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Gainesville places of worship advocate for environmentalism as tenet of faith

Rev. Rebecca Putman, of Westminster Presbyterian Church, stands next to the cross that overlooks the memorial garden. Putman said members of the congregation use the space to honor those who have passed. (Kai Johnsen/WUFT News)
Rev. Rebecca Putman, of Westminster Presbyterian Church, stands next to the cross that overlooks the memorial garden. Putman said members of the congregation use the space to honor those who have passed. (Kai Johnsen/WUFT News)

Alice Gridley lived in Southeast Florida on a canal with a two-level dock. After 25 years of use, she rebuilt her dock in a slightly different location to accommodate the sea level rise.

Today, Gridley is chair of the environmental justice focus group at Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Gainesville, which is one out of four focus groups within the social justice committee. The committee has been reading “The Climate Book” by Greta Thunberg to gain a better understanding of the importance of environmentalism.

“I’m 85, big age gap from Greta,” she said. “But she’s my hero.”

Environmentalism and religion may not seem like they have much in common, but a growing number of local places of worship advocate for environmentalism.

Mary Bahr, chair of the social justice council at Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, said the church was founded on the principle of social justice during the civil rights era.

“The first [principle] is to respect all other people and their beliefs,” said Bahr, 78. “It's not just tolerance, but total acceptance. The principle about the Earth and about the environment and how we need to take care of it is why we do what we do.”

She said she attended service at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Gainesville 30 years ago when she was visiting for a teaching workshop and has been there ever since.

In 2007, the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship earned its green sanctuary designation, said Alice Primack, former co-chair of the social justice council. To earn this status, Unitarian Universalist communities have to follow certain rules, including reducing plastic waste, reusing tableware, recycling and composting.

The church no longer holds this status due to these demands, Primack said. However, she believes the church still sets an example for people in the congregation to make minor changes at home.

Primack joined the church in 1976 and has had a long-standing interest in the environmental crisis.

Ellen Siegel is co-chair of a climate action team at Temple Shir Shalom in Gainesville.

“In Judaism, we have a core value called ‘tikkun olam’, and it means ‘repair the world,” said Siegel. “We have a responsibility to protect places for people we love and responsibility to future generations.”

The climate action plan is a commitment that the temple will reach net zero by the year 2050. Temple Shir Shalom is part of a larger network called Jewish Climate Leadership Coalition, which partners with other Jewish organizations that strive to take action in climate change.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, Siegel said she noticed the Gainesville Regional Utility electricity bill was around $900.

“Frankly, I had a freak-out,” she said. “That's just so much money for not even using the building that much.”

As a result, the board of Temple Shir Shalom decided to invest in insulation, updated thermostats and replaced light bulbs with LEDs in the synagogue.

“This last Sunday, we went and took our sins out of the water, and we did a cleanup at Earl P. Powers Park [and] collected 84 pounds of trash,” said Siegel.

“Tashlich” is the ritual of throwing one’s sins into the water and is performed on Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of the Jewish High Holidays and Ten Days of Repentance, which started Monday.

For the past two years, the practice has been slightly different because members decided to pull their sins out of the water.

Adela Beckerman, co-chair of the Temple Shir Shalom climate team, said they are partnering with a national movement to remove one’s sins from the water through “tashlich.”

A Gainesville nonprofit, Community Weatherization Coalition, trains people to perform an at-home energy audit, and the Temple Shir Shalom climate team intends to train its members in December. The training will be open to the entire community.

The Temple Shir Shalom climate team is currently working on a landscape program that aims to be more eco-friendly and potentially sequester more carbon and support more biodiversity.

The team is made up of a core group of about 10 people and around 30 to 35 people on a mailing list. Beckerman said the number of people helping depends on the project.

Siegel said she resonates with the rituals and practices on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, which occurs in the first month and the seventh month in the Hebrew calendar.

“Collectively, we own all the sins that we've done this year; we don't stand alone,” she said. “If one person is hungry or homeless, we're all hungry or homeless. We are all in this together.”

“I really admired what they're doing for the Earth, what they're doing to advocate for justice, particularly their work with immigrants and homeless populations,” said Rev. Rebecca Putman, 35, of Westminster Presbyterian Church which is two miles from the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Gainesville.

“Even though they are a small congregation, they seem to really be interested in living out what they believe is their calling from God to make the world a better, more beautiful and more just place,” Putman said.

Westminster Presbyterian Church first met in 1967 and officially became a congregation in 1969.

“If we truly believe what we say on Sundays about God being the creator of all that is, we believe that it is our responsibility to advocate on behalf of that creation,” she said.

Westminster Presbyterian was certified as an Earth Care Congregation 10 years ago. The certification process involves four aspects of how the church is facilitated: worship, education, facility management and outreach.

The Earth Care committee represents these concepts through its responsibility of eco-justice outreach, advising other groups in the congregation and building the church’s butterfly garden, which the committee hopes to expand next year.

The Earth Care committee has also contacted politicians to advocate for and against certain policies and partnered with Zero Waste Gainesville, the Sierra Club and the Florida Museum of Natural History.

“We believe that care creation is inherently tied to justice and for advocating for those who are the most vulnerable and those who are poor and oppressed,” Putman said. “What happens to the Earth affects those who are the most vulnerable. It's not just something we do because we think butterflies are pretty. Our butterfly garden is pretty, but that's not the central reason why we do this.”

Kai is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing