Want to know how to save the planet? One small change at a time.

“A lot of little things add up to more,” said Barbara Leonard, co-chair of St. Thomas the Apostle’s Creation Care team. “Those are the things we’ve been doing, little things.”

It’s a humble statement from an active group of parishioners who have diligently been fighting to combat the negative impacts of climate change. The Creation Care team has hosted speakers, organized events and made little tweaks in the church (no more plastic utensils at this parish’s summer picnic) in hopes of bringing about a cleaner, more cared for planet.

Jeanne Schrempf, co-chair of the Creation Care team along with Leonard, said the group organized in 2015 from a parish adult study group of Pope Francis’ encyclical, “Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home” and “Just Water” by Christiana Peppard. Before the encyclical, most of the parishioners in the study group didn’t realize that Care for Creation was part of Catholic doctrine.

“It didn’t seem like one of those things where you take your book and put it back on the shelf and say that was nice,” Schrempf said. “That’s how our committee happened, people said I want to continue.”

The team began publishing notices in the parish bulletin with ways to reduce one’s carbon footprint. Since its inception, the committee has held dozens of events and made environmentally conscious shifts within the parish’s day-to-day practices.

“How to reach people? I don’t think it’s easy, but you try a lot of things,” said Schrempf. “And the change is slow but it’s small steps. The need is so big and it’s frightening.”

After its formation, the Creation Care team decided on two major projects for the year, both following a theme of water that was inspired from their second study book, “Just Water,” which analyzed the global water crisis through a Catholic lens. 

Initially the team began raising money for Catholic Relief Services water projects through the sale of reusable grocery bags. Each bag displayed the words “Caring For Our Earth” along with the parish’s name and Creation Care team logo. After the success of selling the bags, it was time to expand: “We were thinking, ‘What do we want to do?’ And that’s how we decided to try and do (a) well project out of that vision of water,” said Schrempf.

In 2017, St. Thomas partnered with The Water Project in Concord, N.H., to build a well for the Kivani community in Kenya. The well would provide clean and accessible water for 500 children and adults. Building the well required raising a lofty $15,000, but parishioners rallied around the cause.

The committee exceeded its goal and even raised enough for a second project: a rain catchment system for Sanjaaro Primary School in West Kenya that serves locals with handwashing stations, latrines and hygiene education.

Years later and the committee’s work has only continued to grow: they conducted a sustainability audit on the parish buildings, volunteered at the St. Thomas annual garage sale to promote recycling of unsold materials, and organized “A Long Walk to Water” event with teens and families along the new rail trail in Bethlehem.

Schrempf says the next step is to start branching out from the parish: “Our big step is probably now to work with the town.” Late last year, Leonard reached out to the Town of Bethlehem’s recycling coordinator, Dan Raines, about working with the St. Thomas team on future recycling projects. Schrempf and other Creation Care members are signed up for courses offered through the town about how to properly compost and recycle.

“That’s a big thing for us, to move out of our parish and into our town,” adds Schrempf.

The Creation Care team has gotten help from joining the Catholic Climate Covenant (catholicclimatecovenant.org), which provides event or program ideas for parishes. The St. Thomas team hopes to celebrate Earth Day and the anniversary of Laudato Si this coming spring; being a member of the Covenant is “a great help because we don’t have to try to make (the programs) up ourselves,” says Schrempf.

The committee was also instrumental in the formation of the Capital Region Interfaith Creation Care Coalition (CRICCC) (sites.google.com/view/CRICCC), which began in 2018. Since then the parish has also been in touch with other local faith groups in the Town of Bethlehem about working together.

Said Schrempf: “I think we have learned we can do more if we do it with others, with other parishes or other churches in our area, and that’s been a big step for us. And to work with the town because, alone, we couldn’t really do this, but we can do it with the help of an expert who’s willing to train us.”

For any parish looking to start a Creation Care team, the St. Thomas committee “would be happy to mentor a parish starting out,” but that the best way to start is with education. “They need to go through the encyclical, and it’s not hard to read, (they) just would need someone to be a facilitator who can read ahead and discuss it. But you need a base,” Schrempf said.

“You can see this change coming,” she added. “It’s slow, but once you see someone else do it you think, ‘Oh I can do that.’ ”