Living in Florida, Guillermo Marquez-Sterling doesn't see mountains very often. But the associate pastor of Coral Gables Congregational Church UCC saw them often as a child, spending family vacations in the Blue Ridge Mountains, hiking, canoeing and "doing all the things that nature provides." So when Marquez-Sterling and his youth group learned about mountaintop removal mining during a workshop at last year's National Youth Event, a fire was lit inside of them.
"We looked at each other and said, ‘How can the government be allowing this?' It sounds like such a gross violation of nature," said Marquez-Sterling. "We were in disbelief."
Marquez-Sterling was shocked and saddened to think about the environmental devastation to his beloved mountains. But his youth group was outraged and emboldened to learn more and take some action.
Mountaintop removal mining (MTR) is the predominant method of coal mining in the Appalachian Mountains. During the process, mountaintops are cleared of all trees, vegetation and wildlife, and explosives are used to remove up to 400 vertical feet of the landscape to expose underlying coal seams. A less expensive method of mining that requires fewer workers, MTR is widely known for its destructive affects. The process not only wreaks havoc on the ecosystem, but experts say it also endangers the livelihood of nearby residents by creating dangerous "fly rock," or boulders, that can roll off mountains and into towns and villages, and by dumping toxic mining byproducts into valleys and waterways.
After NYE, the Coral Gables youth group spent the remainder of the summer researching, watching films and discussing MTR. When it came time to explore ideas for their 2013 summer mission trip, the majority of the group voted for an environmentally-themed mission with a focus on MTR. Marquez-Sterling plans for the trip to be a combination of fun, education and advocacy surrounding an issue that has become so near and dear to their hearts.
"The research they did made them even more energized about it," said Marquez-Sterling. "They learned about the devastating effects – how it affects the water, animals and residents, how entire towns have had to be evacuated."
On June 9, roughly 20 youth and adults will travel from Miami to the Boone, N.C., offices of Appalachian Voices, a nonprofit committed to reducing the coal industry's impact on Appalachia and protecting the region's land, air and water. There, the educational component of the trip will begin when the group visits the mountains of southern Virginia with Appalachian Voices experts to see a MTR site firsthand and to speak with local residents. Marquez-Sterling also plans to conduct nature-themed Bible studies and make sure the youth have the opportunity to take in and appreciate the nature around them, which will look a lot different from the Florida landscapes they're used to.
On June 14, the group will travel from Boone to Washington, D.C., for a few days of advocacy. They will meet with political advocates from the D.C.-based offices of Appalachian Voices and the UCC, and Marquez-Sterling also hopes to secure a meeting with a member of congress. While some of the details are still being finalized, Marquez-Sterling wants to have a petition or letters of advocacy ready to present at the meeting. As promised, fun will be scattered in along the way before the group returns home June 16.
"It was great to see the kids focus on how meaningful the mission can be," Marquez-Sterling said of the planning process so far. "Our kids know what they are doing matters, that people are paying attention and that they are part of something larger."
Marquez-Sterling admits he is surprised at the level of enthusiasm the group of 8th- through 12th-graders has shown for such a complex, even political, topic. But he is inspired by their ability to learn, understand and care about the world around them, and by their willingness to dedicate their annual trip to such an important cause. Marquez-Sterling believes it is a responsibility of church pastors to be stewards and caretakers of the environment and to instill that call into their members, not just through words, but also through action. While the long-term outcomes of the upcoming mission trip are unknown, Marquez-Sterling hopes that the experience will lead the youth to a higher level of environmental consciousness and awareness that they will pass on to others.
"Minimally, I hope they are inspired to change some behavior, but my main goal is that they become environmental activists," said Marquez-Sterling. "I know I'm shooting for the moon, but if I don't get there, at least I'm in the stars."
The United Church of Christ has been working for environmental justice for almost 30 years, and recognizes the opportunity for a shared mission campaign to live out our faith — in unity, as one church — for the sake of our fragile planet Earth.
With the help of UCC congregations everywhere, Mission 4/1 Earth, which begins Easter Monday 2013, hopes to accomplish more than 1 million hours of engaged earth care, 100,000 tree plantings across the globe, and 100,000 advocacy letters written and sent on environmental concerns.
Here's a preview of Mission 4/1 Earth: 50 Great Days.