The New York Times has an excellent article about a new effort by churches in my current residence, Washington DC, to organize themselves and buy energy as a group, simultaneously saving money and using those savings to promote green energy. The effort is a collaboration of a community organizing group, Washington Interfaith Network, and the DC Project, which promotes green alternatives (disclosure- I am heavily involved with both organizations, and a member of a Luther Place church, which is part of WIN and the energy collaboration). Here’s what they are doing, in brief:
11 churches and a nonprofit youth group got together to solicit reduced-rate bids for electricity — most of it from renewable energy sources — from local suppliers. In the first year of its contract, which ends in May, the group expects combined savings of nearly $100,000.
As the good word has spread, and it gears up to negotiate a second contract, the original group has swelled to 40 members. The bigger alliance plans to exercise even more leverage in the next round of negotiations by requiring bidders to extend the same discounted rate to individual parishioners and members.
And more revenue is on the way: the group is planning to take a cut of those residential savings as a kind of eco-tithe…
The churches in Washington forged their alliance with help from the Washington Interfaith Network, which does community organizing for member congregations and is now receiving a 10 percent cut of the overall electricity savings. The other group that helped bring the churches together, the DC Project, is a nonprofit that promotes weatherization and green energy jobs.
Felipe Witchger, the lead organizer with the DC Project, said that the next contract will require participants, which now also include synagogues and affiliates like unions and advocacy groups, to either buy renewable energy or commit to energy-efficiency upgrades. For the upgrades, he said, workers from neighborhoods with high unemployment and poverty rates would be hired.
Needless to say, I think this is a great initiative, and may lead to even greater things.
I’ve written a lot about Catholic Social Tradition on this blog (well, not lately), and we have also written a lot about alternative ways of envisioning the economy. Generally, CST is a reaction to the broad economy, and promulgates ways for individuals to live in relation to the economy and to seek to change the economy. However, because CST is more philosophical in nature, it doesn’t go the extra mile of thinking about how individual churches can simultaneously be in the economy and change the economy.
Community organizing, on the other hand, has been practiced through churches for decades. It is a direct response to seeing the world as it is, and the world as it should be, and seeking to bring the two closer together. Churches in cities across the country, and increasingly the world, join forces to shape the political conversation around real economic issues. Often, community organizing is about marshaling a small (but still significant) amount of money from within, and a lot of people from within, to move a few people outside (politicians) to deliver a lot of money on the outside (like affordable housing projects, neighborhood revitalization, etc.).
Notice that neither CST nor community organizing speaks directly to the churches themselves being or becoming part of an alternative economy. And yet, churches are employers, social service providers, and consumers- often large ones at that. Realizing that they are economic units, and have autonomy over how they act as such (especially in tandem), can potentially be transformative. What started as an 11 church group-buying initiative is blossoming into a 40 church green energy effort. Who knows what may come next- an alternative energy co-op that creates green jobs? A joint-church solar generation effort? When churches realize that social justice can occur within and in collaboration with neighbors, we can begin to see an alternative economy, closer to the world as it should be, aspiring to the gauntlet that popes and prophets alike have set forth.