Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Fast Action on Elections
distributed 10/8/04 - ©2004

Eco-Justice Ministries is pushing churches in Colorado to take a stand in support of a ballot initiative. The range of responses from church leaders has been remarkable.

There are important lessons to be learned that go far beyond this immediate campaign.

Some background: in Colorado, citizens can use a petition process to place initiatives on the ballot. The state-wide initiative that we're supporting this year is a proposal to require increased use of renewable energy by the state's largest electric utilities. It was taken to the ballot after the state legislature repeatedly caved in to corporate lobbying and failed to pass this popular legislation. Over the summer, Eco-Justice Ministries helped recruit volunteers from churches across the state to gather signatures in that petition drive.

We're encouraging Colorado voters to support the renewable energy proposal on "eco-justice" principles. It will lead to energy conservation and reduced pollution, including the mercury pollution that tends to have the greatest impact on low-income communities. And wind farms offer sustainable economic development in rural areas.

A month ago, we sent a mailing to 750 churches across the state with information on the initiative. The mailing included bulletin inserts that address the issue as a matter of faithful stewardship of God's creation. Several denominational leaders in the state have reinforced our mailing with supportive reminders to their congregations.

This week -- on a last-minute request from campaign organizers -- we contacted about 30 churches in the Denver area, to see if yard signs for the renewable energy initiative could be handed out after their Sunday services.

Some of the responses to our advocacy efforts have been enthusiastic.

  • I fielded a call from a small community out on the eastern plains of Colorado. Instead of the black-and-white bulletin insert that we had sent out, they asked for a full-color version. They wanted to spend the extra money for color copies, so that people would pay more attention to this issue. (Yes -- we provided the color set for them.)
  • One pastor that I talked to about the sign distribution thought for a moment, did a quick check ("they're for a ballot issue, not a candidate?"), and then said, "Of course!"
Some have been cautious. In many congregations, the decisions about using bulletin inserts or distributing signs can't be made quickly. The matter goes to committees that consider the ethical issues, and the repercussions for their internal church politics.

And there have been strongly negative responses. The comments that have come back to us are not about our advocacy, but at the situation in local churches.

  • A good friend of Eco-Justice Ministries, and a supporter of the ballot measure, wrote back: "No, people from the campaign should not come to my church to hand out yard signs. They would not be welcome, and political advocacy would not be thought appropriate." His note continued with a deeply frustrated commentary on the absence of environmental consideration in that congregation. (In 22 years, the senior pastor has never preached on an environmental topic.)

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A mix of factors shape the responses to our advocacy. Two of them stand out as important in any long-term strategy for engaging churches on controversial issues.

1) The churches that were able to respond most quickly and easily had already taken positions that simplified this decision.

  • United Church of Christ congregations that have passed "Whole Earth" declarations have clear policies in place to support their advocacy.
  • The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America re-mailing of our information referred to the denomination's 1993 social policy statement on "Caring for Creation."
  • Unitarian Universalist congregations base their stands on the UUA Seventh Principle -- "respect for the interdependent web of existence of which we are a part."
These churches had already dealt with the question, "Do we care about environmental policy questions?"

2) There is a sharp dividing line between churches that see political education and engagement as a core part of their ministry, and those who never touch on such matters. I'm sure that hundreds of our letters to churches were tossed out, not because of our stand on the issue, but because those churches will never address any ballot question.

In Colorado, ballot initiatives are approved for the ballot in mid-August, and campaign strategies are not settled until early September. Most of the education and advocacy is crammed into a frenzied two months before the election. That is too late for churches to start thinking about the complicated questions involved.

If our churches are going to be able to relevant, responsive and engaged on these vital matters of public policy, they need to lay their groundwork well before the start of campaigns. They need to decide if they will ever take a stand on legislative or ballot issues. And they need to decide on the ethical perspectives that will shape their advocacy. Both of those decisions deserve lots of time and deliberation.

Is your church clear about its stance? Or do you need to start that discernment soon?

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Eco-Justice Ministries is proud of our leadership in bringing the renewable energy initiative to congregations in Colorado. (For our Colorado friends: advocacy resources, including the bulletin inserts, are featured prominently on the home page our website.) And we're proud of our long-term work with congregations across the US that helps them prepare for significant roles of education and advocacy.

Note: Our advocacy work on this ballot initiative has been partially funded by a $500 contribution from the Rocky Mountain Conference of the UCC. Our ability to do this work -- short-term and for the long haul -- is really made possible by the financial support of our individual and congregational donors. Your contributions are important to this ministry!


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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