Outside the hulking limestone facade of Gesu Catholic Church and School in Detroit, Michigan, a group of fifth and sixth graders sit in the grass next to two rain gardens full of native plants — perennial flowers and grasses like Black Eyed Susans, Wild Strawberry, and Indian Grass. 

The gardens are a new addition to the grounds of the 85-year-old church, recently installed by students, parishioners, and community members. In addition to serving as critical wildlife and pollinator habitat, the beds are built to catch rain running off the church’s roof and asphalt surfaces, allowing it to percolate slowly through the garden soil rather than entering Detroit’s storm-swollen sewers. 

“Both of these gardens combined are large enough to absorb the rainwater from a 100-year storm,” explained Liam Nantais, one of the fifth graders who helped to build the green spaces. The gardens, together with new two dry wells and five 500-gallon rain barrels on Gesu’s six-acre campus, are capable of retaining up to nearly 3,000 cubic feet of stormwater.

The gardens at Gesu Catholic Church are part of a growing network of “Sacred Grounds” sites, a collaborative initiative between houses of worship and the National Wildlife Federation, or NWF, to build native plant gardens and educate congregations and communities about caring for the environment. First started on the East Coast a decade ago, the program’s gardens and educational programs are now popping up at faith sites around the country, including in places where phrases like “climate change” remain taboo. 

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The program has become increasingly popular in the Midwest over the last few years. Four years ago, a coalition of Toledo, Ohio groups approached the NWF about expanding the Sacred Grounds network to their city. Now, over 20 houses of worship across Toledo participate in the program, and there are a growing number of gardens in Grand Rapids and Detroit. By the end of the year, the NWF plans to have 80 Sacred Grounds sites across the country.  

“There’s an opportunity for folks to have more open and healing conversations around nature and natural spaces by providing that common ground, literally,” said Manja Holland, national director of the Sacred Grounds program for the National Wildlife Federation. 

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Religious communities are often under-engaged and under-utilized members of the environmental movement. “The issue lies on the conservation side,” Martin Palmer, secretary general of the Alliance of Religions and Conservation, told Ensia. “They need to actually invite the faith side to the table and stop pretending that no one other than environmental organizations has done any work in this area.”  

Kids sit on the grass in front of a representative from the National Wildlife Federation as she congratulates them for their work and presents them with a certificate.
Tiffany Carey from the National Wildlife Federation certifies the gardens as a “Sacred Grounds” site. Jena Brooker/Grist

This exclusion comes despite the vast fundamental environmental stewardship values embedded in the teachings of many religions, and the widespread concern by congregants. In the Bible, for example, there are around 100 verses that talk about protecting the environment. In the Quran, there are hundreds, and the 32nd greatest sin in Islam is wasteful consumption. In Buddhism, karma, interdependence, and the vow to protect all life relate to the environment. According to a 2014 study conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute, more American Hispanic Catholics classify themselves as “very concerned” about climate change than those unaffiliated with a religion — 43 percent to 38 percent, respectively. In addition, one-third of the institutions that have committed to divesting from fossil fuels globally are faith-based organizations, according to 350.org, a nonprofit working to end fossil fuel use and build community-led renewable energy. 

“At least 85 percent of the world’s people are part of religions, and we can’t leave them out [the environmental movement],” Mary Evelyn Tucker, a scholar of religion and the environment at Yale University, told Grist. 

But the lack of environmental engagement with — and within — religious groups is changing, even in communities where conversations around the environment have traditionally been hard.

The Meditation Missionary Baptist Church on the westside of Detroit is a mostly Black congregation with around 70 members. The church is part of the Southern Baptist Convention — a denomination whose view on climate change over the last four decades has shifted from what experts say was sympathetic to environmentalism to “indistinguishable from that of secular conservatives in the climate denial movement.” 

Glenn Hodges, an assistant pastor at Meditation Missionary, said climate change and the environment aren’t issues generally discussed with the congregation because of other pressing priorities, like equity and inclusion, safe housing, and addressing crime. “The struggles that we face are different in the community that we’re in.” 

But in 2019, the church chose to build a rain garden as a part of the Sacred Grounds program because community members wanted to create an enjoyable greenspace — and the rain garden would serve the dual purpose of managing excess stormwater.

