Noel Haberecht, Project Green Church Co-ordinator at O'Connor Uniting Church, writes about the church's five year journey on a new environmental ministry, most recently the celebration, dedication and commissioning of a 6.5m x 8m solar cross.
In late July 2010, the scaffolding that had been obscuring part of the steep A-line roof of the O’Connor Uniting Church in inner-north suburban Canberra for some weeks was removed. Immediately what was revealed drew comment in the local media. Few had expected a large array of solar panels dominating the north-facing roof and configured in the shape of a cross.
O’Connor church is not the first in Australia to mount panels on its roof in this way. However in working on this project for more than two years it was boldly declaring its aim to continue its green church involvement started more than five years ago in projects involving local non-church community groups. We are completely at ease seeing a cross on a church symbolising our Christian heritage and faith. A cross of solar panels makes a further contemporary statement that excites believers and non-believers alike.
What is the background to this achievement by a small suburban congregation?
In recent years the church started small community outreach programs, some of which continue. In 2006 it approached a local group to offer the two unused tennis courts for conversion to a community organic garden. The garden is well-established and managed by the Canberra Organic Growers Society (COGS) under a formal agreement with the church. A Federal government grant was received for the installation of two large rainwater tanks, with the water to be shared for non-potable use between the gardeners and the church.
In 2009 the congregation through a small and dedicated team of members established a sustainable native plant garden on a small undeveloped area. After initial establishment, it is intended that the garden be largely self-maintaining.
Groups administered under the ACT Playgroups Association use the church premises several times per week. A group of the severely disadvantaged meets once a week, and in the recent past the church has hosted a homeless men’s group and provided a program of fellowship and entertainment for a group of elderly citizens in a nearby retirement village. There are close links with a community group involved in promoting adoption of environmentally friendly and efficient techniques in the home which for a time used the premises for monthly meetings; and a community choir currently meeting weekly in the hall.
On 27 September 2008 O’Connor conducted a one-day seminar principally for interested members of Uniting churches in Canberra interested in the pros and cons of installing solar panels. Just two years later they had proceeded with an installation, and overcome one or two problems along the way.
The year 2010 has been one of considerable change. It has seen the admission of new members to the congregation from part of the Tongan community, which for some time has conducted separate services in the church. In addition, extensive, and much-needed improvements were made to the hall facilities. In recognition of the fact that these are used considerably by other groups, supportive funding was provided through an ACT community services grant. There were technical challenges to installing the solar panels, but the church received separate government funding to achieve this goal. However, a serious (and expensive) problem with the existing church wiring was found when it came to connecting the system to the mains. This needed the unexpected raising of several thousands of dollars.
A decision to dedicate and commission the new system was delayed for about a month when the wiring problem struck, but planning resumed on 10 August for a Day of Celebration, Dedication and Commissioning to be held on 25 September, the date which had already been earmarked.
Church Council set up a small five-person committee which opted to meet weekly for no more than an hour, and keep in frequent contact through email and telephone.
The first meeting adopted the following goals:
- To allow the ACT Government to officially commission the PV solar panels and hall refurbishment which received ACT funding grants, and for the church to acknowledge this support and the confidence in O’Connor UC expressed through it.
- To do likewise with respect to the installation of two water tanks through a Federal grant.
- To allow the community groups using the church facilities the opportunity to demonstrate their interest and activity, and increase the sense of inclusiveness.
- To allow church congregations to express their commitment to the Christian way of life and belief.
A brain-storming period was held after which all committee members wrote down ideas they felt would be significant. After the second meeting, a working time line of events and processes was drawn up. This was modified each week as planning developed and contributions from participating groups came in. The level of interest and participation of the various parties had to be monitored constantly. Progress reports were made to Council and the congregation via email and after Sunday worship.
There were a few early stumbles and misunderstandings but soon a growing atmosphere of excitement could be felt.
It has been a traumatic year for the O’Connor church in many ways. But the Day of Celebration was judged to be a great shared success and a blessing to all within the congregation. It was also a positive experience for the community groups with which it comes into regular contact, and this was confirmed by feedback received in the days immediately following.
This quotation has appeared on the weekly bulletin for more than a year:
“Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth – do you not perceive it?” [Isa. 43:10].
O’Connor’s challenge is to perceive and use this as a springboard for further work and witness, and to move in faith into a confident future serving God.
And a 6.5m x 8m cross will be a constant reminder to all of why the church is there.
By Noel Haberecht
Project Green Church Co-ordinator
O’Connor Uniting Church Council
Telephone: 02 6247 0738