Faith communities and climate change

Islanders are working together to support the earth and its environment.


It’s easy to feel defeated and hopeless when we see what’s going on around the world. War, mass shootings, hate crimes, and the realization that global warming is right here, right now — those are just some of the things that can make us abandon hope.

Growing up in the ’60s and ’70s, there were serious issues for sure, including Vietnam and the threat of nuclear war, but we didn’t seem to feel so doomed. We were busy riding bikes outdoors with our friends, and playing board games with our siblings. We had time to sometimes even be bored, which led to daydreaming, which seems to have all but vanished in the age of the iPhone and 24/7 social media. Bad news wasn’t spread around the world with the tap of a finger on a handheld keyboard, as it is now.

For the Rev. Stephen Harding, it’s his 17-year-old son Theo’s view of the world, this overwhelming sense of dread, that serves as the impetus for his need to address climate change: “His world is filled with [news about] school shootings, terrorism, and climate change, and it’s really overwhelming when I stop to think about it. His sense of the future is very different from what I grew up with, so I have to do something.”

Harding, rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Vineyard Haven, isn’t alone in his thinking. As part of the Island’s Interfaith Climate Action Team, he meets with a group of a dozen or so folks who have gathered regularly since COVID to brainstorm ideas around climate and ecology, and turn those ideas into action. The idea is to not allow doom to set in, to try to jump-start hope through faith, and to recharge a sense that change is possible in addressing issues even as big as climate change.

Real change has come from their gathering, and they have a special event coming up the weekend of April 5 to 7. They’ll open up discussion and present information during what they’re calling “One Home, One Future: From Prayer to Action, Taking Heart in the Climate Crisis,” with the Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas as facilitator. And they want to stress that the weekend isn’t just for spiritual thinkers — it is open to everyone.

Bullitt-Jonas is an Episcopal priest who serves as missioner for creation care for the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts, and for the Southern New England Conference of the United Church of Christ. She’s a sought-after speaker, author, and organizer who has engaged in civil disobedience since 2001, getting arrested at a prayer vigil, along with other protesters against global warming, at a Washington, D.C., event. The climate action group sees her message as one that will resonate with the Island community.

Talking with members of the group over the weekend, it became clear how they have informed one another, their friends, families, and now the whole community.

Rebecca Gilbert is a frequent visitor and speaker at the Unitarian Universalist Society in Vineyard Haven, and considers herself a follower of “Earth spirituality.” She shared some insights about why she’s gotten involved with the Interfaith Climate Action Team.

“I find that when I’m fearful and confused, I tend to shrink back into my habitual ways,” Gilbert said. “Providing examples of things we can do that actually work and that are kind of fun is a way of breaking out of that.”

Most everyone in the group talked about real changes they’ve brought to both their congregations and into their own lives. It’s hard to miss the solar panels on the rectory grounds at Grace Church, and they’ve also converted to using heat pumps. No more Styrofoam coffee cups, plastic tableware, or milk jugs, and no more throwing away food waste. Members are switching to practices that are more ecologically sound.

One way they do this is by offering composting bins to their worship communities, making it easier to get started. The First Congregational Church of West Tisbury led the way on composting, instituting a program called Sacred Grounds. “We hand out little countertop buckets from IGI and teach our congregation how to compost,” said team member Libby Fielder.

Jo-Ann Taylor from St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church said they’re getting started with a similar program now. Parishioners can pick up and drop off compost buckets on Sundays, then the material is taken to Island Grown Initiative farms by Bruno’s trash removal and recycling, to be used in IGI’s fields. Coming full circle, IGI feeds the community with veggies both sold at Island markets and gleaned for the Food Pantry. “St. Andrew’s just started with composting, and people love it,” Taylor said. “There are things we can do to empower each household. It makes them feel like they’re not just lying down and taking it.”

Religious teaching, in most if not all faith communities, has something to say about creation, ecology, and taking care of the earth. But moving those directives into action is another matter.

Bullitt-Jonas writes on her website (, “Not to preach about the climate crisis, not to preach about environmental degradation, not to preach about our calling to repair and restore the world that God entrusted to our care is to preach a Gospel that is far too small.”

But we’re creatures of habit who are not easily persuaded to change.

The co-chairs of the climate action team, Jana Bertkau from the West Tisbury church, and Abby Bates from Grace Church, are capable leaders of this group. They’re in it for the long haul.

Bertkau explained that the group first met on her deck during COVID, with Grace Church taking on a leadership role, and Bates coming forward to serve with her as co-chair. They participate in the Island’s Climate Action Fairs in May that have taken place the past half-dozen years or so, holding workshops to create ecology streamers to hang at home or at worship sites, as well as other projects at the fair.

“We meet about every six weeks, and we share best practices on how we are communicating with our congregations on climate change, and what action we can take as individuals and as church,” Bertkau explained.

She said that as people of faith, they should recognize the great gifts of nature humankind has been given, and that they have a responsibility to take care of these gifts. Bates added that there is a feeling of hopelessness to be acknowledged, but that the upcoming weekend event will allow people to “move through that and into a feeling that we are going to do things to make it better.”

The weekend involves events at St. Andrew’s Church and at the Hebrew Center, as well as Sunday at the West Tisbury library. And, Bates added, there are no politics involved. If someone is uncomfortable with the faith aspect of the weekend, they can skip those events and go straight to Sunday’s offering at the library. “Regardless of your feelings about faith or group worship, you can get something out of this retreat,” Bates said.

The Interfaith Climate Action Team is made up of members from traditions that include Episcopalians, Congregationalists, the Federated Church, the Friends Meeting (Quakers), the Hebrew Center, and the Unitarian Universalists. The membership’s diversity is a bonus, the group shared, but they’d love to bring in Wampanoag folks, anyone with a Muslim or Buddhist perspective, and others, so that more of the Island community are represented.

Alison Van Dyk talked about how the group is affiliated with national and global faith-based climate change groups. There’s even a whole organization dedicated to using eco-friendly palms — sustainably grown and harvested in Guatemala and Mexico — for the Easter season. Van Dyk says the group looks at the bigger picture as far as their goals go. “We look at our little group as one part as we move toward a bigger vision,” she says.

The banner outside Grace Church reads “One Home, One Future,” and that’s the goal of a wide-reaching organization of the same name — visit

“If people think they’re alone in this, they can realize they’re part of a community where everybody is doing it. That makes it easier,” Bates said. “We start to think about food waste, and how it goes back into the soil and feeds people here on the Island; this turns it from a little thing to a big thing.”

For the here and now, Sarah Nevin, a member of the Island’s Quaker community along with her husband Bruce, says she and Bruce began by converting their home to solar energy and buying an electric vehicle.

“It’s not difficult — and he doesn’t have an electric bill to pay anymore,” Nevin said.

“Through simple changes that are achievable,” said Mary Gentle from the Federated Church, “you have some success with that, and you’re able to be part of a great project. We don’t use any paper products at home or at church. From a small thing like bringing a mug to events, it balloons out into the community. My own children asked, ‘Where are the throwaway cups?’ and I said, ‘We threw them out.’”

If you’re interested in the Interfaith Climate Action Team, join them on Friday, April 5, when things get started with a Shabbat service at the M.V. Hebrew Center at 5:30 pm, then Bullitt-Jonas will preach at the 8 and 10 am Sunday services at St. Andrew’s Espiscopal Church in Edgartown. The event wraps up with a gathering at the West Tisbury library on Sunday from 2 to 5:30 pm.

Contact co-chairs Jana Bertkau at or Abby Bates at