WASHINGTON - Instead of giving up chocolate for Lent this year, churches are cutting back on other luxuries: water, light bulbs and plastic bags.
"What we're doing is taking traditional Lenten practices and applying them to being caretakers of God's creation," said the Rev. Roy Howard, pastor of Saint Mark Presbyterian Church in Rockville, Md.
Saint Mark is one of several Washington-area churches of various denominations helping members conduct a "carbon fast" during Lent, the season of preparation for Easter. This effort is part of a broader movement among religious groups, especially a growing number of evangelical churches that have made environmental stewardship, with an emphasis on global warming, part of their mission.
At Saint Mark, staff members developed a calendar suggesting one environmentally friendly activity for each of the 40 days of Lent. On Ash Wednesday, participants removed lightbulbs in their homes.
Although respect for the Earth might sound like an ancient principle, as old as the Garden of Eden, only in the past 20 years have churches made concerted efforts to live more lightly on the planet. The movement is linked to the biblical teaching that our nature as human beings is defined in terms of our relationships with each other, Georgetown University theology professor Anthony Tambasco said. "The consequences ... are felt not only by individuals but by communities and across generations."
For the local pastors and their congregations, that's where the carbon fasts come in.
"Our responsibility as Christian folk to care for creation ... goes back to the very beginning. It's just that we lost sight of it," Howard said. "It has been recovered in our time."
Rock Spring Congregational United Church of Christ in Arlington, Va., has undertaken a similar initiative, and it begins with the carbon-fast calendar itself: A few copies were printed and distributed in pews, but staff members have suggested that participants save paper by using one posted on the church's Web site.
The carbon fast organized by Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Gaithersburg, Md., will culminate April 19, the Sunday that falls closest to Earth Day, with the groundbreaking of a church garden. The vegetables grown there will be donated to a food pantry or to members of the congregation.
"The fast is to prepare ... for the garden. More important than preparing the soil of the ground is preparing the soil of your heart," Pastor Sarah Scherschligt said. In that spirit, she is taking the experience a step further. She is air-drying her clothes during Lent and plans to go without her car for a week.
"When you're in a food fast, you can't really do that much," said Scherschligt, who for the past nine years has fasted for five days during Lent, drinking only vegetable broth. "You have to be more careful about (what you do). I imagine that the car fast will have the same sort of effect."