The first time I visited Yale Divinity School was in 2005, on Earth Day. Chapel was filled with the language of creation. As we proceeded into the quad to enjoy the beautiful spring day, the songs, sermon and even silence seemed to be filled with environmental images. This theme of eco-awareness was palpable, like the feeling of grass beneath bare feet. Hearty organic bread was broken and organic wine was passed from worshipper to worshipper. A list of 10 practical things one can do to love God’s creation was distributed and a brown bag lunch with Cal DeWitt of the Au Sable Institute was enjoyed after the service. This was a very green sanctuary.

Certainly the staff at Yale’s Marquand Chapel assembled an extraordinary service on Earth Day, but more importantly they are consistently mindful of the sacredness of God’s creation and our responsibility to respect its holiness year around. Siobhan Garrigan, Assistant Professor of Liturgical Studies and Assistant Dean of Chapel at Yale Divinity School, sat down with me to talk about honoring the earth and “naming it in our prayers.” She and her staff have been extraordinarily successful at not only incorporating eco-awareness into liturgy, but also environmental action into everyday praxis.

During chapel it is obvious to worshippers that the planners of liturgy are exceptionally intentional in their decisions about what is said and sang; whether we sit, stand or dance; when to be silent; and what objects are present in our space. The language is deliberately varied, the spectrum of music is noticeably broad, and the means by which congregants may meet God seems boundless. And yet, amongst the diversity there exists exactness that supports general themes relating to eco-feminism. These themes include non-domination, non-exploitation and non-violence, which Garrigan describes as “all related to the earth,” intertwined as in “a dense fabric.”

These elements of eco-feminism are not merely the result of Garrigan’s own beliefs, but rather a product of consensus among the staff that has come out of intentional conversation. Put simply, caring for the environment is so important that it must be addressed in the way in which a church worships and operates. Passing this on to congregants is achieved through constant mindfulness of the need to implicitly address eco-awareness, as well as appropriate initiatives that explicitly deal with how our lives interact with creation.

At Marquand the content of a church service and the intentional ways in which worshippers can interact with this content conveys the community’s concern for creation and provides practices that can be incorporated into other churches. A favorite example of this would be the bowls of water found at the entrance of the chapel and sometimes in the center of the worship space. Knowing that water is the means for miracles, the icon of purification, a defense against oppressors, the symbol of (re)birth, and the nourishment of our fields, Garrigan uses water in worship to call us back to these meaningful purposes. Water is employed as an ingredient of blessing, as well as for playful splashing, which reminds us to literally feel the elements of creation that are brimming with divinity. Other illustrations of implicit recognition of environmental care include worshipping outside, using songs and prayers from cultures that have close ties to the earth, and being creative with the art and other objects that enter the chapel.

When thinking about how and when to explicitly address environmental issues in church, Garrigan suggests being mindful of the liturgical calendar, the pastoral needs of the community, local events, and the changing of the seasons. Feast days and scheduled readings provide wonderful opportunities to address environmental issues, as do local conferences, speakers, and other events that serve as a springboard for conversation. Likewise, the changing of the seasons reminds us of how the color of the leaves, the length of daylight, and the temperature of the air affect us emotionally. This connection warrants reflection, and reflection has the potential to cause conversion in the sense of lifestyle and ideological maturation.

What is most extraordinary about Marquand Chapel is that the mindfulness of and respect for God’s creation is manifested in the everyday practices, purchasing decisions and even the design of the church. The alter clothes are purchased from both 10,000 Villages, a distributor of Fair Trade handicrafts, as well as a partner community in El Salvador. The candles are purchased locally from a company that recycles the wax from used candles to make new ones. The bread and wine are organic. Everything that can be recycled – such as church bulletins, food and drink containers, etc. – is recycled. Furthermore, when the chapel was recently renovated the staff thought of ways in which the building could become more energy efficient. This resulted in sealing the windows so the furnace and air conditioner could be run less, as well as changing the lighting to conserve electricity.

Marquand Chapel can serve as a model to other churches on how to be constantly mindful of the goodness of God’s creation and our responsibility to care for it. As extraordinary as my first Earth Day experience was at Yale Divinity School’s chapel, I find the continuous eco-awareness of Marquand’s staff to be even more impressive. They have raised the bar for other congregations and provided practical examples of how to implicitly and explicitly address environmental responsibility during service and successfully implement eco-friendly purchases and practices into their general operations.