As part of our ongoing series on best practices for Creation Justice Churches, Vivian Johnson reflects upon an educational initiative at Irvine Congregational Church in Irvine, California.
In May 2016, our congregation voted to explore becoming a Creation Justice Church. We already had a team of people, called the GREENfaith team, who had been working one year on the mission of educating our congregation on environmental justice. We wanted to take this to the next step by working towards, and then applying to the UCC, to receive the Creation Justice designation. Our challenge was how best to include as many church members as possible in the education process. Among other things, we had already shown films, invited guest speakers, signed letters to legislators, and offered Sunday sermons and services designed around the theme of creation. What could we do to enhance and broaden our reach? How could care for creation become an integral part of our individual and corporate lives?
The opportunity came through our adult education program. Our congregation has a small group program called “Comma Groups.” Approximately 10 groups of 8-10 individuals meet monthly for seven months. The purpose of Comma groups is to share personal experiences, beliefs, and values; to study a topic together; and to build relationships. At last year’s wrap-up luncheon for all the groups, it was suggested that we focus on creation justice as our learning topic for the next year. That way, approximately 85-100 people would have a more in-depth study of ecological justice, that is, our use of and relation to Creation. Our talented Minister of Adult Education, Steve Swope, was asked to put the material together.
Steve developed two booklets: one a Group Guide and the other a Discussion Guide. In addition, he researched numerous online articles and suggested a number of them as background resources for each month’s study. This information was sent to the participants prior to each gathering so they could develop their questions and ideas, thereby enhancing the group discussions. In Steve’s words, “At the end of our study, we hope to have a better understanding of what ‘Creation Justice’ means, ways we each might live more justly in the midst of God’s creation, and how to help our church and community do the same.” Another purpose was to assist our church in making the decision of whether to apply for the UCC designation of “Creation Justice Church.”
The months and schedule of topics follow:
September—Groups are formed and leaders identified
October—First group gatherings. Get acquainted and organize. Some groups chose to meet around a meal. Look at facts of climate change and “GREENfaith” theology
November—Rivers, Lakes, Oceans, and Marine Life
December—Consumerism and Population Growth
January—Agriculture and Food Production
February—Unseen Effects: Race and Poverty
March—Unseen Effects: World Crises
April—How Do We Respond? What actions should progressive Christians consider in our personal lives, our church, our communities, and on the national and global levels?
May—Wrap-Up Luncheon for all groups: A chance to review, honor leaders and participants, and offer ideas for the future.
The group participants were enthusiastic. Some comments:
As a new attendee of this church, joining a Comma Group was my way of connecting with other church members. I have been in the energy efficiency industry for over 10 years, so I was pleasantly surprised that our topics were environmentally related. I was excited to find a way to bring my spirituality and my passion together. Being in the field, I expected to know most of what the group talked about but was surprised by how much I learned and how it motivated me to continue/deepen my stewardship. Discussing these topics through the lens of my spirituality was invaluable. It felt meaningful to be a part of a religious community that cared enough to choose “the environment” as the topic for 7 months of discussion and [a denomination that] actually spurred the environmental justice movement.
Each month we were presented with a mind-expanding array of information, issues we had not previously considered. We like to think of ourselves as informed, but we learned that until our Comma Group studies and special speakers this past year, we were sadly ignorant of many problems facing our planet. We have learned how our choices make a difference. We have gone from being students to being teachers, within our church, our families, and community.
I learned from our viewing of a Comma Group resource, “The Story of Stuff,” that 99% of what Americans buy is trashed within six months! After studying consumerism, our group chose to refrain from purchasing any non-essentials for one month. It was a practical lesson regarding our waste of resources and dependence on material things for emotional fulfillment.
The material we used included several prayers. An excerpt from Joan Metzner’s prayer seems an apt closing to this article:
“Here we are, God – a polluted planet. Purify our vision that we may perceive ways to purify our beloved lands, cleanse our precious waters, de-smog our life-giving air.
“Here we are, God – an exploited planet. Heal our heart, that we may respect our resources, hold priceless our people, and provide for our starving children an abundance of daily bread.”
Every day is EARTH day!
Vivian Johnson serves as the chair for the GREENfaith Team at Irvine United Congregational Church. For further information, email Vivian or Steve Swope.
Photos from the 2017 People’s Climate March of Orange County that began at Irvine Congregational Church as approximately 2,000 people then marched for two miles.