Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of quarterly features on faith communities that are demonstrating leadership on climate issues. If your congregation or faith community should be featured, let us know! Email us at [email protected]

The First Congregational United Church of Christ in Hastings put their love for Creation into action this past year in a unique way.

A long-running Lenten program led by the church’s Justice Committee zeroed in on climate change as their focus topic during 2020 and 2021. While Justice Committee members would usually plan and lead a six-week study session on their topic of choice during Lent, their 2020 plans were upended by the COVID-19 pandemic. Undeterred, the committee picked up their work once again in 2021 and the result was profound: the entire congregation raised $3,000 in a matter of weeks and invested in 8 solar panels at the Hastings Community Solar Farm.

Among the committee leaders making the case for solar was Tom Genung, a noted climate activist from the fight against the Keystone XL pipeline. Hastings UCC members benefited from plenty of homegrown experience beyond Tom’s. During the Lenten program, speakers gave presentations over Zoom following Sunday services. Leaders from Nebraska Conservation Voters, Central Community College of Hastings, and Hastings Utilities and Community Solar spoke to the congregation and the members of the public in attendance, along with Nebraska Interfaith Power and Light’s own Rev. Penny Greer and Ken Winston. Subjects ranged from our moral and spiritual calling to care for the earth to environmental advocacy to jobs in sustainable energy and details on the Hastings utilities projects. This lineup of speakers was crafted to connect the dots from individual choices of conscience to community responsibility to concrete action the church could take - namely, investing in solar panels.

Rev. Jessica Palys, the pastor of Hastings UCC at the time, put her pastoral experience and environmental degree to use not only with her own congregation, but also across the state, by creating an organizing toolkit for pastors to take similar bold climate action. The 25-page document outlines everything from foundational reasons to take action, Scripture passages for support and inspiration, conversation guides for youth and adults, to Nebraska-focused suggestions for actions and potential partner organizations. “Focusing on our relationships with the world - not just with people, but with the planet- is our job as Christians,” says Rev. Palys. Her congregation agreed and voted in favor of the solar proposal.

One of the biggest factors that lead to approval of the investment is one familiar to faith communities everywhere - keeping the lights on. Expenditures on utilities for the church building are the second largest line item in the Hastings UCC budget. Traditional electricity rates are on the rise and predicted to continue trending upward, while the solar panel investment functionally results in fixed energy rates for 30 years. According to ProGen Solar, an average house would require 3 solar panels to cover their energy usage.  For this particular church, 8 panels will likely supply about a third of the energy usage. In terms of numbers, investing in renewable energy will mean a more secure church budget for future generations.

For a small church of about 70 households, the solar investment is significant. It demonstrates that a small group of committed congregants can create major change, and is, in Rev. Palys’ words, “a demonstration of our love for Creation.” The example set in Hastings is undeniable as neighbors who heard about the investment started asking what they could do in their own congregations. “We have a call to take action on behalf of our faith. When we do that as church folk, we show a different side to Christianity.”