When Joelle Novey begins working with a church or synagogue, she typically meets after services with a small group in a circle of folding chairs for a discussion about climate change. The 38-year-old director of the D.C.-based affiliate of Interfaith Power & Light hopes the participants will be inspired to share what they learn, go green and advocate for policies to protect the environment.
Novey, who is Jewish and studied religion at Harvard University, frames environmentalism as a moral issue, rather than a partisan one, bringing people together to do what they can to save the planet.
A Silver Spring resident, Novey has been at the helm of the nonprofit for eight years. She says her organization has worked with more than 1,000 congregations in the area, including Silver Spring United Methodist Church, the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Rockville and Bethesda’s Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation.
Novey’s approach is grassroots and personal. When she leads a discussion about the environment, she encourages people to consider what could happen if nothing is done to mitigate climate change. Then she has everyone imagine that their congregation exists in “complete harmony with the natural world.” She asks them to share that vision for the future with others. Usually a “green sheep” lay leader emerges, and Novey helps the congregation plan energy-efficient steps, from giving up Styrofoam cups to installing solar panels.
Novey also encourages religious communities to attend rallies for climate justice and to advocate for a strong climate policy. When people of faith speak up, she says, it elevates the issue and legislators respond. “This is such a huge problem. If you are just making personal or communal greening choices, none of that feels big enough to start to feel like you are getting at the scope of a global problem,” says Novey, who has supported initiatives such as the Maryland Clean Energy Jobs campaign, an effort to expand renewable energy in the state to 50 percent by 2030.
Beth Norcross, the founding director of the Center for Spirituality in Nature in Arlington, Virginia, and adjunct professor at Wesley Theological Seminary in the District, has worked closely with Novey. “Her real contribution has been to rally the congregations and to give faith a voice in the local legislatures,” Norcross says. “She lives and breathes this work 24/7.”