How churches are heeding the call to care for the earth

Michelle Walker says some of the most unusual items that come to the Repair Cafe are children’s toys. Like the animatronic slithering snake. Or a chattering duck, that ended up defeating the repairing team.

“We couldn’t fix that one, sadly,” she tells me.

Repairing a slow cooker at the St Luke’s Repair Cafe in Geelong.

When Michelle’s church – St Luke’s Uniting Church in Geelong – decided to open a Repair Cafe, it wasn’t actually a hard decision. The church already operated a Men’s Shed – a space offering tools and other equipment to share skills and obtain new ones – and a sewing program for refugee and migrant women.

“We had a whole room full of sewing machines, and another space with all these tools. We had the skills within the church and from people we knew in the community to make it happen.”

The Repair Cafe has become a place for the community to bring broken household items and have them fixed for free. And not just that. It’s a place to share skills and maybe even learn something – not just about the broken thing in front of you, but about the world.

Fixed!

“It’s like going to your uncle who might show you how to do something. We’re not professionals, and we’re not seeking to replace local businesses – we refer people on to experts frequently when we can’t fix something – but we’re also trying to help people learn a few skills so they might be able to fix things themselves, too.”

“Once we had someone come in with a coffee machine. She hadn’t done anything to it in terms of maintenance or repair. Too afraid to undo some screws. It took about two hours, and they didn’t solve everything. But she was more confident in doing things herself …

“Fifty per cent of the time it’s not an electrical issue. It just needs a dust and a clean.”

The cafe is open for three hours on a Saturday afternoon once a month – though Covid-19 has seen it closed for almost a year. Michelle says they were planning to open again in February, but plans were dashed after Victoria went into a snap five-day lockdown. They hope March might be the month to make their comeback.

The Repair Cafe is just another way St Luke’s is venturing into the community, she says. “We have lots of conversations with people about why the church is involved in something like this,” she says. “We get people waiting around for their items to be repaired, so they sit and have a cup of coffee and something to eat. And some of our people just wander around having chats. It connects with a lot of stuff that the church is trying to do.”

Michelle is one of the founders of the Repair Cafe and a member of St Luke’s Environmental Action Group that has been attempting to change the way the church operates to lessen its impact on the environment.

“Reducing waste to landfill and not consuming so much, not just discarding things … I think that’s a way we can help show our love of the earth. The impact that consumerism has on the earth is one thing we can actually do something about,” Michelle tells Eternity.

“… There are more churches than ever making changes.” – Jess Morthorpe

St Luke’s was awarded a Five Leaf Eco-Award for its dedicated work for the environment. The Award’s founder, Jess Morthorpe, began them in 2008 when she was just 21. She wanted to encourage churches to take action in what she believes is their responsibility in caring for creation.

“I had trouble putting my passion for the environment and my faith together,” says Jess.

“I didn’t understand why the Church wasn’t leading the charge in caring for the earth. Surely we should be at the forefront of this.”

She says after starting the awards, she discovered that many churches were “already doing amazing things”.

“In the last decade, the Church’s awareness of our need to take action on environmental issues has exploded and there are more churches than ever making changes.”

According to the 2016 National Church Life Survey, 40 per cent of churches are active in collecting recyclables, while about a third are purchasing environmentally friendly consumables and including environmental concerns in their worship services.

Two per cent of churches have an environmental team specifically dedicated to organising activities and making changes in the church for the sake of the environment.

Another of those churches is Brunswick Uniting Church in inner-city Melbourne. It, too, has received a Five Leaf Eco-Award, and is continuing its efforts to be a leader in the community on environmental impact.

Solar panels on Brunswick Uniting Church are just one action the church has taken to reduce its environmental impact.

Richard Arnold is the convener of the church’s Climate Action Group, which in 2019 created a ‘Climate Action Plan’, where the congregation came together to develop a set of actions and priorities the church will take over the next five years. The plan includes developing youth activities which encourage care of creation, and reducing the church’s carbon footprint through the use of solar panels and green power.

“The easiest thing for us was to purchase green power. You’re immediately making an impact in a decision that can be made overnight. We purchase through an organisation called Power Shop, which guarantees that the power you purchase is green. It is more expensive, but not by much,” says Richard.

The church is next looking to increase their lighting and heating efficiency, “which require spending a bit of money”.

Perhaps the most encouraging thing the church has done, says Richard, is to be part of a broader environmental movement so they can learn from other churches. He named the Australian Religious Response to Climate Change (ARRCC) and Common Grace as organisations that have helped bring churches together on this issue.

Jess Morthorpe says that most of the Australian Church’s efforts to become more environmentally conscious have been a result of volunteers – members of a congregation who feel motivated to step up and make things happen.

“It can be a bit isolating,” she said, “Sometimes they have to push so hard within their own congregations to make things happen.”

The Five Leaf Eco-Awards are a way of recognising those efforts – and to acknowledge that even small steps can lead to bigger commitments.

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