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What's Up Magazine

Churches Roll Up Their Sleeves

Dec 01, 2018 12:00AM ● By Brian Saucedo

By Nicole Duran  |  Photography by Steve Buchanan

Something truly amazing happened one summer day behind St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Eastport: frogs croaked. Although that may not seem extraordinary, it is. Just a year ago, it was an overgrown wooded area suffering from decades of neglect. Invasive species had flourished, choking out native floral and fauna that supported water lilies, dragonflies, tadpoles, and frogs. 

St. Luke’s transformation is the capstone project, to date, of the RiverWise Congregations program.

A partnership of the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, the Anne Arundel County Watershed Stewards Academy, and the Interfaith Partners for the Chesapeake, the program launched in 2015 with the goal of engaging Maryland houses of worship in environmental stewardship. Funding for initiatives at the 25 participating churches within the county was provided by the Department of 

Natural Resources’ Chesapeake and Atlantic Coastal Bays Trust Fund, which also made DNR experts available to participants.

The Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay first assesses a church’s property for storm-water mitigation opportunities, as well as other environmental improvements. That assessment consists of finding “what we could do; what we wanted to; and then what we could actually afford to do,” explains Lou Etgen, the group’s Maryland state and deputy director. The Alliance helps the parishes find additional grant funding, if needed, and contractors. In exchange, each house of worship designates at least two members to attend the Anne Arundel Watershed Stewards Academy to become master watershed stewards. They help lead their congregation’s efforts, including the upkeep and maintenance once the initial plan is implemented.

Through Interfaith Partners for the Chesapeake’s outreach, “it became evident that many of Maryland’s 5,000-plus congregations are eager to address polluted runoff, but project costs and technical limitations are barriers that make it very difficult for them to launch on their own,” Etgen says. “These churches feel a calling to be good stewards, but need help to get started.”

An outgrowth of the Arlington Echo Education Center, the Anne Arundel County Watershed Stewards Academy predates the RiverWise program. It’s an intense series of courses in stormwater management, site assessments, plant selection, community engagement, and even grant writing.

“I remember telling them one day that I thought my head was going to explode because there was so much information that I was trying to retain,” says Kimberly Hickey, who graduated from the academy in 2016. “It was an awesome class.”

Hickey said one of her most significant takeaways from the course, and something that, as a RiverWise participant she tries to pass on, is the understanding that everyone has to participate in keeping the Chesapeake Bay vibrant.

“Even if you consider yourself landlocked, there still is a watershed that you are in and whatever you do on your property eventually finds its way to the bay,” says Hickey, who worships at Asbury Broadneck United Methodist Church near Cape St. Claire. Everything from not properly cleaning up after one’s dog to having inadequate gutters to leaving grass clippings behind creates pollution that ends up in the waterway, she said. It also affects the water table, she learned. 

An integral part of the RiverWise program is connecting one’s faith to the environmental work one does through the program and spreading that message throughout their congregation and community.

 “We talked about the scripture and where in the Bible it talks about being good stewards with what God has blessed us with,” Hickey says. “Whether it’s speaking to individual congregants or putting on training at the church, she stresses the importance of being good land stewards and what you can do at church, at home, and in your community.”

"Even if you consider yourself landlocked, there still is a watershed that you are in and whatever you do on your property eventually finds its way to the bay." —Kimberly Hickey

Hickey’s church, Asbury Broadneck UMC, had dire need of RiverWise Congregation’s help. It is home to a historic African-American cemetery that increasingly gets flooded during heavy rainfalls.

The flooding was compromising the graves, some of which have been there for 150 years and are the final resting places of descendants of abolitionist Harriet Tubman. At one point, vaults were floating through the grounds, Hickey says.

Through RiverWise Congregations, the Chesapeake and Coastal Bays Trust Fund awarded $500,000 to “install a treatment chain of storm-water best management practices” at Asbury Broadneck UMC. In addition to safeguarding gravesites, the project aims to infiltrate most stormwater into the ground, keeping pollutants out of nearby White Hall Creek and, therefore, the bay.

The church just secured all the necessary permits and plans to break ground soon.

As Asbury Broadneck UMC is just beginning, Eastport’s St. Luke’s Episcopal Church completed its ambitious project in December of 2017.

Thanks to one determined parishioner, Betsy Love, St. Luke’s five-acre property is now a conservational showcase in restoration, storm-water mitigation, and communal stewardship. 

The small church that was once home to Eastport’s watermen restored a stream that had been diverted and dried up decades ago. It also restored wetlands on the property and rooted out tangles of invasive species. Water from a 28-acre municipal storm-water pipe system now flows through its extensive mitigation network before flowing into Back Creek.

“Nature is the best cleaner of water,” Love says while leading a tour of the system that runs across the church’s property. A significant part of the project was replacing harmful invasive species with native ones. The wooded area now features Atlantic White Cedars—which were almost harvested to extinction—and Bald Cypress, for example. Planting the right species brought back critical microbes and algae, which in turn enabled the dragonflies, tadpoles, and even frogs to return. 

“It’s amazing how quickly nature will heal itself if we just let it,” Love says. Now the church’s land features an “ecosystem in balance…like it was in the beginning, and was meant to be.”

At $1.2 million, it is the largest project undertaken by the program to date. It removes more than 200 pounds of nitrogen, 36 pounds of phosphorus, and 22 tons of suspended solids annually.

Love is not resting on her laurels, however. She and St. Luke’s are now focusing on creating a nature trail and turning the campus into a watershed educational center.

RiverWise Congregations also supports Restoring the Environment and Developing Youth (READY), a nascent program designed to engage urban Anne Arundel youths in environmental stewardship while also teaching them job skills.

Members “are trained in the design and installation of green storm-water techniques, such as rain gardens and rain barrels, maintenance of public and private installations, and storm-water assessment techniques,” according to a program description. 

“At the core of this project, we aim to provide jobs for young adults who have little access to environmental jobs and help to reduce storm-water loads coming from regional roads, rooftops, and parking areas,” the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay’s website explains. 

Overseen by Rev. Johnny Calhoun, pastor of Mt. Olive AME Church in Annapolis, a RiverWise Congregations member, READY provides maintenance to many RiverWise Congregations.

“It’s basically an environmental summer program for 15 to 24 year olds,” Calhoun says. “After we train them…how to install rain gardens and other best practices…we take them out as paid volunteers.” 

Besides to putting some much-needed money into participants’ pockets, it exposes them to the importance of environmental stewardship, Calhoun says. “Most participants come from under-served communities,” he explains. READY “gives them access to a lot of the outdoor areas where they wouldn’t normally be exposed.”

Some graduates of READY, which had its first pilot class in 2015, have gone on to get jobs in environmental management. 

“We’re able to reach people who we otherwise wouldn’t be able to reach through other programs,” explains Suzanne Etgen, executive director of the Watershed Stewards Academy, which partners with Calhoun, himself an academy graduate, to train READY participants. 

Noelle Chao, an academy program coordinator, says that launching RiverWise Congregations has had a positive unforeseen secondary effect. “We’ve been able to build a more ethnically diverse base of watershed stewards, and that’s been amazing,” she says. 

The participation of African-American churches, such as Calhoun’s Mt. Olive AME in Annapolis and Eastport’s Mt. Moriah AME and John Wesley United Methodist Church in Annapolis, for example, “has made our classes and our steward base more ethnically diverse,” Chao says.