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Children take the lead

Inspired by a seed-themed VBS, children transform Hunter Presbyterian Church into a PC(USA)-certified
Earth Care Congregation.

By Daisy Rhau

Compiled through interviews conducted by Patrick Heery

Children blowing bubbles pic
When the children of Hunter Presbyterian Church in Lexington, Kentucky, told me that we should become an Earth Care Congregation, I asked them: “Who should do that? The session? The outreach committee?” Their response took me by surprise: “We can do it, Ms. Daisy.”

In truth, though, I should have seen it coming.

For decades, congregations have been struggling to figure out what to do with their children—other than the ubiquitous Sunday school. Children can provoke surprising anxiety among adults. We want them quiet, dressed up, and never fidgety. We think they need to be cordoned off from adult worship and that we have to dumb things down for them.

At Hunter Presbyterian, we began by assuming these ideas were not true. Sure, children can have different learning styles and needs, but, in most cases, what they find boring adults find boring too. So we started teaching the children how to worship, write liturgy, and pray. Instead of using curricula designed to be “exciting,” we trusted that Scripture, discipleship, and spirituality could be inherently meaningful. We encouraged children and youth to dress comfortably and respectfully for active worship. We invited them to session meetings and choir rehearsals. We listened to their needs; when they told us they weren’t performers or musicians, we invited them instead to serve Communion (by special invitation of the session) and create works of liturgical art.

The result took our breath away: suddenly our children were our partners in mission and prayer.

‘We need to be
good stewards of God’s creation so it will be here for our children and our children’s children.’
—Miriam, age 10

Then, two years ago, a member of our Christian education committee, Shelley Hufford, brought our attention to the children’s growing interest in environmentalism. They had grown enamored of a cause that empowered them to have a direct impact. When they picked up trash alongside the local roads, they could see that the streets were cleaner. When they recycled, they could touch the volume of waste that would be transformed into usable products.

So that year we used—with rousing success—the mission-focused vacation Bible school (VBS) curriculum Clean Water for All God’s Children, developed by Living Waters for the World, a mission outreach of the Synod of Living Waters. The children built rain barrels and gave them to neighbors. They went on field trips and traced watershed runoffs to an inner-city spring. And guest speakers talked with them about the impact of litter and pollutants on ground water.

Afterward, the children started requesting local mission and environmental opportunities, and we listened. By the next year, we knew that the 2013 VBS would need to have an environmental focus with real-world application. But as we searched VBS programs, we found little on the topic. Our research did however take us to the website of Presbyterian Environmental Ministries, where we found a Lenten calendar of daily environmental practices. We decided to translate the calendar activities into a VBS.

Holly Brady, another Christian education committee member and a gifted gardener, then started riffing on sustainable living and local hunger missions. After many cups of tea, we had our VBS theme: seeds and community gardening. With the name Seeds of Faith, the goal was to help our children—in the context of Scripture, prayer, and discipleship—learn how to live cooperatively in a community, start a garden, see what food waste really means, and glean and transport healthy, nutritious foods to people who don’t have access to fresh food.

The children inspired us at every turn. But I want to be clear that we don’t have unusually focused children. When they arrived on the first day of VBS, they ran around in circles, whooping and chasing each other. These were second through fifth graders after all. They’re normal children with typical summer exuberance. And we’re not highly charismatic parents with a gift for guitar or comedy. We’re ordinary adults. We simply lit a Christ lantern, laid out a blanket, invited them to pray with us, and quietly handed out metal gardening tools. They listened to our stories and asked questions. They weeded with enthusiasm.

‘When I
worship God, I
feel God speaking to me. When I care for the earth, I feel I am speaking
to God.’
 —Jinju Santalucia,
age 10

We take children seriously. So, after the VBS, when they expected us to live up to our teachings, we just had to. When the church needed an additional recycling bin, they let us know, and we got one. When they wanted the congregation to continue gleaning produce, we did. And when they showed us the Presbyterian Environmental Ministries website and told us that it was time to become an Earth Care Congregation, we asked, “How do we get started?”

Our second through fifth graders did everything. They did the research. They consulted the clerk of session and the sexton regarding environmental audits and measuring how energy is used. They filled out the application, wrote thoughtful challenges for the congregation in the coming years, and made the presentation to the session. They even added up the audit points.

The children of course had ideas such as solar panels and geothermal heating that were beyond our small-church budget. During a child-led worship service, one fifth grader (who was preaching!) informed the congregation that he was willing to stand on the roof and spend all his money to make the biggest sign in the world to proclaim Jesus’ love. He said: “I know you are thinking that that’s just the kind of thing a kid would say. But let me ask you, What are you willing to do?” A bit heavy-handed perhaps, but, then again, he was 10 at the time. And he was truthful, challenging us adults to ask ourselves what we are willing to do for the love of Christ.

Some changes are already happening. All changes to the building will be energy efficient. Reminders to conserve energy now sit above light switches. The garden continues. We’re cleaning up polluted areas of the community. We’re integrating earth care into our worship and education. And right now the children are raising money for a big outdoor Earth Care Congregation banner, so that everyone will know we’re a church that cares about the earth.

These children are basically our earth-care team. They are not only, as the saying goes, “the future of the church.” They are our present, our partners on the journey, our youngest members, and the ones who share our pews, challenging us to be better Christians.

Daisy Rhau is a teacher and serves on the Christian education committee at Hunter Presbyterian Church in Lexington, Kentucky.

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