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Christian colleges ‘go green’ with buildings, programs

When icy winds sweep the plains of West Texas next winter, students at Lubbock Christian University will be warm and cozy — in big steel boxes.
The boxes are shipping containers similar to those that crisscross the country piggybacked on railroad cars and tractor-trailers.
But the Texas university has transformed the containers — recycled from shippers and dubbed “Intermodal Steel Building Units” — into comfortable but cost-effective dorm rooms. The rooms will house about 50 students this winter and eventually serve more than 200, said Joe Organ, director of campus construction.
Recycled materials are just one evidence of the arrival of the green revolution to Christian colleges and universities across the nation.
The fight to be good environmental stewards takes a variety of forms — energy-efficient facilities heated and cooled by the earth, green committees composed of students, faculty and staff, and classes where students learn to preserve the earth’s resources and develop businesses that respect the fragility and wonder of creation.
While Lubbock Christian’s recycled containers are for an ongoing project, the university in 2003 replaced boilers and rooftop chillers in several buildings with a geothermal system that provides heating and cooling by pumping water through the ground, said Kevin Elmore, vice president for facilities.
Around the Johnson Hall residence, for example, is a “bore field” where engineers drilled 181 holes — each 200 feet deep — to insert pipes connected by a U-shaped joint at the bottom.
A small heating and air-conditioning unit in each room dumps heat into the circulating water in the summer and extracts heat from it in the winter.
But where the temperature of the outside air varies widely, the university’s “ground source heat pumps” rely on the much more constant temperature of the earth. The result, Elmore said, is heat and air conditioning 35 to 50 percent more efficient than conventional systems.
Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tenn., also has invested in green-friendly buildings. Every major structure built or renovated since 2006 has geothermal heating and cooling, said Dodd Galbreath, director of Lipscomb’s Institute of Sustainable Practice.
The university’s newly remodeled Burton Health Sciences Center, built in 1947, recently earned a gold certification — the second highest — in the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design rating system of the U.S. Green Building Council.
Taking concerns about the environment into the classroom, Lipscomb established its Sustainable Practice Institute in 2007. It offers an undergraduate major and minor in sustainability and last fall launched a master of science degree. It also organizes environmental business expos.
Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif., similarly launched a Center for Sustainability last fall. With the official center in place, students also started organizing. The Pepperdine “Green Team” began in the spring semester with a core of 10 students. The group visited the university’s local recycler, toured a nearby organic farm and planned a convocation service centered on environmental stewardship, said Emily Reeder, a student from Nebraska who was Green Team president.
Students, in fact, are a key resource as Christian colleges work to be better stewards of God’s creation. At Oklahoma Christian University in Oklahoma City, 16 seniors and two juniors in an ecology class last fall analyzed their campus’s carbon footprint.
The students discovered the university’s use of resources and impact on the environment was “relatively good” compared to universities of similar size, said Richard Trout, the professor who directed the students and a member of Oklahoma Christian’s Stewardship and Sustainability Committee.
Despite the positive report, the study yielded some astounding findings. For example, the class discovered that over a three-day period, the university produced nearly a ton of food waste — items students didn’t eat and instead tossed in the trash.
Students at Faulkner University in Montgomery, Ala., have taken a lead in recycling and the issues surrounding it where they live.
With the city of Montgomery offering recycle pick-ups at homes but not businesses or institutions, students themselves have hauled discards to recycle centers, said Heath Willingham, counseling professor and chair of the university’s Green Committee.
Faulkner students have also written city and state officials urging more government help, Willingham said.
Efforts at colleges and universities associated with Churches of Christ mirror those at other faith-based schools.
“There has been a … large galvanizing of the movement of creation care within the past five to 10 years,” said Mike Plunkett, spokesman for the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities in Washington, D.C.
With U.S. lawmakers debating sweeping environmental legislation and society talking more about threats to the earth, efficient buildings, academic centers and student activities at Christian colleges and universities are about more than national trends.
Going green is about faith and mission.
Faulkner’s Willingham said he cares about the environment because God not only created the world but also called people into relationship.
“He’s given the earth to us … put us on it,” Willingham said. “There is a … responsibility that God has given us,” he added. “He wants us to take care of his earth, to take care of his animals, to take care of … his water.”
Lipscomb’s Galbreath approaches faith and the environment through the concept of “sustainability.”
Galbreath sees sustainability as a “new and improved environmental movement” that avoids the extremes associated with past environmental activism.
Instead of prizing trees and animals above human beings, sustainability balances society’s needs for justice, economic prosperity and a healthy natural world, Galbreath said. He parallels the movement’s values with the ideals of God’s kingdom.
“Sustainability is a cry out from society … for true kingdom living,” he said.
For Oklahoma Christian’s Trout, the environment is a canvas where God painted the divine image for all to see.
“God has used his creation as a tool to … reveal himself to men around the world,” Trout said. “When you absolutely believe that .. then you are obligated not to destroy it. That is the call for our stewardship.”
For Pepperdine student Reeder, working with others to care for the environment — and enjoying not only the goodness of creation but also community — is like “going back to a garden of Eden,” she said.
“To live and to know God,” Reeder said, “is to be in harmony with people and animals and the environment.”

  • Feedback
    I’m glad to hear that our Christian Colleges are partnering with God in caring for his creation. I pray that more congregations will take a few easy steps to be more earth friendly – or at least less earth-harmful : )
    Matt Carter
    The Well Chapel Hill
    Chapel Hill, NC
    August, 10 2009

    I loved this article. I have been recycling for years. Because I was taught by grandparents (waste not, want not). I think we have done a miss-service to our children when they only know throw away items. I have alreaady thought my own grown children to start small in teaching their children and I think we need to have programs in school teaching to conserve energy, and other resources because we are stewards of this gift of earth God gave to us.
    Birmingham, Al
    August, 10 2009

    Ted, enjoyed your article. Here at Molloy College on Long Island, we recently launched The Sustainability Institute…Long Island’s first venture combining sustainability education and policy analysis housed within an academic institution.
    Ken Young 516-678-5000, x6300
    Ken Young
    Rockville Centre, NY
    August, 4 2009

    I find it unfortunate that Christian universities are jumping on the liberal bandwagon of “green”. I understand being a good steward, but you might want to take a look how environmentalists are worshiping the world instead of its Creator.
    Monica Fox
    church of Christ
    Wichita Falls , TX
    August, 4 2009

Filed under: Partners Staff Reports

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