspiration to help us understand who we are in connection with the environment and the divine."
It's a theme that runs through everything ASIG does. Even the new parking lots, cut into the property's forest, were put where they were to preserve as many mature trees as possible.
"The building needed to blend with the surrounding site rather than stand out. (We needed to) play the building down, make it inviting, make it calm, play on the beauty of the site and surroundings, let the building be the shelter from which one can appreciate the whole," says Marty Sienkiewycz of SAS Architects in Burlington, who designed the project with congregation members.
"They came to us with a wish and more of a dream," says Sienkiewycz, who met with church members more than a dozen times. "If they had not had such a strong influence, it would have turned out very differently, but we're quite pleased with it."
It's all part of a trend in the religious world in which more worshipers are looking to save the environment as part of their spiritual journey.
Dozens of ecumenical groups are tackling everything from global warming to "eco-palms" for Palm Sunday services. The National Religious Partnership for the Environment, for instance, says it represents 100 million Americans, an alliance of major faiths combining religion and ecology.
"I see the environment as a portal to connect with the divine," Abele says. Why now? "I think it had to get to the crisis level, and that's where we are."
Abele and her flock leave no stone unturned. Literally.
An outdoor circle of stones, built by congregation members in 2003, is "a place to connect with the Earth's energy." Members are encouraged to walk the Sacred Earth Wheel often. Nearby is a labyrinth that members also traverse.
In addition, the church has Flower Communions (congregants are encouraged to bring flowers to share at a May service) and a Gathering of Waters ceremony (water from springs, brooks and rivers are blended in a communal bowl).
Don Stevens of the Abenaki Nation of Missisquoi even used feathers from a red-tail hawk to wave sage and tobacco smoke over members at the opening service in October. The "smudging" ceremony is an American Indian purification ritual to drive away evil spirits.
This winter, the church's adult and children's programs will focus on environmental messages. The "green" theme has always been taught at an early age here. ASIG's children's program this winter is titled "The Sacred Environment — The Earth and Me."
Hoping children will "fall in love with the earth they live on, we're teaching creation stories from the ancient myths to the big-bang theory," Caswell Burke says. "I think we're ahead of our time. The earth is woven into every service. There's a connection between the environmental and the spiritual."
Each month a community member is invited by ASIG to talk about his or her passion for the planet. A beekeeper has spoken to the children, and Christopher Davis, who manages the 1,000 acres around ASIG, spoke over the weekend about the congregation's new "green building, how it works day to day."
"Once we started with the concept, (the environment) drove so many parts of the project," Davis says. "It's a philosophy. It was always, 'Let's use what we have. Let's reuse and incorporate.' "
Abele, in a homily on Veterans Day, drove the point home.
While honoring the veterans, she asked her congregation if it was too much "to honor what they're fighting to preserve. … It means nothing if we allow our air and our environment to deteriorate."
As for the sanctuary, Abele can't quite explain the spirit the new building houses. "It's beyond what I expected," she says. "I'm not sure what's happening, but it's all good."
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