Going Solar: The Little Congregation that Could
By Gary Simpson
“Be praised, my Lord, through all your creatures, especially through my Lord, brother sun who brings the day; and you give light through him. And he is beautiful and radiant in all his splendor. Of you, Most High, he bears the likeness.” ~ Saint Francis of Assisi
Conversion. For many Christians the term conjures up the vision of a “come to Jesus” supernatural moment of personal salvation. On the road to Damascus, Saul, the persecutor of Christians, looks to the heavens and is blinded by the Son. In this single close encounter with the Son of God, Saul the Pharisee is converted into Paul the Apostle.
But for congregants of the diminutive old Pittsboro Presbyterian Churchin Pittsboro, NC, conversion has also taken on another meaning. Conversion at the church is a daily natural occurrence, at least on days when the sun is shining.
|Pittsboro Presbyterian Church|
Nowadays, when folks lift their gaze to the heavens above the church, they are apt to catch a glimpse of brother sun shining down on an aesthetically appealing array of dark solar panels constantly converting sunbeams into electrical current. The panels nestled against the black shingled roof are so inconspicuous that they almost negate one of the purposes for their existence: to serve as a shining witness to all that this congregation is striving to become a leader in their denomination's mandate of Restoring Creation for Ecology and Justice.
The unlikely story of a small Presbyterian church located in the heart of the historic district of a quaint little North Carolina town becoming the first congregation in the entire county to go solar, began six years ago. At the time, environmental ministry was not yet a blip on Pittsboro Presbyterian's mission radar and the term Eco-Justice would never have appeared in a game of congregational Scrabble. But a handful of environmentally conscious members emerged from the study of Carol Johnston's primer, And the Leaves of the Tree are for the Healing of the Nations: Biblical and Theological Foundations for Eco-Justice, with a desire to put discussion into action.
The seeds of environmental activism were sown into congregational soil not unlike that encountered by the sower in Jesus' parable (Luke 8:4-15). Chatham County is known for its rocky red clay soil that is worked first, not with a shovel, but with a pick. But once tilled, there is great potential for growth and fruition. The persistent handful of sowers in the church worked the soil of ideas, suggestions, and proposals that, over months and years, found fertile ground. By 2016, after much tilling and keeping, they chose to embark on a bold project to determine if their dream of installing solar panels on the church had a chance to see the light of day.
Members of the eco-justice group participated in a Solarize Chatham workshop presented by the local community college in partnership with NC Interfaith Power and Lightand NC WARN. This led to a rooftop assessment by Southern Energy Management(whose representative just happened to be a Presbyterian elder). His verdict? “You're good to go!” And so we did. We set out in search of churches whose solar dream had borne fruit in order to glean from their harvest. We were impressed by the work done by United Church of Chapel Hill. In 2015 they installed 326 rooftop solar panels including a solar trellis at their church entrance, a shining example of a faithful local response to a global crisis.
I was personally enthused by a section of the report presented by their United Earth Ministries (UEM) team that defined the ultimate rationale for such an ambitious project:
After many months of research and discussion UEM realized that a return on investment (ROI) calculus was the wrong metric to prioritize and that care of God’s creation was/is part of their congregation’s call to faith and mission. As a congregation, UCCH’s decisions on mission work has always been based on what is right to do. Once the church discerns what is right, they figure out how to fund the mission. UEM realized they needed to think of the solar project in the same way. UEM proposed a large-scale project that would reduce the church’s carbon footprint substantially and act as a billboard for care of God’s creation and hopefully as an inspiration for other churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples in the state… UEM hopes that this work will go viral and many other congregations will commit to help our world transition to truly clean, renewable, and sustainable energy, honoring God and preserving the world for future generations.
We grasped the solar baton that we felt had been handed us and created our own bold proposal to install rooftop solar for all the right reasons. Figuring out how to fund the project came down to an appeal to Session to “borrow” the money from a special bequest that the congregation had received some years earlier. Since the panels would eventually pay for themselves, this could be a perfect “win-win” situation. We used Matthew 25: 14-30, the parable of the talents given to three servants, to illustrate our reasoning.
Congregants of Pittsboro Presbyterian could also experience the kind of joy and satisfaction that the two faithful servants felt by putting the talents to use for the Kingdom. It came because of the faithful decision to invest a small portion of the bequest to further the work of the Kingdom through a local response to the critical environmental mandate to transition to renewable energy. It would honor God and help to preserve the world for future generations.
In the spring of 2017, the Solar Project proposal was accepted by Session. By year's end, 43 solar panels were converting light from brother sun into electrical energy for a little congregation that found a way.
Gary Simpson is a member of Pittsboro Presbyterian Church.