Wangari Maathai was an environmentalist and political activist whose work to end deforestation and promote peace and democracy in Kenya earned her the Noble Peace Prize in 2004. But Maathai was also a friend of the Rev. Lise Sparrow and an inspiration to Sparrow's congregation and its youth. Maathai visited the congregation and the town of Guilford, Vt., many times, giving talks and lectures, and of course, planting trees. Although Maathai passed away in 2011, her spirit lives on through the Guildford Church Kaiguchi Youth Group, a partnership between the youth of Guilford Community UCC and the Kenyan village of Kaiguchu established in 2006 that works to reforest the country while helping its at-risk women and children.
"It's a wonderful project because its youth helping youth and we're using tree plantings as a way to do that," said Sparrow, pastor of Guilford Community Church UCC. "Not only does it reforest Kenya, which is really important, but it also helps women and children in poverty."
Through this connection, Guilford Community Church and the Guildford Church Kaiguchu Youth Group will serve as one of several global tree planting partners for Mission 4/1 Earth, the UCC's church-wide earth care initiative beginning Easter Monday, April 1. Through this program, participants can purchase a tree to be planted in Kenya for $1 as part of the Mission 4/1 Earth goal to plant 100,000 trees worldwide.
Deforestation in Kenya became a problem in the 1960s because of government-mandated colonization. Trees villagers relied on for shelter, shade and firewood were being cleared for apartment complexes and parking lots. Animals that served as food migrated to places with more vegetation, hillsides eroded, rivers dried up, air quality deteriorated, and people suffered. Maathai recognized the problems this caused for the environment and people of Kenya and started the Green Belt Movement in 1977, an organization focused on the planting of trees, environmental conservation and women's rights. Maathai went on to earn multiple degrees, write numerous books, and receive countless honors, most notably the Nobel Peace Prize for her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace.
"It was a big surprise for those in the church who didn't know she was such a luminary," said Sparrow. "She went from being a visitor to somebody who is famous. When that happened, environmental work became a bigger part of our church's ministry."
Since Maathai's death, Sparrow says the Green Belt Movement has "gone a bit defunct," but those who have taken her place continue to organize women in rural Kenya to plant trees, combat deforestation, generate income and stop soil erosion. Since the movement began, more than 51 million trees have been planted and more than 30,000 women have been trained in forestry, food processing, bee keeping, and other trades that help them earn income while preserving their land and resources.
"She created a network of groups of women who would nurture seedlings and plant trees," said Sparrow. "When you're driving up north out of Nairobi, you can look out and see a band of new trees that have been planted by these women in the last 20 years."
With the help of Lawrence Kabuathi, a villager Sparrow met on her first trip to Kenya in 2006, Guilford Community Church is personally responsible for planting nearly 3,000 of these trees. But the group has also provided the Kaiguchu villagers with food, mattresses and school uniforms, which are required for all students. The Guildford Church Kaiguchu Youth Group project continues to gain momentum – it may soon partner with another organization that will help build a school for orphans. Groups from Guildford have visited Kenya three times, and another trip is planned for November. But depending on the success of the Mission 4/1 Earth tree-planting partnership, Sparrow may return sooner to help with the planting of what she is hopeful could be 10,000 trees or more.
While that seems like a lofty goal, Sparrow recalls her group's visit to Kenya in April 2012 where, with the help of 200 Kenyan students, they planted 2,000 trees in one afternoon. The village's eager children had all of the seedlings prepared and all 2,000 holes dug before the Guildford group arrived, and together they reforested a hillside that Sparrow describes as "steeper than steep."
"Mission 4/1 Earth could be unbelievable for the village," said Sparrow. "Trees are one thing that makes a very big difference, very concrete and visible. No matter what happens, it could be great."
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.
Visit ucc.org/earth for more information or join the movement on Facebook.