Birmingham, Alabama—September 21, 2021— “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine. This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine. Let it shine, let it shine all the time.” How do we accept the love and light of God and then reflect it back out into the world? The answer to this question is what powers much of parish life at Saint Stephen’s.
On Wednesday, September 29, at 6 p.m. a cherry picker truck will be parked next to Saint Stephen’s Episcopal Church on Crosshaven Drive in Cahaba Heights. Parishioners and neighbors will gather, eyes uplifted toward the sky, as they watch the Rt. Rev. Glenda Curry, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama, rise slowly toward the roof line. As she ascends toward the roof, a drone will be buzzing nearby, recording footage of the joyful scene below: children singing “This Little Light of Mine,” a folk band leading songs of celebration, and a gathering of people from around Birmingham joining their voices together in prayer, giving thanks for the sun, the sky, and all the beauty and blessings of the earth.
Around the country, other Episcopal parishes have led the way in their communities as they, too, have sought to harness solar energy for their church campuses. Two other sites in the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama already are generating solar power, notably Camp McDowell in Nauvoo. Saint Stephen’s is the first Episcopal church in the Birmingham area to do so (and possibly the first congregation of any kind to be harnessing solar power in greater Birmingham).
Michael Yancey, one of the parishioners who led the solar panels project, says that the 104-kilowatt system is expected to produce, on average, 25 percent of the electricity the church consumes. The system will pay for itself after about seven or eight years. While in other states government incentives assist both businesses and non-profits (including churches) in adding solar to their facilities, at present these incentives are not available to non-profits in Alabama.
Another parishioner who led the church’s solar power effort, Danielle Dunbar, guided the church through the process of applying for a grant to underwrite the installation of the solar array. Dunbar connected the church with the Solar Moonshot Project, who awarded a $25,000 grant to Saint Stephen’s. Without the grant, says the Rev. John Burruss, installing a solar array would not have been possible for the church.
At Saint Stephen’s, generating solar power is the latest in an ongoing effort to become more intentional stewards of God’s creation. In 2020, the parish undertook an LED light conversion projected to save the congregation roughly $14,000 per year in energy costs—freeing up funds the parish can use for other projects that benefit the wider community. Adding solar power is intended to work alongside the LED conversion to help the congregation reduce its overall carbon footprint. A long-term goal in taking on this solar project is that Saint Stephen’s hopes to be able to create a blueprint that can be shared with other churches who want to do more to care for creation and specifically how to reduce energy use. As Yancey described, “We’d like to be able to share with other churches: Here are lessons we’ve learned, here’s a way you can do these things.”
The congregation’s Care of Creation activities also include maintaining an apiary (or beekeeping operation), eradicating invasive species and replacing them with native plants around the church property, and using compostable packaging for take-home meals served on Wednesday nights. Saint Stephen’s also sponsors the Birmingham chapter of Holy Hikes, a national eco-ministry meant to connect people with God and one another in the great outdoors.