Peacemaking and Creation Care: Indiana’s Mennonite Community

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It is quite possible that, despite their denomination’s relatively small size, more kilowatts of solar power are being generated by Mennonite churches than by any other faith group in Indiana. Most of these churches are clustered in the northeastern end of the state, especially in LaGrange and Elkhart counties, where Mennonites began settling in the 1840s.

Indiana’s Mennonites share an Anabaptist heritage with the Amish, though today only the most conservative Mennonite groups dress distinctively. Mennonites are characterized by simple living, deep community ties, and wide social conscience. They were early abolitionists. They have often been conscientious objectors during wars, and have a “remarkable commitment to helping those in need,” being among the first responders to natural disasters. In fact, they originated the Victim-Offender Reconciliation Movement in Elkhart, Indiana.

KernRoadPanels.pngHoosier IPL has had the privilege of working directly with Kern Road Mennonite Church in South Bend and the Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart to help install solar panels, resulting in 25.9 and 59.4 kilowatt arrays respectively. Kern Road has become a H-IPL UEP Acclaimed Congregation as of this year, achieving significant energy conservation in the worship building and in members’ AMBSGarden.pnghomes, and AMBS is well on the way to doing the same. The seminary’s gold-standard LEED-certified library and six acres of restored native prairie and other gardens, as well as their annual Rooted and Grounded Conference, testify to the school’s seriousness about modeling creation care for students and community alike.

Several Goshen congregations aren’t waiting for help with solar. Benton Mennonite Church in the village of Benton outside of Goshen, installed their array in 2013 (see other photos from their dedication here). Three member families joined the church in going solar, installing home arrays when NIPSCO was offering a generous feed-in tariff. Benton’s copastor Brenda Hostetler Meyer and her husband Rich have both solar and wind power. 

The church’s other copastor, Doug Kaufman, explained that interest in creation care at Benton BentonMennonitePanels.pngChurch grew out of their practice of baptizing the faithful in the Elkhart River—and discovering that it was polluted with E. Coli and needed cleaning up. They continue to test the river’s water several times a year and to attend to other watershed issues. See their impressive story of creation care activities here.

Assembly Mennonite Church in Goshen likewise has a very active creation care team whose commitment for the past six years has been “to better understand our impact on God’s creation, and act, corporately and individually, to reduce the adverse effects of that impact.” Specifically, they participate in H-IPL initiatives such as Task of the Month and workshops, impose on themselves a voluntary gas tax, organize sermon series and retreats, promote carbon diets and less-meat groups, and hold an annual Blessing of the Bicycles, among many other things. They are now working on acquiring solar panels for their meetinghouse.

EighthStreetMennonitePanels.pngEighth Street Mennonite Church, also in Goshen, is currently installing an $89,504, 38.4 kilowatt system consisting of 120 panels. Built by Wellspring Renewable Energy, the array will supply 75% of the congregation’s electricity. Congregation members committed more than $61K to the project, and the remainder came from the church’s Living Memorials fund. The system will not be visible from the ground, limiting their day to day witness. But the church has other signposts: a community garden, allowing neighbors to grow vegetables, and their policy of opening the church to other groups for meetings. They have also converted their exterior lighting from sodium vapor to LED, reducing consumption for exterior lighting by 2/3.

The nudge to install solar panels came from a small group who composed a proposal letter to the board, and the concept was quickly embraced. For their annual Green Sunday last month, the church dedicated their solar panels, and the Rev. Janeen Bertsche Johnson, a church member who is also campus pastor at AMBS, and whose work has been central to the seminary’s efforts, preached on four texts focusing on the sun.

Waterford Mennonite Church, likewise in Goshen, sought out a conventional loan to install their 51.3 kilowatt system. A dozen church volunteers installed the system in two days. Total project cost, including tree trimming and landscaping, came to $85K, an amazing $1.65 per watt. The system was designed to provide 80% of the church’s needs, and payback is approximately 10 years, an easy sell for the congregation. 
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But this isn’t their first venture into creation care. The Waterford Wetlands, an outdoor extension of the congregation’s sanctuary, is 55 acres of unspoiled natural areas and unique wildlife habitat developed when the church was built in the 1970s. Part of the Elkhart River floodplain, the wetlands serve a crucial role in the water cycle, cleansing and purifying the water and slowing water runoff.

Waterford’s Creation Care Ministry Team was founded in 2012 with Luke Gascho facilitating. Gascho is director of Merry Lea Environmental Learning Center of Goshen College in Wolf Lake,  and Goshen College professor of Sustainability and Environmental Education, and was also founding board chair of Hoosier IPL six years ago. In addition to utility conservation and the wetlands, the team has devoted itself to emphasizing creation care in both worship and education on all levels.

Bethany Christian Schools, which serves grades 4-12 in Goshen, was chosen as a 2017 U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon School and honored in a ceremony in Washington D.C. in July. Bethany is among just 45 schools nationwide honored for achievement in three areas: “innovative efforts to reduce environmental impact and utility costs, improve health and wellness, and ensure effective sustainability education.”

BethanyEnvironmentalEducation.pngThe U.S. Department of Education commended Bethany for providing innovative environmental and sustainable education to its students, participating in sustainable practices such as recycling and composting, and being powered entirely on renewable energy, a portion supplied by the installation of solar panels and a wind turbine. Read an in-depth article here about the award and Bethany’s achievements in renewable energy, conservation, and sustainability education in the curriculum, promotion of health and wellness through outdoor education, and their Farm to School initiative, which has begun with a school garden and will eventuate in more and more of the cafeteria’s offerings being locally sourced.

The school’s 300 solar panels, installed in 2015 by Solar Energy Systems, supply 77 kilowatts of power. In addition they have a 3.6 kW wind turbine and a geothermal system. Between these and their conservation measures, Bethany generates 12%of its energy needs on campus, and purchases the rest from other wind and solar sources.

Many of these projects benefited from a web of connections. Like ripples in a pond, actions taken by one group affected others. Here is one example: The Merry Lea Environmental Learning Center was an early adopter of solar panels back in 2006 when it constructed a biological field station that was Indiana's first platinum-rated LEED® facility. Executive director Luke Gascho, who oversaw the project, then served as an informal consultant to many people in the area. He helped found not only H-IPL but the Mennonite Creation Care Network. This bi-national network is based in Goshen and encourages congregations to incorporate creation care into their ministries. All of the congregations mentioned are members of Mennonite Creation Care Network.

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Beyond the several congregations and education institutions highlighted here, Mennonites from throughout the state partner with H-IPL in creation care efforts, from Paoli and Bloomington to Indianapolis, Kokomo, and Berne. Since voluntary simplicity, reverence for creation, and justice are built into the Mennonite DNA, active work to restore creation is simply a twenty-first-century outgrowth of their deeply rooted traditions. In the midst of all that our state has to contend with environmentally, one of our greatest blessings and resources is our Mennonite connection.