Helping sustainability become a church's guiding light

Sustainability and spirituality are two words that often go hand in hand in the teachings of the Rev. Arnold Thomas of Wilton Congregational Church.

For the 35-year veteran of religious service, protecting the earth’s natural resources is one of the greatest ways man can serve God.

“I’ve always been interested in how we can create the realm of God on earth in very practical ways. One of those ways is finding out how to feasibly create a lasting environment on this planet,” Mr. Thomas said.

On Sept. 21, while more than 300,000 citizens descended on New York City to call for a more sustainable future as part of The People’s Climate March, Mr. Thomas ensured his 18th-Century church would join in. At one o’clock that day, the church’s bells rang 350 times in “solidarity” with those marching.

Wilton Congregational Church was first founded in 1790, a time when most Americans lived in close communion with their natural environment.

Today’s citizens, whether they are religious or not, can learn much from their predecessors, the reverend says.

“Wilton started as an agrarian culture, and its people were very mindful of lives that were lived in accordance with the changes of nature,” he said. “They were more sensitive to their dependency on the environment.”

“As we become more distant from our natural settings, we have detached ourselves from our own environmental awareness.”

However, Mr. Thomas said, Wilton has the perfect diversity — in household wealth and political thought — to show the world how a community can come together in support of the environment.

“Whether one is conservative, progressive, or even evangelical, they’re realizing this is a common concern,” he said.

“Political differences are represented at the church, but parishioners see each other as human beings sharing common concerns. That’s refreshing.”

Mr. Thomas encourages his community to keep their minds open to environment-positive ideas that can both help the planet and put food on people’s plates.

“When it comes to jobs, the industries that are extracting resources from the earth are very profitable and they are bringing in employees. When there is food on the table, people are going to flock to those jobs,” Mr. Thomas said.

“But we have to help people realize those are limited resources, and eventually they’ll dry up.”

The solution he hopes to contribute to, he says, is one that is guided by both moral and practical ideals.

“We need to approach the environment with a moral compass, but our solutions also need to be profitable, and specifically beneficial in bringing in jobs,” he said. “There are a growing number of businesses in support of this, but we need to be aggressive in creating new jobs within this effort.”

Becoming a minister

Unlike the trope of the childhood-inspired preacher, Mr. Thomas never expected to become a minister until he was in his 20s, even though his father was ordained in the Baptist faith. In fact, while studying at a small Ohio university he had different plans: practicing law, or perhaps exploiting his classically deep voice as an actor.

But Mr. Thomas was eventually inspired by a school adviser who “never saw faith as something that always had the answers. He instead saw it as something that affirmed the questions.”

That kind of affirmation was something Mr. Thomas held close to his heart, as he often posed those kinds of questions to his own father, a very conservative preacher.

“I was aquatinted with the Bible and church at a very young age,” Mr. Thomas said. “But at a very young age I started to question my father’s beliefs. I’m grateful for him to have been so open to my questions.”

“We would argue theological questions sometimes for hours. Sometimes until the sun was just coming up.”

Throughout most of his career, Mr. Thomas has considered himself a progressive Christian, one who has beliefs very different from the ones his father held. Nevertheless, when it came time to become ordained, there was only one person he asked to deliver the guest sermon.

“Even though he knew the faith was much different than his, he was happy for me. In fact, he was the one I asked to be the keynote speaker.”