You never know where a relationship will take you. In the case of the First Church in Windsor United Church of Christ, in Windsor, Conn., a partnership with the Farmington River Watershed Association is taking the congregation of 500 members into a significant riverfront cleanup project as part of Mission 4/1 Earth.
"Our church overlooks the river, and our property goes right down to the river," said the Rev. Rick Huleatt, senior pastor of one of the oldest churches in the country. "So we decided - what can we do to help?"
The question was first raised a few years ago when the church, which formed in England in 1630, and settled in Connecticut in 1635, determined it wanted to go green. Members decided if they were serious about earth care, they should talk to the FRWA people about what the association wanted to do with cleaning up the Farmington River.
"That began the partnership," Huleatt said. "And when we talked to them about Mission 4/1 Earth, FRWA offered to work with us to improve river stewardship."
"As far as our partnership with First Church," said Aimee Petras, Education & Outreach Coordinator for the Farmington River Watershed Association, "I think we are just as excited about it as the Church is. As a river conservation group to find a church that abuts the river that we are working to improve is so perfect!"
"I think it is a wonderful concept to key in UCC churches to look both inward and outward toward the community and environment around them during the 50 day Mission 4/1 Earth Initiative; looking inward during spring which is a time for internal reflection and personal growth and outward in care for the earth and how the church chooses to relate to its community and environment." said Petras. "It will give the church and the congregation a great connection early in the year to the community that is around them."
First Church and FRWA are working together on a landscaping plan that will be river friendly for the entire church property, with an emphasis on the areas leading down to the river. Cleaning up the neglected riverfront, disposing of environmental refuse, and creating rain gardens to minimize runoff and erosion are already parts of the plan.
"We're going to remove invasive plants, and replant those that are native to the area habitat. They (FRWA) have a grant and will bring out experts to tell us what to leave and what to remove. They are going to show us how to make the rain gardens, where water collects on our property. By using natural plantings, to absorb the runoff we can prevent flooding in a natural way. That will be a cool thing for us to know. It's a hands-on partnership in the true sense of the word."
"To have a group that excited to learn from us and to have it be a project right on their campus, it's a true treat," said Petras. "And it is a super bonus that this will fit right in with Mission 4/1 Earth Initiative."
The project is significant for several reasons. First Church in Windsor is in the historic district of one of the oldest towns in Connecticut, on a large swath of riverbed property right on the Farmington River. It sits in the center of the fortified area that was built around the original settlers, and is a gateway into the community. The FRWA is using a grant to provide the new scrubs and ground cover, and the church is working to involve the people of Windsor, and is already inviting others to participate.
"We see it as a long term partnership. We've invited other partners ... the Garden Club, the Boy Scouts," said Huleatt. "This is a perfect project for us," said Huleatt. "It will go beyond 50 days with some long term work on the riverbank and the rain gardens."
"I love the volunteer initiative," Petras said, "because sometimes it is hard to find a lot of volunteers all at once to pull off a substantial project that has a limited budget; getting so many volunteers on any given day helps us keep our project costs low and get a lot done in a short time which is important to our donors."
While First Church in Windsor plans other events from Easter to Pentecost during the course of Mission 4/1 Earth -- Wheaton College Professor of Religious Studies Barbara Darling will preach on Religion and the Environment on April 14, and the April 21 Earth Day service will be built around the idea of being stewards of the earth. The big workday is on the calendar for Sunday April 28. After a brief worship service, where members are being advised to "come in old clothes," groups of volunteers will tackle embankment cleanup and trash collection, rain garden work, wood chipping duties. Those who can't do the outdoor activities will be offered Bible study workshops about being stewards of the earth and and discussions on topics such as chemical-free Lawns, the importance of riverside vegetation, and reducing stormwater. "We'll have something for everyone," Huleatt said.
The United Church of Christ has been working for environmental justice for almost 30 years, and hopes Mission 4/1 Earth provides an opportunity for a shared mission campaign to live out our faith — in unity, as one church — for the sake of our fragile planet.
Get a preview of Mission 4/1 Earth: 50 Great Days.
Visit ucc.org/earth for more information or join the movement on Facebook.
"I think it is important for everyone to embrace earth care," Petras said. "To gain a respect and reverence for the natural world is important for everyone as we would not be here without the richness and bounty that the earth provides for us. Food, energy, shelter -- look around you, what didn't come from the earth?"