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Greening worship

Why faith communities and rain gardens make an unlikely—and perfect—pair

Ramont Bell, Faith in Place

Rev. Luther Mason leads church members at Greenstone United Methodist Church in Chicago in a dedication service for their rain garden.

Water is one of life’s most essential and precious resources. It is both abundantly useful and beneficial, but under certain circumstances, can serve as a detriment to communities.

No matter where you live in Illinois, water issues impact you.

People living in Chicago are all too familiar with the problem of basement flooding and sewer backups as a result of the sewer system being overwhelmed with stormwater runoff during rain events and spring snowmelt. Flooding can be an embarrassing issue that people don’t want to talk about.

It’s also an equity issue since areas that experience some of the most significant flooding happen in communities that lack resources, and can least afford to address the problem financially.

Fortunately, there are actions that can be taken. In 2014, sustainability consultant Ed Strom approached Faith in Place to collaborate on a proposal for the Chi-Cal Rivers Fund to install and distribute rain gardens and rain barrels.

Houses of worship are unique institutions for this purpose—they often have land that can be landscaped to better absorb rain water. They also serve as gathering places where educational events for the wider community can be held.

The idea was to leverage the organization's network of faith communities to deploy green infrastructure, such as rain gardens and rain barrels, in neighborhoods negatively impacted by flooding. Houses of worship are unique institutions for this purpose—they often have land that can be landscaped to better absorb rain water. They also serve as gathering places where educational events for the wider community can be held.  

The Chi-Cal Rivers Fund is “a public-private partnership working to restore the health, vitality and accessibility of the waterways in the Chicago and Calumet region by supporting green storm water infrastructure, habitat enhancement, and public-use improvements.”

Rain gardens are ditch-like structures that are dug into the ground.  The garden collects rain water runoff from urban structures like roofs and driveways. This allows the water to soak into earth as opposed to running into homes and sewers, causing flooding and sewage back up (ultimately resulting in a contamination of fresh water resources).

Ramont Bell, Faith in Place

High Bridge volunteer Tonarreo King and a Greenstone United Methodist Church volunteer get ready to give away 100 free rain barrels to neighbors at Greenstone United Methodist Church in July 2016.

Rain barrels (placed underneath structures that have rain water runoff) also provide a similar purpose. The water collected can then be used as necessary—to water plants, wash cars, etc.

Faith in Place Outreach Coordinator, Ramont Bell, and the Calumet Stormwater Collaborative (facilitated by MPC) worked together—on and off—for two years to prepare a proposal for the fund. In 2015 the grant was approved for $250,000, and the funds were able to be put to use by 2016.

The project was truly a community effort, enriched by collaboration with multiple partners who are actively involved in the Calumet Stormwater Collaborative:

The Center for Neighborhood Technology [CNT] conducted research and put together a manual that was then used to determine which areas experienced the most flooding as to determine where resources would be allocated. The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District [MWRD] assisted with community outreach, providing rain barrels, and education.

Faith in Place Outreach Coordinator, Ramont Bell, and the Metropolitan Planning Coalition worked together—on and off—for two years.

High Bridge, a landscape design, installation and maintenance firm, helped create a design for the rain gardens that were to be installed at five houses of worship. As a social enterprise company of OAI, Inc., whose mission is to create new jobs, provide job training to returning citizens, and hire locally, working with High Bridge was in alignment with our vision for this project to positively benefit communities most affected by frequent flooding.  

During the summer of 2016, we worked with our partners to distribute rain barrels to community members in the neighborhoods surrounding 9 houses of worship: Greenstone United Methodist Church, New Mission Temple Church of God in Christ, New Life Church Southeast, Advocate United Church of Christ, St Bride Roman Catholic, Our Lady of the Snows Parish, Trinity United Church of Christ, Holy Name of Mary, and Covenant United Church of Christ.

Rain gardens were also planted at 5 of these houses of worship where there was sufficient land to absorb runoff rain water.  

In total, the rain barrels distributed and rain gardens planted have collectively redirected an estimated 2,642,149 gallons of stormwater runoff.

Throughout the process, we noted that there were some lessons learned: not everyone will find the rain garden attractive—they require maintenance and upkeep, otherwise they may grow wild and “rural” and appear to look like weeds and can be considered unattractive.

Education is instrumental in all these matters—teaching communities why rain gardens and barrels are instrumental and necessary, and how to maintain them is a great catalyst in producing effective change in water issues.   

Thanks to our all partners in the project, we were able to provide green infrastructure education and resources to houses of worship and their surrounding neighborhoods to make a difference in reducing flooding and preserving water quality.    

Faith in Place is a non-profit organization whose mission is to empower Illinois people of all faiths to be leaders in caring for the Earth, providing resources to educate, connect, and advocate for healthier communities.

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