Environmental Almanac

Faith in Place leader has been a catalyst for change

Doug Williams, Rev. Cindy Shepherd and Brian Sauder with Pastor Michael Crosby of the First Mennonite Church

Left to right: Doug Williams, Rev. Cindy Shepherd and Brian Sauder with Pastor Michael Crosby of the First Mennonite Church Rob Kanter

The coming weeks promise to be a whirlwind for Brian Sauder of Champaign. In early May he will be licensed toward ordination in the Mennonite Church U.S.A., which means the church affirms his calling to minister on behalf of creation as a pastor. Shortly thereafter he will be awarded a Master’s in Business Administration degree from the UIUC College of Business.

Then in June he will move with his wife to Chicago and begin the next stage of his professional career as executive director of Faith in Place, a statewide nonprofit whose mission is “to help people of faith understand that issues of ecology and economy—of care for Creation—are at the forefront of social justice.” Of course, this is all wonderful news for Brian and people who have the good fortune to be directly connected with him, but why would others care?

The answer to that question is best explained by looking at a few of the ways people in east central Illinois has been benefited from his presence over the past five years. During that time, Sauder has served our community by establishing a branch office of Faith in Place here and served as a catalyst for change of the best sort.

Have you heard of the Sola Gratia Farm? It’s a four-acre produce garden at St. Matthew Lutheran Church in Urbana, a cooperative venture between the Church and Faith in Place in community supported agriculture. Sola Gratia offers shareholders the opportunity to eat fresh food grown locally using natural practices. And it benefits the community in many important ways. Chief among them, at least 10 percent of the farm’s production is shared with the Eastern Illinois Food Bank and other local hunger abatement programs.

Obviously, such an operation depends on the dedication and hard work of many people. But in his outreach role with Faith in Place, Sauder provided much of the leadership and energy that was needed to transform Sola Gratia from a good idea into reality.

Instigation by Sauder was also important in another soon-to-be-highly-visible project undertaken by a local faith community, installation of a solar photovoltaic array on the First Mennonite Church in Urbana. That’s expected to account for a significant percentage of electricity used at the facility once it is completed in June. (Look for the full story in this column then.)

In addition to these larger scale projects, Sauder has provided support and direction for numerous other congregations that have undertaken smaller scale efforts to enact their values by conserving resources.

Sauder also deserves credit for his environmental advocacy on behalf of Faith in Place. In cooperation with representatives from other statewide groups, he helped ensure that the Illinois legislation on fracking adopted last summer contained some of the strongest protections against fracking-related water pollution in the country. And together with others at Faith in Place, he claims the honor of bringing the largest, most diverse group of citizens to the environmental lobby day in Springfield each year.

When he is called upon to tell his own story Sauder emphasizes the centrality of faith in the choices he has made. “As a first-generation college student from a small town, I found the bad news about the state of the environment overwhelming at times. But I kept myself grounded by asking ‘What does my faith have to say about that?’”

Since then, he has lived the answer. I know I speak for many others in wishing him the best as he continues to do so, in Chicago and beyond.