The biggest challenge at the Reverend Dr. Earl D. Trent, Jr.’s historic black church is raising enough money to do the Lord’s work.
Trent, pastor of Washington, D.C.’s Florida Avenue Baptist Church, was grappling with that very issue five years ago when he heard a presentation about how going green could reduce utility costs.
“We’ve always been somewhat socially aware,” Trent said. “So when we looked at the savings and the opportunity to do something good for the environment, we decided to give it a try.”
The pastor and his board worked with an engineer to design a program to power the 103-year-old church with clean, economical energy. They equipped the roof with solar-electric panels. They replaced the aged HVAC system with a new, energy-efficient model and installed LED lights.
“We are saving at least $600 per month on electricity,” Trent said. “For a church like this one, that’s a lot of money. It has worked out so well that we are considering adding more energy-efficient features.”
As America continues to reel from an unsteady economy, many black churches have expanded from places of worship to help centers. Many now operate food pantries, drug and alcohol programs and even work-training facilities, atop traditional church services.
Yet, even as need has increased, giving has slowed. Despite the biblical mandate that good Christians should donate 10 percent of their income to the church, many members have cut their offerings, religious leaders say.
“There are a lot of hands outstretched at church these days, but far too many of them are empty,” said one pastor. “We have to raise more and spend it wiser.”
Energy efficiency serves two purposes, church officials said. It saves money that can aid members. It also improves aging facilities.
Energy modernization can be cost-prohibitive, experts said, easily topping $50,000 for a moderately sized church. So, many jurisdictions offer no-interest or low-interest loans and will finance projects up to 100 percent.
Several private organizations and government agencies help churches go green. Washington, D.C.’s Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies partnered with the African Methodist Episcopal Church in a 2012 energy pilot program.
Con Edison covered $68,500 of the $178,000 cost of energy-saving boiler and pipe insulation last year at Harlem’s Riverside Church, site of a 1990 speech by Nelson Mandela and the 1972 funeral of baseball legend Jackie Robinson.
The Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star for Congregations program “certifies” churches as energy efficient. Rosemary Enobakhare, a supervisor in the EPA’s congregations office, said some pastors are taking an activist role.
“Faith leaders understand that when it comes to environmental issues like a changing climate, minority and underserved communities are suffering the most,” she said.
The Rev. Dr. Eleazar Merriweather, pastor of Detroit’s St. Paul AME Zion Church, which is on the EPA’s “certified” list, said he regularly preaches energy conservation to his 225 members. His energy forum drew 200 participants in 2013.
“We had people there to teach them how to conserve on power so that their energy costs would be lower,” said Merriweather. “That contributes to them being able to pay their bills.”
Deacon William Gentry, CFO at suburban Maryland’s First Baptist Church of Glenarden, said energy costs there have dropped 20 to 25 percent since its energy features were updated. It also has a recycling program.
“It is a church that strives to be fiscally prudent and ecologically sound,” Gentry said.
Michael D. McAfee, a senior energy consultant with the National Utilities Refund, said his agency conducts energy audits to help churches determine how much they should spend and whether they have been overcharged on their utilities.
Energy auditors examine utility bills as far back as 48 months, identify overcharges and apply for refunds for their clients. McAfee said he has found a $15,000 overcharge at Glenarden.
Trustee Robert Trent said Greater Mt. Calvary Holy Church in Northeast Washington is working with the D.C. Energy Department’s Property Assessed Clean Energy program to finance a $3-million energy upgrade. The Trents aren’t related.
“There is a requirement by the city to go green. We are trying to be in alignment with what’s going on,” he said, adding that his 7,000-member church will save $100,000-plus per year in energy costs.
Rev. Earl Trent said he appreciates that his church has reduced its carbon footprint and that his flock are good shepherds over the Earth, as the Bible says Christians should be.
But mostly he’s happy that he has saved his congregation upwards of $7,500 per year.
“We’re always looking at the bottom line,” Trent said. “We can use whatever we save to help people.”