When the Church of the Redeemer in North Baltimore needed its parking lot repaved, members convinced the rector and groundskeepers that the project could be an opportunity for the church to live out its values.
Now the church, located at 5603 N. Charles St., is fitted with a new parking lot, designed to filter rainwater and help protect the Chesapeake Bay watershed from stormwater pollution.
“The gift of creation has both opportunities and responsibilities,” said the Rev. David Ware. “Our tradition teaches us the word ‘stewardship,’ and makes a distinction between an owner and a steward. The earth and all creation is God’s, and our role is to tend someone else’s garden.”
Ware said the church has a long history of tackling projects with stewardship in mind, and the parking lot was a “good theological investment,” one of many the church has undertaken over the years.
When it rains, water collects on impermeable surfaces such as roads, sidewalks and parking lots and picks up pollutants like pesticides and herbicides or oil and mechanical fluids from cars. That’s a problem.
“Any hard surface that rain hits, it collects the pollutants that’s on that surface,” said Bonnie Sorak of Interfaith Partners for The Chesapeake. “In Baltimore, when stormwater is directed into the storm sewer system, it is not filtered in any way. It goes directly into your local stream, which then ends up in the Chesapeake Bay.”
But the parking lot is designed to funnel rainwater through a series of rain gardens and bioretention areas, filled with plants that can tolerate the runoff and are native to the region.
“At different times of the year, it will have a different look, but it’s just stunning,” said Martha Ruffin, a parishioner and a member of the Caring for Creation committee who helped apply for the initial design grant for the project. “And it’s very young, so it will only grow and prosper and become more beautiful as the years go by. The end product, it’s functional. It’s beautiful, and it’s good for the ecosystem.”
The project cost more than $700,000. The church received funding from the city Department of Public Works, the Chesapeake Bay Trust, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and others to help cover the expense. The church contributed nearly $200,000 from its own trust and endowment.
“The reality is, it’s expensive to do something that really works, but we feel like it’s a really important investment in the Earth,” Ware said, adding that “it takes a village.”
Many nonprofit groups, faith communities and individuals don’t have the resources or connections to finance such and endeavor, but because this Episcopalian congregation could, it was even more reason for the church to do so.
“We’ve grown up at a time when we’re paving things over and we’re knocking out all kinds of vegetation we need,” Ruffin said. “It’s time to stop that and turn things around.”
Sorak’s Interfaith Partners for the Chesapeake helps faith communities understand ways their ministries can make a positive impact on their environment.
“In some form or fashion, Jews, Muslims, Christians, they all have caring for the neighbor, caring for the stranger, taking care of each other. That’s what religion does,” she said. “We help them to realize that the environment is not ‘other.’ It’s all connected. It’s a web of life.”
The group works with churches of all sizes to figure out ways to live out their faith traditions through the lens of environmental justice. Lay “green teams” can host film screenings, organize tree plantings or install a rain garden on church property.
“No matter how big or small your choices, they’re basically all parking lot choices. This just happened to be a really, really big project,” said Laurel Peltier, a Church of the Redeemer parishioner and member of its Caring for Creation committee. “Our decisions have much, much longer consequences than we think about.”
Baltimoreans can make those choices in their homes and on their property to address stormwater pollution. Options include installing rain barrels, adding native plants to their lawn, removing grass, or even replace driveways with permeable surfaces, according to advocates.
“None of the problems that we have in Baltimore are new when it comes to the environment, and none of them are going to be solved quickly,” said Leanna Powell, spokesperson for Blue Water Baltimore, a nonprofit group working to restore the water quality of the region’s rivers, streams and Harbor.
But any of those “upstream” changes would go a long way to help the system in Baltimore, she said.
Mark Cameron leads the city’s watershed planning for the Department of Public Works and holds city-sponsored trainings on smaller-scale projects that residents can do on their property or block.
“There are a lot of people in Baltimore City who the Bay means nothing to them, and we recognize that,” he said, adding that stormwater management isn’t just about pollutants getting into the waterways.
The city prioritizes programs that both improve the water quality of the Chesapeake Bay, but also make an impact right here in Baltimore so residents can benefit from the efforts.
He pointed to flooding in parts of the city that can follow a severe storm. High-intensity storms with heavy rainfall over short periods of time are more common in the region now due to the changing climate, according to Cameron.
“Even minor flooding can have terrible financial consequences,” he said. “All of this is interrelated.”
The public works department is working with other city agencies to mitigate the effects of storm-related flooding, but residents can also help the improve the health of the city’s stormwater system.
At Church of the Redeemer, education on stormwater issues is one-way parishioners continue to live out their values. The new parking lot features signage at its entrance explaining the design features and why it’s important to the surrounding watershed.
Ware hopes the lot demonstrates that the church is leading by example and it inspires residents to make changes in their own lives to ease the burden of a changing climate on our neighbors, adding that it’s the prettiest parking lot he’s ever seen.
“I love it in a hard rain. It’s just great to see the water flowing through,” he said. “I love how clearly the plants are thriving. I love how happy the fruit trees are. I love how beautiful it is.”