One thing most have come to accept more and more in the Chesapeake Bay restoration effort is that future success will require broad support from and actions by all sectors of the Chesapeake watershed community.

One sector of the community that a source of environmental advocacy and education are the many churches and houses of worship that are important members of all our communities. In addition, these same faith-based groups can be significant property owners.

The Alliance has forged a strong partnership with the Interfaith Partners for the Chesapeake, an organization with the mission of educating, supporting and inspiring congregations of all faiths throughout the watershed to care for God’s creation.

The first program this partnership forged was “Trees for Sacred Places,” a program that has been planting trees and expanding forest cover, which involves more than 40 churches throughout Maryland.

The nature of this mission goes beyond the simple but inspirational act of planting trees, it also delivers a spiritual context for this work that resonates with the faith community.

Building on that success, the Alliance and IPC have recently launched a new stormwater reduction program with the faith community called RiverWise Congregations.

RiverWise Congregations is a partnership of the Alliance, IPC and the Anne Arundel County Watershed Stewards Academy.

The program is funded by Maryland’s Chesapeake and Atlantic Coastal Bays Trust Fund, which is providing not only funding but the expertise of the state’s Department of Natural Resources.

More than 25 houses of worship in Anne Arundel County have joined the partnership so far, and the hope is to expand beyond this local focus over time.

Here is how RiverWise Congregations works:

Houses of worship commit to engage in significant, measurable sediment and nutrient reductions through the design, installation and maintenance of approved best management practices and changes in behaviors that are part of the management of their lands and facilities. The Alliance conducts an assessment of the property, identifying opportunities for reducing stormwater and other environmental improvements

In addition, one or two leaders from each congregation are enrolled for training through the Anne Arundel Watershed Stewards Academy to be certified as Master Watershed Stewards. With this knowledge, they are inspired to lead their parishes to continue the work of stewardship at their place of worship, their homes and in their communities.

The Master Watershed Steward will be tutored by IPC on the connections between their faith and care of the environment, giving them the theological resources needed to become advocates for clean water. Part of their class assignment will be to deliver an educational workshop to their congregation with their new knowledge and tools — and the IPC will be there to support them as needed.

The early launch of RiverWise Congregations has created excitement and inspired a local Anne Arundel County faith initiative — “Black is the New Green.” With the leadership of the Rev. Johnny Calhoun of Mt. Olive AME Church, 16 of the 25 houses of worship that have joined our partnership are African American churches located in environmentally underserved parts of the county. Calhoun is inspiring these churches to connect to their history and renew a sense of care of the environment.

As Wendell Barry once said, “The question that must be addressed is not how to care for the planet, but how to care for…each of [the planet’s] millions of small pieces and parcels of land, each one of which is in some precious way different from all the others.”

There are more than 5,000 places of worship in Maryland, most of which contribute to stormwater runoff into our streams, rivers and the Bay.

Through the IPC’s engagement, it has been evident that many of these congregations are eager to address polluted runoff from their grounds, but costs and technical limitations are barriers that make these projects very difficult for them to launch on their own. These churches feel a calling to be good stewards but need help to get started.

The financial and educational resources being offered to faith communities through RiverWise Congregations will help them to contribute to the restoration of water quality in local streams while taking advantage of these community leaders to be catalysts for educating their congregations, and thus a broader community, about the issue of stormwater.

We are truly excited by the momentum of this program and we are glad to be working with these churches and grateful for their enthusiastic participation. We know that they will bring new action for clean water in their communities.

As one pastor said during a recent outreach event: “Blessed will be the day when we can again walk down to the river and baptize our members in the water.”