Flooding is a huge issue in Detroit. Just this past weekend, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer declared a state of emergency after Wayne County, where Detroit is located, received over 6 inches of rain in 12 hours, forcing hundreds of drivers to abandon their cars on flooded freeways, damaging homes and businesses, and causing power outages. 

Part of the problem is that Detroit, like many cities, is covered in impervious surfaces — parking lots, sidewalks, and rooftops that do not allow rainwater to soak into the ground. And the city’s aging combined sewer system is easily overwhelmed, leading the water to flow into the Rouge or Detroit rivers and flood neighborhoods in the process. A preprint for a new study shows that almost 40 percent of Detroit residents surveyed have experienced flooding as a result of rainfall. 

To make matters worse, Detroit water bills are determined in part by the amount of impervious surface on a property — leading to extremely high utility charges. Water bills were so high in 2017, in fact, that 200 clergy members across Detroit protested the city’s water and drainage fees, asking the city’s mayor to reason with the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department for lower rates. Some churches were being charged as much as $850 an acre per month. For a family of four in Detroit using 50 gallons per person per day, the average water bill is $1,151, annually, compared to the national average of $432. 

Part of the church, and one of the rain gardens at Gesu Catholic church.
One of the rain gardens Gesu Catholic Church recently installed. Jena Brooker/Grist

After Meditation Missionary installed its rain garden and started maintaining property around the area, Hodges said others in the neighborhood, a high-poverty area, began taking better care of their own properties as well. “It just gives hope to people,” Hodges said.  Congregation members then also started their own home gardens to help with flooding. “They talk about it all the time,” Hodges said. 

Many Sacred Grounds participants work with other community partners in addition to NWF, to maximize impact and increase funding opportunities. Meditation Missionary has worked with several community partners including the Sierra Club and two local environmental nonprofits, Keep Growing Detroit and Friends of the Rouge, to in total build a community garden, rain garden, and soon in July, the church will build a meditation and prayer trail to beautify the space and offer even more greenspace for the congregation. Leaders said that all of these projects have helped to foster environmental awareness and action within both the church and the larger community. 

“We have a responsibility as a church community to [protect] nature,” said Hodges, “and it’s all interconnected, our faith with nature as well as with community.” 

In each cluster of Sacred Grounds participants, the focus is unique to what the community needs. 

In Grand Rapids, Michigan, the focus is more on climate and climate resiliency.

Four of the Grand Rapids Sacred Grounds sites have joined the Grand Rapids Climate Resolution Coalition, whose goal is to get the city commission to declare a climate emergency and to commit to a plan for city-wide carbon neutrality by 2030. 

Diane Raynor, secretary for Congregation Ahavas Israel, one of the religious partners in the coalition, wrote in a booklet about the initiative, “Tikkun olam, our responsibility to repair and heal the world includes the need to protect God’s creation from the climate crisis. Native plants help us sequester carbon and create a more sustainable and beautiful sacred space.” 

With a grant, the NWF will be adding 16 new Sacred Grounds sites in Grand Rapids over the next two years to help with a new project from one of its partners, LGROW, to create climate resiliency plans for seven sub-watersheds in the area. The Sacred Grounds sites will serve as locations for collecting data and facilitating community engagement in the process, as well as education and demonstration sites. 

Additionally, with the grant, the NWF plans to give out 120 native plant vouchers to community members during the workshops. Each voucher is redeemable for $50 worth of native plants at a local nursery. To date, NWF has had around 300 of the plant vouchers distributed and redeemed across Detroit, Toledo, and Grand Rapids. That means a lot more green space and wildlife and pollinator habitat.

NWF’s program is just one of several projects nationwide that are working to bridge the gap between environmental action and religion. The Climate Witness Project, formed in the last decade, works with houses of worship on energy stewardship, advocacy, and education. At the University of Cambridge, the faculty of divinity are working with climate groups at the university as well as faith groups across the world to organize a faith-and-science summit at the COP26 climate conference being held in  Glasgow. In 2019, an international group of Muslims demanding climate justice formed, called the Extinction Rebellion Muslims. 

Pointing to past movements that gained momentum after religious leaders came on board, such as when Martin Luther King Jr. spoke out against the Vietnam War, Tucker from Yale said, “Of course we need science, policy and law, economics, and technology, all of these are necessary but not sufficient without the values, without the moral and spiritual energy for transformation.”