“I was 45. And a member of an Episcopal Church. I’ve been an Episcopalian all my life. But I was not ordained or really involved intricately with the church. I started going to Environmental Defense Fund board meetings, and I was learning every time I went to another meeting about what humans were doing to the planet. It could have been overfishing, it could have been deforestation, it might have been lead and gasoline. Even in the late ’80s, they were talking about climate…And then I would go over to California Street to this little church we belong to and sit in a pew and listen to prayers, for reverence for the earth. I never heard a clergy person talk about care for Creation, and listening to all the stuff that we were doing, harming God’s Creation in our human behavior… So I asked the clergy at our church, why don’t you ever talk about saving creation from the pulpit?”
Sitting in her kitchen in Northern California speaking over the phone, Reverend Sally Bingham is nothing if not direct and to the point, her voice rising and falling with the practiced melody of a skilled orator and, more importantly, a true believer. When she recounts the above question proffered to her minister all those years ago, there is urgency in her passion for environmentally beneficial policies, which is ultimately rooted in her belief in God’s great commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself.”
“It was stirring in me and making me a little crazy that a person who preaches the first and great commandment, which is to love God, and then love your neighbor as yourself — if you love your neighbor, you sure shouldn’t be polluting your neighbor’s air, or throwing engine oil in the storm drain behind your house after you’ve washed your car. I mean, every single one of our actions is affecting our neighbors. So the rector of my church asked, ‘Why don’t you go to seminary and find out where the disconnect is between what we say we believe in, and how we behave?’”
That’s exactly what Rev. Bingham did.
Despite the fact she had no formal education, Sally Bingham enrolled in The University of San Francisco as a 45-year-old freshman.
Four years later Rev. Bingham left USF with a degree and an even greater passion to serve. She wanted to invoke a passion in people sitting in the pews on Sundays to be just as passionate outside of church towards creation care. Never one to sit on the sidelines, she decided she would set out to be one of the clergy preaching the message she felt was so sorely missed in her church.
“I started what eventually got called a Commission For The Environment for the Diocese of California. I found 12 people who are Episcopalians who cared about the environment, Creation Care, a couple of other people I knew from EDS, other people were just friends of mine who really cared about the environment. 12 of us sat around my dining room table once a month for the next couple of years. And those people said, ‘you need to be ordained’.”
After initially resisting, Rev. Bingham did just that, attending seminary and then volunteering as a seminarian at a small church in Marin County. “Four years in seminary, and three years in church as a volunteer, and my four years of college, and I was ordained in 1997.”
Not content to merely preach her message to her congregation and community, she expanded her work throughout the state and eventually, the nation. “I founded the Regeneration Project. That’s an umbrella organization for Interfaith Power and Light. I went out and tried to raise money, to show people in congregations that they are environmentalists.”
Laughing she adds, “I didn’t get any money.”
An eventual article in The Wall Street Journal on the strides of the Episcopalian Church in environmentalism gained a little traction and finally, some money. From there, the message and organization grew, spreading its efforts into politics to lobby for actionable changes to environmental laws. To date, Interfaith Power and Light has chapters in 40 states.
Now retired, in addition to serving her community as an ordained priest, Sally Bingham has served on multiple environmental think tanks and boards including the Environmental Defense Fund, the Environmental Working Group, and the U.S. Climate Action Network, the national advisory board for the Union of Concerned Scientists, and former President Obama’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.
Her numerous accomplishments including lead author on a collection of essays titled Love God, Heal Earth, would be impressive for anyone, but this is her second act– one that didn’t begin until her mid-forties. The culmination of this work results inRev. Sally Bingham being an inspiration to young and old alike. It’s easy to get the feeling she’ll always say she’s still got work to do.