By Cari Kilmartin

Newo acts as Western Canada Regional Support Centre for Faithful Footprints, a United Church of Canada grant program that aims to help churches reduce carbon emissions. This is a Faithful Footprints success story. Photos featuring people courtesy of Robertson-Wesley United Church, church interior and exterior shots by Gino Genson.

One of a scant few pre-First-World-War structures still standing in Edmonton, Robertson-Wesley United Church (RWUC) is prominently perched on a corner lot on the west end of downtown, complete with eye-catching red brick facade, 30-metre spire and eclectic assortment of stained glass windows. The team tasked with taking care of this designated municipal historic resource has its hands full, maintaining the architectural integrity of the building, keeping up with regular wear and tear, and dealing with emergencies in between (the basement flooded at the time of writing this piece).

Despite occasional headaches, the building is a point of pride for the congregation. As RWUC property chair Jack Waters says, “It’s always exciting being on the property committee. You never know what the year will bring. We plan, and then plans change. We think it will be an easy year, and then something falls apart. Having a historic building to look after is interesting and rewarding.”

There is significant cost — monetary and otherwise — associated with using and maintaining any church, let alone a century-old building. Recently, the congregation sought out the United Church of Canada’s (UCC) Faithful Footprints grant, which provides funding to help UCC properties with energy efficiency and decarbonizing projects. RWUC used the Faithful Footprints funds to do a full LED lighting retrofit in hopes of “lessen[ing] the financial burden of energy costs on our members, while also assisting the church reduce its carbon footprint,” says facilities manager Brad Campbell. “The financial savings will be redirected to our mission and outreach activities. The immediate, non-financial benefit from the project is that the lighting quality within the church has been greatly improved, particularly in the sanctuary.”

Beyond the lighting retrofit, Campbell says the work to reduce RWUC’s carbon footprint is far from over. They have replaced freezers, and plan to upgrade hot water tanks and install lighting dimmers, motion sensors, and maybe even solar panels as finances and available grants permit.

Caring for their building in a way that aligns with the UCC call to “live with respect in Creation” and “draw on the Earth’s sustenance responsibly” is not the only way the RWUC congregation engages in environmental stewardship, nor does their well-loved church building bound the concept of church.

About a year ago, RWUC established an environmental stewardship team that has been exploring ways to deepen connections between faith and the environment. One concept that stood out to the team was “Wild Church,” a movement that seeks to shift away from the paradigm of nature as other. Julie Lovell, RWUC missions and outreach co-ordinator, cites Church of the Wild by Victoria Loorz as a primary guide for the team’s exploration into the idea, describing Loorz’s work as an “eco-spiritual book [that] considers Biblical narratives through the lens of nature, presenting a call to be in communion with all creatures and expand our conception of the Church to include the Earth itself.”

Explorations ultimately led the team to initiate a practice of their own, Wild Church YEG, which now gathers every third Sunday of the month at alternating parks in Edmonton, offering an alternate way “to engage in a worship with the rest of Creation.” The goal is to not just “meet outside,” but to come into relationship with the natural world, to recognize and learn to participate in the ecosystems and interconnections human beings already belong to.

“This isn’t as radical as it sounds. There is a template in our faith tradition for people walking into wilderness to be with God, pay attention, and care for the earth,” Lovell says.

Robertson-Wesley United Church regards caring for Creation as a spiritual commitment at the root of the Wild Church YEG practice. As the UCC encourages its faith communities to take tangible action on reducing their carbon footprint, RWUC and Wild Church YEG are finding ways to make material changes while attending to deeper, cultural and inner questions.

We recognize the ecological urgency of reconsidering how to treat our neighbours — even non-human and inanimate neighbours — as kin in God’s creation. — Wild Church YEG