On Faith

Parishioners observe a green Lent

A new take on the season before Easter includes stewardship of the environment.

STAFF WRITERFebruary 22, 2010 

— Giving up meat is a traditional Lenten practice. But several families at the United Church of Chapel Hill are giving the traditional practice a new spin.

This group of Protestants is fasting from meat every day of Lent - not just on Fridays as Roman Catholics do. And their motivation is not simply to remember Jesus' sufferings.

For them, fasting from meat is part of a low-carbon diet, a way of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

In this liberal United Church of Christ congregation, as in many others, the 40-day season of Lent that precedes Easter is being reinterpreted to accommodate environmental concerns they say are as important to their faith as personal devotion.

"I want to detach from the industrial meat system," said Herman Greene, a member of the church who is giving up meat for Lent. "When I re-enter it, I want to eat meat only from animals I know were well-treated."

Greene and his wife, Sandi, were among 100 or so congregants who gathered Sunday morning to hear Norman Wirzba, research professor of theology, ecology and rural life at the Duke Divinity School, talk about the relationship between food and creation. It was the second of a two-part lecture.

Wirzba talked about how the food choices people make can heal the planet or destroy the planet. By eating less meat, for example, people can substantially reduce greenhouse gases because industrial feedlots and waste lagoons release carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxides into the environment, he said.

"What's the world for?" Wirzba asked. "Is it for us to control and own, or is the world for us to share?"

This is not the first time the United Church has used the season of Lent to fast from carbon. Three years ago on Ash Wednesday, the church distributed 50 low-flow showerheads and 100 compact fluorescent light bulbs to anyone who would take them. It urged members to go to one of several Web sites that calculate the amount of carbon dioxide their household emits. After Easter, members were encouraged to measure the reduction in carbon emissions based on the savings people recorded.

This year, the focus has been eating whole foods, and, when possible, local foods. To help them along, church members published a "Low Carbon Diet Cookbook," featuring more then 40 supper recipes that are abundant in greens and beans. Although the cookbook includes three recipes that call for chicken and two that include fish, there are no beef, pork or lamb entrees.

Church members also set up a blog, "Confessions of Low Carbon Cooking," that included discussions on the costs of buying zucchini off-season, even if it's organic, and the qualms about buying ingredients such as coriander seeds for just one recipe.

The United Church is not alone in its growing interest in the way food is grown and consumed. At Highland United Methodist Church in Raleigh, church member Leslie Hobbs took over as chef after finding that she didn't want to eat the highly processed food it offered members Wednesday night.

"They had cooks who bought pre-cooked foods and warmed them up," said Hobbs. "Now they've gone to the other extreme with gourmet meals from scratch."

The practice of fasting during Lent is a useful learning tool for children, said Claudia Sheppard, a member of the United Church who is also fasting from meat during Lent.

"We've tried to raise our kids with an awareness of environmental concerns," said Sheppard, who has two daughters, ages 9 and 11. "We teach them that there's a growing season, and if you eat outside the growing season, your food travelsvery far."

But members point out that underlying their fast is an understanding that food connects them with the natural world and with God.

"Eating is a sacred act," said Greene of Chapel Hill. "It's the place where we most directly touch the earth."

yonat.shimron@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4891

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