Let There Be (Solar-Powered) Light
Photo Credit: Bilanol/Shutterstock
For 30 years, Ark Refuge Ministries has worked to help restore the lives of those recovering from drug addiction, as well as people who have struggled to reintegrate into society after leaving prison.
Around 60 residents live in its 10,000-square-foot building in La Grange, Georgia, where they take part in computer and job skills-building courses, group counseling, and Bible studies as they work jobs in the soup kitchen, laundry, cleaning, and transportation over the year-long program.
For Chief Executive Officer Yvonne Lopez, the minister who leads the shelter and whose late husband, Carlos Lopez, was its founder, the Christian ministry is her life’s calling, part of what she calls “God’s will for us to be servants to others.”
But as the years have gone on, the bare-bones organization’s thin budget has increasingly been hit by an unexpected hurdle: skyrocketing electricity bills.
“Our bill was $4,000 one month,” says Lopez, 63. “That’s just not where we want to focus spending our money — on something that doesn’t go directly to helping people.”
Now, the nonprofit is part of a small but growing trend among U.S. houses of worship and faith-based organizations that seek to cut their bills, aid their communities, and better align their energy plans to their beliefs in “creation care.”
Ark Refuge Ministries is going solar.
Harnessing Natural Power
Plans are in place to install a dozen solar panels on its roof over the coming months to partially power the center’s lights and appliances, with aims to gradually become fully solar-powered.
“God gave us the job to love each other,” says Lopez. “When he was in the Garden of Eden, the first thing he said was to give Adam the job of caring for the earth and animals. All this time later, I don’t think that has changed. Something as simple as electricity is part of that.”
God gave us the job to love each other ... All this time later, I don’t think that has changed.
It’s no secret that solar power is one of the cleanest and most renewable forms of energy. One of the hurdles to using it, though, is the cost of installing solar panels, which can cost around $10,000 for the average house, according to industry estimates.
Ark Refuge Ministries is one of several faith groups around the U.S. that has teamed with the expertise and connections of Groundswell, a nonprofit that focuses on forging partnerships to grow community solar-power projects, to lower those costs. The Solutions Project, a nonprofit that focuses on the need for a national transition to renewable energy, is fully funding the installation costs. A Black and woman-owned Columbus, Georgia-based company, Solar Tyme USA, is behind the construction process.
“Lower-income people tend to have higher energy bills because they are more likely to live in housing that is older, less insulated, and less energy-efficient,” says Michelle Moore, the CEO of Groundswell, who cites data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration that says a third of American households have trouble paying utility bills.
A Vessel for Helping the People
“So in each case, a community solar project is hosted on the roof of the community of faith, the savings and additional power generated can be prioritized to help provide power and services to those communities around them,” says Moore, who formerly worked in the Obama White House, where she focused on promoting sustainability issues through federal government efforts. “It’s not just ‘creation care,’ but it's also being good neighbors and sharing what you have. When you have more, it's your obligation to share with people in need, and when it's you in need, they should share with you.”
Across the country, more than 770 worship centers now rely on solar power to provide electricity to their buildings, according to Interfaith Power and Light. In the Washington, D.C., area, Groundswell has worked with St. Luke Baptist Church, Dupont Park Seventh-Day Adventist Church, and the Monastery of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel to install solar power gardens. In Baltimore, the organization has teamed with the Empowerment Temple Church, and in Chicago it is working with Christ for Everyone Ministries.
One of best-known projects in the country overall is at Shiloh Temple International Ministries, a majority-Black church in North Minneapolis, Minnesota, where 630 solar panels not only provide power for the church, but also additional electricity sources for a mosque and nearly 30 nearby residences.
In La Grange, Lopez hopes to eventually generate enough electricity to provide free power to residents and businesses in Calumet Village, a lower-income neighborhood east of downtown where the ministry is based. She prays that her small start in solar power will also inspire other local nonprofits and residents who can afford the cost to install their own.
“My life is guided by my relationship with Christ,” she says. “I believe that he guides my steps, that he makes me a vessel to be a blessing to his people. If Ark has the chance to help people in this way through solar power, we must, and we believe God will move others in the community to do the same.”