Emily Derke looked surprised when she was asked why she was attending church on Earth Day. In her mind, the question was not "why" but "why not?"

"I see Earth Day as a spiritual thing," said Derke, who drove from her home in Coon Rapids to St. Mark's Episcopal Cathedral in downtown Minneapolis for an interfaith celebration. "God made the Earth, and now it's up to us to protect it. Everybody here [at the service] is here for the same purpose. It's all about the Earth."

Indeed, the faith community has become one of the major players in environmental issues. Coming from the standpoint of morals, religious groups are able to address green issues from a different perspective than the political or socioeconomic juggernaut.

The religious world "brings a sense of responsibility" to the ecological debate, said Ricky Nolan of Minneapolis, who also attended the service.

It's a movement that is growing by leaps and bounds that transcend denominational distinctions. Protecting the environment "truly has become a bridge issue," said the Rev. Mark Peterson, executive director of the Lutheran Coalition for Public Policy. "There might be minor differences of opinion over details, but everyone agrees on the main issues."

For proof of that unity, one need look no farther than the St. Mark's service, which included prayers by Christians, Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists and American Indians. (A rabbi had to cancel because of a death in the family.)

"The act of faith for this age is to love the whole Earth," said the keynote speaker, the Rev. Peg Chemberlin, executive director of the Minnesota Council of Churches and president-elect of the National Council of Churches.

It hasn't always been that way. In 1991 the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America sent Peterson out to talk to member churches about the environment. A dozen people would show up, and "we'd talk about turning off the lights when you left the room," he said. "That was about as sophisticated as it got."

Now he measures his audiences in the hundreds, and the topics are global in nature.

"Church environmental programs are becoming institutionalized, and I mean that in the best sense of the word," Chemberlin said. "Churches are giving their programs a staff, office space and an agenda. It wasn't that way 10 years ago."

And they are organizing. About 200 Minnesota churches have joined an interdenominational group called Congregations Caring for Creation. The Rev. Wanda Copeland, who served as director of the organization until stepping down recently to help launch an energy-conservation plan for the churches of downtown Minneapolis, said that congregations are a logical place for such a movement to begin.

"Churches are places where people with a natural affinity come together," she said. "They already have a common sense of values. The church is a natural place for them to start talking about these issues."

The fact that all religions include a God or higher power that created the Earth gives faiths a shared interest in protecting that Earth, said Cecilia Calvo, coordinator of the environmental justice programs for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

"By showing respect for the creation, you also show respect for the creator," said Calvo, a native of Minneapolis. There also are numerous Bible passages calling on people to be good stewards of the Earth, including Genesis 2:15 when God instructs Adam and Eve to "tend and care for" the Garden of Eden.

No limits

Being able to work outside normal channels also is a plus, she said. Church membership supersedes political loyalties or business ties.

"We have a unique position," she said. "The church has the ability to play a convening role by bringing together government offices, scientists, environmental groups and labor groups. We can create a dialogue that is an important part of the process."

Nor is the movement limited by national borders. Last year the Church of England created a list of the 10 green commandments and published them in a booklet titled, "How Many Lightbulbs Does It Take to Change a Christian?"

And don't overlook the power that can be wielded by church leaders who are willing to rally their followers to the cause. Pope Benedict has devoted so much attention to environmental issues that Calvo dubbed him "the green pope" in an article she wrote.

In his very first homily as pope, she noted, Benedict warned of the danger in using the Earth's treasures "to serve the powers of exploitation and destruction."

A reinterpretation

It used to be argued that such behavior was condoned by the book of Genesis when it said that humans exercise "dominion" over Earth. But that reasoning has fallen out of fashion.

"It's based on a misinterpretation of 'dominion' as 'domination,' " Peterson said. "That's not what it means. It means 'caring for' the world."

And it's no longer an optional endeavor, said Rabbi Kenneth Cohen, a chaplain at American University in Washington, D.C., and author of "But Is It Jewish? A Reflection on Environmentalism and Justice."

"If the mandate given to Adam and Eve was once a matter of noblesse oblige, it is now a matter of survival," he said. "We are poisoning ourselves with pollution and squandering scarce resources, violating the Deuteronomic injunction to 'choose life.' "

One thing the faith community can bring to the environmental struggle is a positive attitude, said Ingrid Vick, Creation Care Coordinator for Peterson's group.

"A lot of the environmental talk focuses on the doomsday message," she said. "As part of the faith community, one of the things we can bring is hope. There are things people can do to make things better. We believe in that."

Jeff Strickler • 612-673-7392