When Michael Cain and some Florida-area youth group leaders were brainstorming ideas for Mission 4/1 Earth, they knew they wanted to do something more unique than another beach cleanup. With the coastal area's oyster populations rapidly declining because of a number of factors, environmental groups have been doing their part to help by making oyster mats. So Cain, northeast regional youth minister for the UCC's Florida Conference, and the rest of the group decided they would rally their youth and join the cause during the UCC's 50-day earth care initiative. But first, Cain needed to figure out exactly what an oyster mat is.
"One of the youth leaders suggested doing something different, like making oyster mats," said Cain. "My first thought was, 'What is an oyster mat?' I had to do some Googling."
On April 6, more than 60 youth from Florida congregations stretching from Melbourne to Jacksonville will gather at Hope UCC in Rockledge to make oyster mats. A project of the Nature Conservancy in partnership with the Brevard Zoo, an oyster mat is a sheet of environmentally-safe mesh to which volunteers attach oyster shells with plastic ties. Multiple mats are joined together and weighted to the bottom of a body of water to attract free-floating oyster larvae that will produce new, healthy reefs within a year. Zoo representatives will come to the church to supply the materials and instruction, and the youth will spend about two hours creating the mats, which will be placed in the Indian River Lagoon, one of the most biologically diverse estuaries in North America.
Oysters play an important role in filtering coastal waters and stabilizing eroding coastlines. They also support a healthy ecosystem that offers habitat for fish, crab, shrimp and other marine life. But oyster reefs face a variety of threats including overharvesting, disease, pollution and toxic runoff. Wave energy from boats that dislodge oysters from their reefs and push them into what are called "dead margins" is also a problem.
"The oysters have been declining at a fast rate," Cain said. "People have worked for years to reverse it, but we still have issues with things that mess with nature and the biology of the estuaries."
Dave Speer, youth leader at Cross Roads Community Church UCC in Melbourne, thought this project would be perfect for the youth groups after doing it with the Boy Scout troop he also leads. It's a lot of work with your hands, but doesn't take a lot of thought, so the youth are able to talk and have fun with their friends while still being productive, he explains. Environmental projects tend to generate more excitement than some of the standard mission projects, Speer adds, because they are new and different and often have visible results. For example, if the youth group makes enough oyster mats, they may get the opportunity to choose a name for the new reef, something he thinks they would take pride in.
"Going back to the Boy Scouts, it's a game with a purpose," Speer said. "I'm hoping that we manage to produce enough mats so we can say, 'We have our own reef and this is where it is.'"
Cain agrees there is unusually high enthusiasm surrounding Mission 4/1 Earth and other environmental initiatives, particularly among the youth groups. So far, more kids have signed up for the oyster mat project than any other project in years, and they seem excited about missions that involve caring for the planet - an excitement Cain thinks everyone could learn from.
"Youth, out of all of us, understand the earth they have to live in and want to do something to care for it," Cain said. "It's important for adults to be more interested in caring for earth - I think we can learn a lot from our youth."
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.
Editor's Note: Eight churches from the northeast region of the Florida Conference worked together making oyster mats for the Indian River Lagoon the first week in April. Fifty people participated in one hour of a Mission 4/1 Earth worship service and activity and another two hours making oyster mats. The group logged 150 hours of earth care and made 60 mats which will filter 30,000 gallons of water (the equivalent of a swimming pool) in the lagoon every day.