Rick Kruis was recovering from an infection when he got word in late February that his church, Bethany Christian Reformed Church in Gallup, N.Mex., had been named a 2017 Cool Congregation Challenge winner by the national renewable energy organization Interfaith Power and Light.

Bethany won because of a project in which the church, with the help of others, was able to install 100 solar panels atop a carport in the church parking lot. The solar energy from the panels supplies the electrical needs for the church building.

“It really brightened my day when I heard that we won,” said Kruis, a member of Bethany and a leader in the CRC’s Climate Witness Project.

“But we need to give synod credit for addressing Climate Change in 2012 and the subsequent role that the Climate Witness Project had in inspiring the project at our church.”

Bethany CRC is one of five winners of the Cool Congregations Challenge, a united effort by religious congregations across the United States to address global warming by reducing their carbon footprint and by becoming inspirations to their members and communities.

Winners were selected from five categories: Cool Planner, Sacred Grounds Steward, Energy Saver, Renewable Role Model, and Community Inspiration.

Bethany won and was awarded $1,000 in the Renewable Role Model category.

“These five congregations are casting a vision for the kind of world in which they want to live, and then carrying out that vision with practical actions that make a real difference in creating lasting solutions to climate change,” said Rev. Susan Hendershot Guy, president of Interfaith Power and Light, in a press release.

“Whether a small or large congregation, rural or urban, these projects demonstrate that when we work together, we can create positive change, save energy and money, and live out our calling to care for creation.”

Interfaith Power and Light credited the CRC for being the first denomination in North America to make and endorse a statement saying that climate change is real, likely caused by human activity and posing a significant threat, especially to the most vulnerable and future generations (see Acts of Synod 2012, pp. 802-807).

Formed out of synod’s action, the Climate Witness Project is an outreach of the Office of Social Justice and World Renew. The project is designed to help congregations learn about the realities of climate change.

Along with advocating on an international level for such things as  Paris Climate Agreement, the project helps churches to be better stewards of the resources they have been given, and, as they find their voice, to speak to their public officials about common sense climate policy that will benefit the earth, people around the world who are poor and vulnerable, and future generations.

So far, more than 500 CRC members from nearly 80 congregations in the U.S. and Canada have come together to learn, act, and advocate for a safer and more just world.

According to the Cool Congregations press release, Bethany took Synod 2012’s call to action by synod to heart and began looking for ways to save energy. The church eventually decided it wanted to install solar panels — an expensive project.

Led by Kruis, the church recruited “Climate Witness Partners” from multiple congregations, presented information sessions on Climate Change, and explored possible strategies.

As a part of this process, they discussed an investment model for nonprofit financing of renewable energy projects by inviting congregants and friends to invest — the idea being formation of a Limited Liability Company that would install the solar project, says the press release.

Unlike in a typical nonprofit model, the investors could benefit from U.S. federal tax credits available for solar energy projects.

“Enough investors were found to install the project in September [of 2016]. By December, they began to watch their meter run backwards.”

In addition, Bethany has worked to engage and encourage other congregations to consider an investor model. They presented information to a local Presbyterian congregation, a local mosque, a Roman Catholic church, and 13 CRC congregations in the region. Two congregations (in Zuni and Shiprock, N.Mex.) showed strong interest in adopting the model.

“They expect the project to engender awareness among their members of the possibilities in harnessing renewable energy. Several families in their congregation are installing solar or planning installs in 2018,” says the press release.

The Cool Congregations Challenge shows that people of faith are united by concerns about climate change and are taking action — with or without support of government policies. The winners provide strong moral role models for their communities, and their activities have a ripple effect with people in their own homes, says the press release.

In an October 2017 Banner article, Rick Kruis said: “[Global warming] is quite possibly caused by human activity. We should do something about it because it affects the most vulnerable —the poor. Even if it is not caused by human activity, we should not sit around and wait.”

Click here to learn more about the 2017 Cool Congregation Winners.