Together With Faith Groups, Sacred Grounds Uplifts People & Habitats

Through native plant gardens and flood mitigation efforts, Sacred Grounds partners with faith communities to foster healthier ecosystems

  • By Doreen Cubie
  • Community Connection
  • Sep 27, 2023

Along with his congregation at East Washington Heights Baptist Church, Reverend Kip Banks (above) partnered with Sacred Grounds™ to install a garden of purple coneflowers and other native plants (below)—photographed in early spring, he points out, so not yet in full bloom. “Our first commandment is to be good stewards of the Earth,” Banks says. “All the environmental catastrophes we see—climate change, man-made pollution—are doing harm to our brothers and sisters, our animals and plants. If we want healing to occur among our brothers and sisters, we have to heal the Earth." Volunteers at Detroit Hope Community of Christ (bottom) install a native-plant rain garden in 2022.

"WE HAVE SO MANY INEQUITIES—high poverty, high crime, a former power plant not far from us, runoff polluting the watershed—whatever we can do to sustain God’s creation, to pivot back to where God intended it to be, that creates justice,” says Reverend Kip Banks of East Washington Heights Baptist Church, in Washington, D.C. Together with the congregation he has pastored for 21 years, Banks partnered with National Wildlife Federation’s Sacred Grounds™ program to install a native plant garden and to give away native plants to the church’s neighbors—members and nonmembers alike.

His vision is one of more than 150 so far that Sacred Grounds has committed to supporting. Launched in 2012 in the Mid-Atlantic by Naomi Edelson, senior director of wildlife partnerships for NWF, the program later expanded to Michigan and Ohio in the Great Lakes region, where it found a second spiritual home. “Sacred Grounds helps people and wildlife thrive—especially important in an era of climate change,” Edelson says. The program partners with houses of worship as anchor institutions, similar to how other NWF habitat initiatives work with schools.

“Traditionally, faith communities haven’t been included in the conservation movement,” says Manja Holland, NWF director of education and community engagement for the Great Lakes. “We’re trying to bring more folks to the table.”

A composite image of a purple coneflower and East Washington Heights Baptist Church in Washington D.C.

While both Sacred Grounds service areas uphold common goals—including community building, flood reduction, beautification and increased access to nature for all—how they get there differs from project to project. “Every Sacred Grounds garden is different, because it is designed with each congregation’s needs,” says Natalie Cohen, community conservation manager for NWF’s Mid-Atlantic region. As she and Holland see it, the strongest plan for a healthy community comes from the community itself. So, while Sacred Grounds provides funding and support, it follows each faith group’s lead, helping churches, mosques, synagogues and more places of worship connect directly with nearby resources and experts, from air- and water-quality specialists to local chapters of the NAACP.

For the Indonesian Muslim Association in America (IMAAM) Center in Silver Spring, Maryland, the plan called for a native plant garden of whorled tickseed and cardinal flower. “It is important to our beliefs to take care of the Earth,” says Jennifer Zaibi, a member of IMAAM’s Green Team who uses the garden to educate members on healthy environments, in shared spaces and at home.

“Even very small habitats and gardens can have a tremendous impact for people and for wildlife,” Holland says.

An image of people planting during the spring at Bethany Lutheran Church in Detroit, Michigan.

In downtown Detroit—where the city has raised sewer rates and flooding has led to extensive damage, polluting nearby rivers—Gesu Catholic Church put in rain gardens with grants and technical assistance from Sacred Grounds. Like many houses of worship, Gesu had a large paved parking lot that could cause excessive runoff, but the congregation couldn’t afford thousands of dollars in new fees. Church volunteers dismantled 56 downspouts, removed four dumpsters of concrete, installed 500-gallon rain barrels and planted black-eyed Susans, coneflowers and other pollinator plants. “The reality is, we are doing the right thing, whether we get the reduction in our fees or not,” says Anita Sevier, development director of the church school.

“We are helping faith communities scale back their footprint,” says Tiffany Jones, NWF manager of education and engagement for the Great Lakes, while also spreading the gospel of environmental justice.

Doreen Cubie is a frequent contributor based in Arizona.

More from National Wildlife magazine and the National Wildlife Federation:

Sacred Grounds »
Learn more about the Sacred Grounds program »
Blog: Building Detroit’s Green Future, One Faith Community at a Time »

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