The United Church of Christ's campaign to care for the earth will continue in 2014. The Connecticut Conference of the UCC has corralled its fellow New England conferences to participate in another year of Mission 4/1 Earth, the UCC's church-wide earth-care initiative that debuted last spring. Patricia Bjorling, the Connecticut Conference's associate conference minister for generosity ministries, thinks last year's Mission 4/1 Earth was an "overwhelming positive experience," and she is hopeful that congregations that were unable to participate last year will seize the opportunity to embrace this year's campaign with gusto and enthusiasm.
"We know that sometimes great stuff needs a few years to catch on," said Bjorling. "It was exciting and energizing to see the clicker for the number of trees we planted and the earth care hours we generated go up, and for green teams to know there were other churches doing the same thing together. We want to continue that hope and energy in our congregations."
So far, the Massachusetts and Vermont conferences are on board, and the group is awaiting responses from New Hampshire and Maine. Since 2009, representatives from each conference have been part of the Northeast Ecumenical Stewardship Council, which meets twice a year to promote effective and efficient stewardship practices for local congregations throughout New England. It was at one of these events that the representatives from the UCC conferences agreed that caring for the environment would from then on be the signature issue of New England UCC congregations.
Since then, the Connecticut Conference has implemented a program for churches to become Green Congregations, which Bjorling said inspired the UCC's Green Justice Congregations program. The Rev. Jim Antal, conference minister of the Massachusetts Conference, spearheaded last year's General Synod resolution urging divestment from fossil fuel companies, along with other strategies, as a way to address climate change, among other environmental achievements.
"It's no surprise that after the national Mission 4/1 Earth that someone in New England said, 'We have to keep doing this, it's not a one-time thing,'" said Antal. "And it's no surprise that the Massachusetts Conference will encourage our churches to find ways to continue the emphasis that Mission 4/1 Earth shined such a bright light on."
The Connecticut Conference has made a few tweaks to the original Mission 4/1 Earth campaign to better accommodate the smaller group. For example, instead of taking place during 50 days, New England's event will take place over a 76-day span, from April 1 through June 15, to allow congregations more time to participate. While the campaign's goals have not yet been finalized, Bjorling said they intend to scale down the national office's goals of 1 million earth care hours, 100,000 trees planted and 100,000 advocacy letters written to something more attainable like 60,000 earth care hours, 40,000 trees planted and 4,000 advocacy letters written.
The Connecticut Conference will also host a webpage where participants can report their earth care hours, trees planted and letters written, and download resources such as posters, tree planting ideas and environmental liturgical materials. The conference plans to host Mission 4/1 Earth for at least the next two years to give as many of their congregations the chance to participate as possible.
"We want the churches that got a great start last year to be able to do it again, we want the churches that missed the opportunity last year to have a chance to try it this year, and we want another year of activities to be publicized so when churches that haven't yet participated hear about the good stuff, they'll maybe try it next year," Bjorling said.
Also continuing in 2014 are the UCC's environmental justice retreats, the "Train the Trainer" events that originated in 2012 as a partnership between the UCC's Justice and Witness Ministries and the Pacific Northwest Conference to fill a need for environmental education. Registration is now open for the year's first two retreats taking place Feb. 19-21 at Pilgrim Firs Camp and Conference Center in Port Orchard, Wash., and March 25-27 at Christian Church Conference Center in Silver Springs, Fla. Conversations are in the works about coordinating at least two more retreats this year in different parts of the country.
"People feel strongly about this opportunity and are willing to seek out these retreats wherever we are holding them," said the Rev. Meighan Pritchard, the UCC's minister for environmental justice. "We do try to make the retreats travel around the country so that the participants don't have to, as we are aware of the carbon footprint involved in making people travel great distances."
Using video, discussions, hands-on learning opportunities, and immersion experiences, the retreats offer curriculum designed for participants to take what they learn and share it with their congregations and communities afterward. Pritchard said participants of past retreats have taken the curriculum and "really run with it," teaching it at their churches, adapting it for kids, and teaching it at camps. She adds that the participants have developed and maintained a network through which they stay connected and informed about environmental justice issues in communities throughout the county.
"We give participants a way to stay in touch, and they use that to share ideas, ask each other for advice, and let people know of events in which they will be making presentations," Pritchard said. "They support each other in this work."