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Living the Change We Want to Create

by Jonna Higgins-Freese

EarthLight Magazine #45, Spring 2002


Energy is central to our work at Prairiewoods: Franciscan Spirituality Center. From holistic energy services including Reiki, healing touch, and therapeutic massage to photovoltaic panels, native landscaping, and local foods, our mission is to integrate concern about energy and ecology into every facet of our operations.

Prairiewoods is a 70-acre retreat and conference center owned by the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, who believe, along with many other women and men religious across the U.S., that they are called at this time to care for the Earth. Historically, nuns in the U.S. have provided education and health care-crucial needs that no one else was meeting. Now that those are widely available (theoretically), the sisters feel that what's needed today is a model for ecological living and a voice for the Earth.

As a result of this commitment, Prairiewoods features solar hot water in the Guest House, a Trombe wall at the sisters' residence, earth berming, and super-efficient insulation throughout the facility. Two years ago, we built two new hermitage buildings for our guests who want a solitary retreat. With the help of the Iowa Renewable Energy Association (I-Renew), we held hands-on workshops where people paid to learn how to do straw bale construction and photovoltaic installation. Now, about 85 guests each year learn how happy they can be in a straw-bale building with radiant floor heating, passive solar design, off-grid electricity, and a constructed wetland sewage system. Our next project is to increase the amount of energy we generate from renewable sources by installing a wind turbine or additional solar panels.

We use native prairie landscaping to decrease the amount of land we mow (lawn mowers are extremely polluting) and serve locally-grown food as much as we can in order to decrease the energy used in transportation.

At the same time, Prairiewoods helps other faith groups in the community understand that they, too, can live out their denomination's commitment to care for creation. For four years, our Environmental Outreach Program has encouraged people of faith to join CSA farms, purchase local wine for communion, switch to non-chemical lawn care, use less energy in the church and at home, and participate in simplicity study circles. We now have a network of about 20 churches and over a hundred individuals who are interested in the spiritual and religious dimensions of environmental issues.

We've been looking for a way to bring them all together around a common, inspiring project, and CHOOSE Now (Christian Outreach Organization to Save the Earth), based at Hillside Wesleyan Church in Cedar Rapids, may have the solution. They're planning a Habitat for Humanity house that will be super-efficient and perhaps offer some renewable energy features. In addition, they want to go further than Habitat usually does and furnish the house with efficient appliances.

I love this project because it brings out the social justice dimension of environmental issues-it will benefit a low-income family that needs energy efficiency the most and usually has the least access to it. Church members already understand and accept Habitat projects, but this one pushes them a little further by showing that super-efficient construction is feasible, affordable, good for the environment, and good for homeowners.

Projects like this draw the energy of the Spirit into the world and give it form. They help us remember that, while we have to be as effective and strategic as possible in our work, our efforts are part of a larger power-whether we call it God, spirit, the divine, the universe, or nothing at all. We're not required to be successful; we're only asked to be faithful to the task.

Jonna Higgins-Freese is environmental outreach coordinator at Prairiewoods: Franciscan Spirituality Center in Hiawatha, Iowa. Prairiewoods is a member of the Earth Literacy Web (see pages 46-51);

This article is adapted with permission from the online environmental news and humor magazine Grist. For more environmental news and humor, subscribe to Grist's free email service at

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