By Larry Urish     6/13/2016

Since Pope Francis’ encyclical, Laudato Si, was released just over a year ago, Catholics from throughout the world have reviewed and discussed his message about a “cultural revolution” to confront the environmental crisis. Some key highlights include the following: faith and the Bible should be part of the discussion; unthinking reliance on market forces has hurt the environment; scientific research on this subject is to be praised and used; and our personal decisions, most notably about production and consumption, have a direct effect on the environment.

Those who have taken the pope’s environmental message to heart will continue to dialog about these issues, but let’s face it: Most people haven’t done anything.

Father Bill Barman, pastor of the La Purisima Catholic Church in Orange, lives by the dictum “Actions speak louder than words.” His actions, and those of his flock, demonstrate how a group of people can come together and change their environment. With Father Bill’s forward-thinking leadership, they’ve been sharing their time, sweat, resources and expertise. In doing so, they’re changing their little corner of the world and helping those souls who are, as Laudato Si emphasizes, most affected by environmental problems: the poor.

“I am empowered by [the encyclical],” says Father Bill. “It brings up great things I’ve been working on and praying about for some time.”

He and volunteers at La Purisima are creating a desertscape that matches the region’s arid climate. The most significant change has involved replacing most of the grass and shrubs with decomposed granite and low-water-usage plants and trees.

Father Bill has a pragmatic view of water-sucking grass: “If kids don’t play on it, and dogs don’t pee on it, get rid of it.” The resulting action: Some 9,000 square feet of grass has been uprooted.

The parish’s football field will be watered with greywater, after the plumbing in Father Bill’s rectory is rebuilt. (Greywater is filtered water that comes from sinks, showers and washing machines – but not toilets.)

“We hope to have it done this summer,” he says.

A small green space adjacent to the school will also remain for young kids to play on.

The rest of the grass – along with water-guzzling shrubs and trees, as well as patches of concrete – has been replaced with fruit trees (oranges, tangerines, kumquats, tangelos and grapefruit) and a vegetable garden that has sprouted red beets, cilantro, two kinds of lettuce, eggplant, squash and cucumbers.

Water-sipping sunflowers, marigolds and poppies emerge from pinkish-brown decomposed granite that mirrors the soil found in a desert setting. Pepper trees, which will grow large enough to provide welcome shade in four to five years, have been planted throughout. Large decorative rocks dot the grounds. With very few exceptions, the trees and plants are watered by drip irrigation. The overall look is simple, climate appropriate and beautiful.

Earth-friendly changes at La Purisima haven’t been limited to the outdoors. Last March, three huge ceiling fans were installed in the church. The total cost of the efficient fans is equivalent to just two months of past electric bills.

“Air conditioning costs alone were ten- to fifteen-thousand [dollars] a month in the summer,” Father Bill says. “With these fans, we won’t need any air conditioning for much of the time, and our A/C usage will be greatly reduced on hot days. We’d run the A/C for two hours before a wedding, and when the ceremony ended, we’d have a chilled room that was empty.”

Although Father Bill has been the driving force behind this ongoing transformation, he’s had plenty of help. Exactly how these changes have been made – through volunteer work and a number of symbiotic trade-offs – speaks volumes about the way a community of people can join forces for a common good.

A few examples: Two kind souls, Ramon (age 78) and Porfirio (86) tend to the parish’s vegetable garden. The vegetables are donated to the parish’s pantry to help feed the hungry. When the pantry opens, both Ramon and Porfirio get in line with the others to receive their well-earned food. (Some parishioners warned Father Bill about poor people making off with fruit from the parish’s trees, along with chiles and slices of cactus. His response: “That’s right, they will.”)

Eagle Scouts looking for community projects removed shrubs and tree stumps. A parishioner donated mulch. Another parishioner, who owns a landscaping business, provided free labor to remove the grass and install the donated decomposed granite. Oak used in the parish’s outdoor wood-burning pizza oven is donated. Volunteers will continue to keep the parish earth-friendly now and in the future.

By doing their part in making these changes, and by seeing the results, La Purisima students and parishioners are witnessing environmental awareness and Catholic social teaching in action. One marigold and eggplant at a time, the parish is becoming a microcosm of what the world can be – provided enough people act on the words of Pope Francis.

Father Bill – who for sacraments accepts work and donated items in lieu of money – first came to La Purisima in January 2014 and kick-started the parish’s transformation six months later. That’s 10 months before Laudato Si was first shared with the world.

“These changes don’t happen overnight,” he says.

But the changes at La Purisima won’t stop. And they will continue to provide wonderful lessons about environmental stewardship, teamwork and care for those less fortunate.