At the end of mass last Sunday, Margaret Rebecchi explained to the congregation of Our Lady of the Assumption Church the work she’s doing on behalf of the environment, including promoting a program to help all the churches in the Monterey Diocese install solar panels, which would help save $10 million in 10 years.

“You all know that Pope Francis has spoken very strongly about climate change,” Rebecchi says in Spanish. “Last year he published an encyclical called Laudato Si to explain that global warming is one of the biggest threats to the human family. He’s inviting us to have an ecological conversation and to take care of the planet, our home.”

She also gave a quick overview of a complicated initiative that’s been the subject of much debate among government officials in three Central Coast counties: Monterey Bay Community Power, an effort to create an agency to provide electricity to all residents of Monterey, San Benito and Santa Cruz counties.

“This governmental program would double the amount of renewable energy in the county only in the first year,” she tells the congregation. “It would establish a nonprofit agency that would sell electricity for the same amount or less than what we pay PG&E. The sale of electricity would remain in our hands and the profits would be used to create renewable energy projects like wind farms.”

The Catholic Church has been a surprising player and one of the major forces behind the local effort to create what could become the largest independent energy consortium in California. The idea behind the agency would be to purchase power from Pacific Gas & Electric Co. and use the profits to develop renewable sources of energy — something they say would help lower greenhouse emissions dramatically.

Sanctioned by Bishop Richard Garcia, the movement is being inspired by the teachings of Pope Francis who, in his 2015 encyclical subtitled “On Care for Our Common Home,” proclaimed the need to ratchet up efforts to protect the environment not just because it’s “God’s creation,” but because it’s the right thing to do for the poor.

“We’re following Pope Francis in his wonderful encyclical Laudato Si because that’s what we’re all about, maintaining and providing our environment for the people to live, to breathe, to move around with great love and great support from all of us,” Bishop Garcia said at a press conference in January.

If Catholics have only just recently been spurred to environmental action by Pope Francis, their activism in general is a time-honored tradition. Inspired by Liberation Theology, many prelates in Latin America openly advocated for the poor in the 1960s and ‘70s. People Improving Communities through Organizing (PICO), a coalition with 150 affiliates throughout the United States, was founded in 1972 by a Jesuit priest who had learned community organizing in Chicago and is working on social issues such as bank accountability, health care and immigration reform. Communities Organized for Relational Power in Action (COPA) was founded in 2003 on the Central Coast and has been behind several major social justice campaigns.

After Francis’ bold defense of the environment, the Catholic Church is poised to become a stronger voice against global warming and against the use of fossil fuels, something that’s already had major impact on the Central Coast.

Take Measure Z. The oil production control initiative on the Nov. 8 ballot faced huge opposition from the deep-pocketed oil industry. But Rebecchi, a longtime environmental activist and social justice promoter, used the pontiff’s message to convince Catholics like her to get out and vote in support. The Hollister resident, who had already helped pass a similar measure in San Benito County, drove up and down the Salinas Valley to spread Pope Francis’s message.

“In order to educate your Latinos you have to motivate them,” she said. “Once you motivate Latinos, they go out and vote. They said, ‘We have to vote no because of the jobs or schools.’ They were watching the (the opposition’s television) commercial every single day. So I thought, how am I going to get my message out?”

Rebecchi thought the message had to be simple and direct, and she decided it had to be about the potential contamination of water coupled with the pontiff’s message.

“The people could associate with the pope. It was about being stewards of the earth and about climate change. The pope is talking about climate change so of course people started saying, ‘let’s vote yes,’ ” she said.

Full story at The Monterey Herald.