Holy light

When the Rev. Charles Morris thought about illuminating his congregation at St. Elizabeth Catholic Church, he decided to do it with solar panels, a wind turbine, compact fluorescent light bulbs and a solar net.

Morris, the priest at the Wyandotte church since 1993, believes the faith community has the responsibility to lead the way to salvation from fossil fuel dependence and pollution while embracing renewable energy sources.

And he's practicing what he preaches.

St. Elizabeth was one of the stops on last weekend's Michigan Sustainable Homes and Businesses Tour — also known as the National Solar Tour — with sites from Monroe to Clarkston and Detroit to Canton. Businesses, schools and other organizations showed off their efforts to reduce their carbon footprints by using renewable energy to heat, cooling and light.

A "solar net" covers the church's 1,400 square feet of stained-glass windows. The shroud reduces glare by 93 percent and helps regulate the inside temperature. That translates to heat savings in the winter and lower cooling costs in the summer.

Throughout the school, rectory and church, an overhauled lighting system uses compact fluorescent bulbs and other high-efficiency lights. Exit signs are LED technology.

On the rectory's roof, solar panels and a wind turbine provide part of the building's power, including electricity for the community room in the rectory basement.

A solar fan on the rectory roof removes hot air from the attic, and another solar collector on the garage roof provides hot water for the rectory. About 50 percent of the annual hot water usage is supplied by the solar-thermal system.

Overall the church saves about $20,000 each year through the measures, about half its utility expenses before the $150,000 improvements, according to Morris, who started "greening" the church in 1998 and has received national recognition for his work.

Morris appeared in Washington, D.C., earlier this year as a speaker at the first Climate Crisis Action Day. He and thousands of other participants met with senators and representatives urging support of reductions in global warming pollution and protections to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

"He's trying to lead by example. They've done that with this church," says State Sen. Ray Basham (D-Taylor), whose district includes Wyandotte. "He's a great advocate for renewable energy and leaving a smaller footprint."

Morris, 57, also was named to Rolling Stone magazine's honor roll last year — along with the likes of Stephen Colbert — for being a "man of his word" and leading other Michigan congregations to improve their energy efficiency as the executive director of the Michigan Interfaith Power & Light group (MiIPL), a multidenominational group of about 215 religious organizations.

"We bring a moral vision to the table. It's in all our traditions and our scriptures. If you look at the people, the inspired folks who got those traditions going, it was Buddha or Moses or Mohammed or Jesus," Morris says. "It's our responsibility to bring the moral values and the spiritual vision to the conversation about the environment."

MiIPL hosts its fall conference Thursday, Oct. 11, in Monroe at the Immaculate Heart of Mary Motherhouse where Morris will speak. He expects about 100 attendees from throughout Michigan, reflecting MiIPL's growth since it was founded four years ago.

Last year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recognized MiIPL with a special award for its efforts to promote energy efficiency. Among the programs noted were MiIPL's free energy audits and online store to facilitate bulk purchasing of Energy Star-qualified equipment at discounted prices. Members' equipment purchases through the site have contributed to $2 million in savings that MiIPL has fostered and 18,000 fewer tons of carbon dioxide emitted.

Larry Kaufman, an energy expert with the utility who has worked with Morris and other MiIPL members on several educational projects, says that this week, DTE Energy will pass along a $1,000 check to MiIPL that was part of an award the utility won for its renewable energy program.

"Their philosophy is that churches, synagogues and mosques have always been at the forefront of social changes, such as the civil rights movement in the '60s. The social issue that's most important to them right now is the environment," Kaufman says.

He sees MiIPL's twofold approach as, first, creating houses of worship that are greener, and, second, working to "promote from the pulpit" how people can become better environmental stewards in their own lives.

Julie Lyons Bricker, a member of St. John's Episcopal Church in Royal Oak, says Morris' leadership has helped her organization better its environmental record.

"He's been a driving force in this green movement. It's incredible. His passion is contagious. He's so interested in making things better for all of us that it's hard not to enjoy being around him and appreciate his views," says Bricker, the chair of her church's green committee.

St. John's has begun a recycling program that has reduced its trash output by about 70 percent, says Bricker, who is also a MiIPL board member. The church also provides fair-trade coffee and chocolate once a month and has improved lighting and insulation at the church.

Pat Wall, a member of the property committee at Prince of Glory Lutheran Church in Madison Heights, met Morris last weekend. Her church needs a new roof, and she and other members want to make it as "green" as possible.

She toured St. Elizabeth with Morris and learned about even more innovations she'll suggest to her church.

"We've found a whole bunch of new information," she says. "We want to be good stewards of our resources."

That's exactly what Morris is hoping happens. He suggests houses of worship — and businesses or other organizations — begin with their own audit of how they can better insulate, heat and cool. Lighting can often make a big difference. He also advocates alternative energy in addition to "normal" power sources. "It can be supplemental and complementary power during the times of the year we don't have much sun," Morris says.

A native of Pontiac, Morris grew up in rural Ohio. He attended Brother Rice High School before earning an undergraduate degree in sociology from Oakland University and then master's degrees in sociology, divinity studies and urban planning.

At his first parish in Pontiac in 1992, he tried to organize an effort for energy efficiency. "There were no takers," he says. But by the late 1990s at St. Elizabeth, he found the faith community could effectively promote environmental activism.

"It's a different voice. It's not in competition. It's not in conflict with a voice or profitability," he says. "It's a voice that we're in it for the long haul. It's our responsibility to bring the values and the spiritual vision to the conversation."

Sandra Svoboda is a Metro Times staff writer. Contact her at 313-202-8015 or [email protected]
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