Rev. Cameron Barr has been the Senior Pastor at United Church of Chapel Hill (UCCH) since March of 2018. I sat down to speak with him because his congregation has an enthusiastic and intentional approach to creation care. I am thankful for Rev. Barr’s time, UCCH’s support of Habitat, and UCCH’s presence and work on this issue in Chapel Hill. Below is an edited selection of the comments and questions.
What is your congregation’s approach to creation care, earth ministry, or earth justice?
I like to say that we're not trying to be a church that has a program for social justice. Any church can do a social justice program, and I can talk about social justice or a theme like racial justice in a sermon. I think what we're trying to do is to be a church where our justice commitments are expressed in everything that we do throughout all of our programs, so that they are reflected in worship together: in the way that we teach Sunday School, in the decisions that we make as a community about staffing, in the kinds of educational activities that we undertake. We want our justice commitments to be expressed in all of those things, and I think that's where the solar panel initiative came from. The other environmental commitments that we have were rolling before I got here. There was a community of people who were reflecting together on what it meant to be a church and said we want to live out, we want to practice what we preach. We want to live out our faith commitments, and that means that we need to design this building in such a way that it has a minimal impact on the environment.
How did the congregation’s solar power project come about?
It was the last hurrah of Jill and Richard Edens, former senior pastors here [at UCCH]. I think they took 38 years worth of leadership capital and asked what could we all do together right now that really would express who we are as a community. And so the biggest initiative in that capital campaign was to install the largest solar panel installation on a church in the Southeast, and there were a lot of folks who supported them in doing that, but that campaign was chaired by Dan Vermeer who teaches environmental ethics at the business school at Duke. And Kathy Shea who at one point had been the director of Interfaith Power and Light. Alan Reed, Tim Copland, and Herman Greene were also very involved.
What are the sources from the scriptures or the Christian tradition that inspire your congregation’s work in earth ministry and creation care?
Well, in terms of the scriptures, two things come to mind. The Psalms have been especially important. In Psalm 24: “The earth is the Lord’s!” Reminding us that all this is a gift from God, and we need to behave as a congregation as if we are caretakers that need to pass something along to the next generation without depleting it to the point of doing damage. Also the story of creation in Genesis: What does it mean to be created beings in a created world? This world and the systems that we exist in are much bigger in scope than we can conceive. This thing is bigger than us, so how do we respond to that mystery? Our Earth Ministry Committee meets regularly to think about the ways in which the congregation should engage in these questions, whether that is with a composting program or what we teach in Sunday School classes.
What are some of the challenges that your congregation faces as you do this kind of ministry in Chapel Hill?
I think that the greatest hazard for progressive Christians who are working together on this is self-righteousness. It is so easy to look out our front at the four-lane road and rail against the driving culture, even as there are bike racks at our church that rarely get used. It is easy for our church to offer a prideful commentary on the rest of Chapel Hill. I think confession is so important for us, to keep us from blaming others or being self-righteous because we have a creation care approach. When we have to remember our own environmental sins, then we can take a closer step with our neighbors toward environmental justice. Another thing particular to our congregation that has become really important are our Covenants. These are statements of faith that guide our thinking about racial justice, support for the LGBTQ community, and now creation and environmental justice. These covenants also show up in worship; there are times when we will recite them together as a congregation as a reminder of who we are and what our commitments are. The Covenants too are a step toward greater commitments. They point us in the right direction for the future and help our decision making, keeping us grounded and away from the tendency toward self-righteousness. Not everyone agrees with everything going on in the church or in our Earth Ministry, but there are things that we can do collectively that bring us together, and our covenants affirm that in worship and in our ministries.
Here is the central language from the UCCH Creation Covenant:
With this in mind, we acknowledge and confess our ecological sin, we humbly pray for God's guidance and strength, and we covenant and declare:
We LOVE and will care for God's beautiful, complex, wild, and dynamic creation, upon which we are dependent.
Being especially cognizant of structural racism, the plight of the poor, and species extinction, we commit to bringing about JUSTICE for all of God's people and all of God's creatures.
We will nurture a deep AWARENESS of the world around us and recognize its beauty and its growing vulnerability.
We pledge to preserve the HEALTH of our planet for our children and the children of all species for many generations to come.
Our vision is that United Church of Chapel Hill will be a living witness to care for the larger community of life through intentional and innovative management of our physical campus, and energetic and explicit inclusion of both human and Earth justice in our ministry, mission, education, theology, and worship. Demonstrating that we can be agents of change, we will take courageous action in addressing the complex ecological and social challenges of the 21st Century and beyond.