Sacred Spaces Grants seek to further environmental justice statewide

Michigan is home to a dense network of faith-based communities. The latest count of tax-exempt entities in the state show 8,715 religious organizations and churches in Michigan, which employ a collective 9,618 people, earn more than $798 million in revenue each year, and have assets of $2 billion.

Some of these communities are just a few dozen individuals who meet for weekly worship services while others bring several hundred together on campuses that rival a state university in size.

Each of these congregations has an impact on energy usage but not every one is equipped to mitigate those impacts.

This year, a $1,241,505 grant of federal funds through the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) — targeting 10 low-income Michigan congregations of various faiths over the course of 30 months — is hoping to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by helping improve the energy efficiency of their facilities. 

"That will pay for that congregation becoming energy efficient," says Richard Killmer, climate witness project consultant for EGLE. "Our experience with low income congregations is, they're really caught between a rock and a hard place. They've got huge energy bills and [they’re] sometimes equal to the pastor's salary. We're talking big bills, and they can manage [to] pay those bills, but they can't manage to get the building fixed. And that's a real problem."

The Sacred Spaces Clean Energy Grant project is directed by the Climate Witness Project (CWP), a partnership of Grand Rapids-based nonprofit World Renew and the Christian Reformed Church of North America, and will further environmental justice on a statewide scale by addressing two key challenges — 
  • the need to address climate change by reducing emissions of greenhouse gasses and
  • the harm caused by the climate crisis in low-income neighborhoods that can least afford to make changes, along with low-income congregations’ inability to pay for energy efficiency improvements to their facilities because of inequity. 

Applicants of any faith or denomination are eligible for one of the $100,000 grants to make improvements that reduce their consumption of fossil fuels for electricity, heating and cooling, as long as they meet certain requirements — 
  • The applicant's annual budget must be under $250,000.
  • The congregation must have 50 or more members, at least 10 years of operation and must operate from buildings open to the public rather than residential properties.
  • The applicant must also operate active programs responding to human needs, such as food pantries or health clinics.

Further, preference will be given to applicants within environmental justice communities.

"We're hoping that this grant will make the building more energy efficient," Killmer says. "We've got ways of measuring that reduction of greenhouse gasses and we're also going to work with each congregation to help them get solar energy."

“Houses of worship in lower-income communities in Michigan make significant impacts in the neighborhoods where they serve,” Kris Van Engen, justice mobilizer with World Renew, said in a news release. “They battle food insecurity, speak out for racial justice, help residents gain access to clean water, as exemplified during the Flint water crisis, and constantly partner with other organizations to contribute to positive change efforts in their communities.”

“Houses of worship are often at the heart of community life and the Climate Witness Project will help them save money and more effectively serve their neighborhoods,” says Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in a recent news release. “With these EGLE grants, congregations can invest in climate-friendly building upgrades and focus their resources on offering vital services to families and neighbors instead of paying high electric and gas bills. We will continue working together to lower costs and build a healthy, prosperous clean-energy future with faith communities and all sectors of our society and economy.” 

Grantees will never be on their own in this process. A director appointed by the CWP will work with each congregation, in most cases hiring a contractor to be responsible for the improvements, Killmer says. A portfolio management tool will also help in tracking electric and power bills, so stakeholders can measure their building's energy efficiency as years go on.

“Low-income people in the U.S. are also those who confront the climate crisis first and foremost. They do so at the same time they experience inequitable environmental degradation, which often confronts them where they live and work,” Killmer said. “This project will provide a model for government agencies, denominations, and philanthropists that want to help low-income congregations reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.” 

Support for the Sacred Spaces Clean Energy Grants comes from the Michigan State Energy Program, through funding from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) State Energy Program that Michigan receives for public and private energy efficiency and renewable energy projects.  

Similar initiatives are being conducted elsewhere in the state by Michigan interfaith Power and Light, which, like 40 other state affiliates who reach a total of 18,000 faith communities across the country, works to coordinate faith communities throughout the state to help them become leaders in the effort to address climate change and environmental degradation.

"We're just beginning to urge low income congregations to apply," Killmer says.

Despite the early stage of the project, the projected impact is clear. “We expect that this grant will be a resource for and bring deserved positive attention to leaders who are already making a difference on environmental justice issues in their communities,” Van Engen says. CWP plans to share outcomes of the project with congregations across Michigan throughout the course of the 30-month pilot program. 

Grant applications are available on the Sacred Spaces Clean Energy website.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.