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Gary church aims to be a catalyst against climate change
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Gary church aims to be a catalyst against climate change

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GARY | The Rev. Curtis Whittaker wants his church to spark a change in the Emerson community, with a little help from the sun.

Whittaker, senior pastor of Progressive Community Church in Gary's Emerson neighborhood, is preparing to install solar panels on the church at 656 Carolina St. in Gary.

"There is a lot of positive energy that is being created and light and love, literally light from above, that makes us poised to make a change," Whittaker said.

Whittaker met with other leaders of diverse faiths at his church Tuesday to discuss the project and encourage others to take action prior to Wednesday's National Day of Action on climate change.

Whittaker led participants in a prayer prior to Tuesday's meeting, saying God, "called us to be good stewards and to serve and preserve our Earth."

Whittaker said his congregation has been interested in installing solar panels on the church for the past two years.

"We're trying to get to a place where we're reducing our carbon footprint," Whittaker said. 

Whittaker said he believed solar power could provide a source of income for the church's mission.

"If a nonprofit or church is doing good work, they should be able to install solar panels and sell energy coming in to use the profits to continue their good work," Whittaker said. 

Whittaker began researching options and connected with Hoosier Interfaith Power and Light, an Indianapolis-based group working with faith-based groups and congregations on energy efficiency, renewable energy and public policy related to climate change.

Mike Oles III, organizing director for Hoosier Interfaith Power and Light, refers to the work as "creation care."

The church applied for a state grant for installing solar panels on the church. Progressive Community Church received a portion of $100,000 grant for the work as did New Ebenezer Baptist Church in Merrillville. They were two churches of five to receive the grant.

Whittaker, an accountant with his own firm, began envisioning a business model based on the panels.

"What if we create a solar farm and sell what we produce?" Whittaker said.  "We live in an economically depressed area where jobs are hard to come by, good food is hard to come by. How can we get the funds needed to do work that needs to be done in this community? We can get paid by the sun just doing what the sun does."

Whittaker is working with NIPSCO's net metering program to try to make that happen. He is also working with contractors to help provide job training for the unemployed and underemployed members of his church and those at Ebenezer in Merrillville. 

Whittaker said he would like to see the Emerson neighborhood become a pilot site to assist those in need beyond the church. The church is surrounded by vacant, abandoned homes and is across the street from the former Emerson High School where the body of a murdered Chicago teen was discovered in July. 

"Why can't we provide solar panels for low-income families?" Whittaker said. "On average, 35 to 40 percent of a household budget is spent on energy. If we can help them recapture those dollars and use them in another way, they can be less reliant on assistance, we can help the environment, create jobs."

Whittaker would also like to see an effort to replace old gas appliances and furnaces with electric in those homes. 

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