When it comes to collective care for the earth, a Pennsylvania congregation is already practicing what the United Church of Christ is preaching as part of next year's all-church initiative, Mission 4/1 Earth.
The Church of the Apostles UCC, in Lancaster, Pa., is blessed with a 25-acre piece of land, Rader Park. And while the church has been using the land for outdoor ecological pursuits for some time, this is the first year the congregation decided to plant a community garden to grow vegetables for donation to local food programs -- and quickly realized the need for a compost pile.
"I guess it’s been about 10 years since we developed the park," said Karen Culp, the compost project coordinator. "The focus has shifted more toward ecology. We've had evening programs in the park for about six years, and schools bringing classes out (for field trips) is in its third year.
"This summer, for the first time, we planted a garden, and it was an acre-and-a-half," Culp said. "In all, the church took 2,000 pounds of food to a local year-round shelter, the Water Street Rescue Mission, and donated extra food to a food bank."
Some 600 pounds of vegetables given to the Water Street Rescue Mission was corn, with the congregation picking 47 gallons for donation. Apostles members also sold some of the corn they planted, and twice each week set up a vegetable stand in the park to distribute it. Culp said some of the early crop was even used as a fundraiser, as an ingredient in chicken corn soup, a Lancaster County favorite.
To keep the garden fertile for next year, the church just started a compost pile. Since the land hasn’t been farmed in about 35 years, the compost pile will use fruit and vegetable scraps to put nutrients back into the soil.
"Our plan is to get a good-sized compost pile and dump it on the garden for next summer," said Culp, who was surprised with the high level of participation in the project.
The compost began piling up on Sept. 2, and each week it grows a little larger. When the idea came up, Culp wondered if church members would bring their garbage with them to services. But each Sunday the congregation deposits scraps into a large black tub on wheels, and Culp and her husband take the garbage and add to the pile. Among the items suitable for composting: tea bags, coffee grounds in the paper filter, raw vegetable peels, corn husks, melon rinds and seeds, fruit peels and cores, wilted flowers, and shredded paper.
The compost project is just the latest addition to the church's earth-care curriculum. On Sundays this summer in the park pavilion, there were ecology or science-based programs with discussions about climate change, composting, gardening, and wild animals.
"This is one piece of the program we’re trying to ratchet up each year," Culp said.
Students in the second grade at area schools come to learn about earth care every spring, with children moving from arranged stations this year where they walked in a stream, planted seeds in the garden, worked on the compost projects, and had a quasi-archeological dig.
Culp said these have been successful programs because the children get so much out of the experience. "Children tell volunteers they’ve never dug in the dirt, they’ve never walked through a stream," she said.
There are also beehives in the park for pollination, and a pond stocked with fish for catch-and-release fishing without the use of barbs.
"In the summer, it is a very, very active place," Culp said. "It is such an informal, natural atmosphere."
The church's focus on ecology is a great example of what can be done with some inspiration and imagination during the UCC's next all-church initiative, Mission 4/1 Earth.
The United Church of Christ, working for environmental justice for almost 30 years, 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.