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APCE opens the door to UN sustainable development goals

Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations presents its Sunday school curriculum to educators

by Rich Copley | Presbyterian News Service

LEXINGTON, Kentucky — Friday afternoon the Association of Presbyterian Church Educators (APCE) went to the United Nations — virtually, at least — to learn how they can involve their congregations in the work of the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Representative to the United Nations, Sue Rheem, joined with longtime Presbyterian educator and curriculum developer Martha Bettis Gee to introduce the new Sunday school curriculum based on the sustainable development goals.

Engaging Our World,” the Sunday school curriculum, was developed in the last couple years by the Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations (PMUN) as a companion to its “Study and Devotional Guide on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals,” which is now in its second edition. Both resources are available as free downloads on the PMUN resource page.

“The reason this came about is because the state of the world is not in a good place,” Rheem told people attending the APCE workshop. “The world’s population has grown rapidly.”

The world’s population was less than 2 billion in 1900. Now, it stands at 7.7 billion and is likely to increase to more than 11 billion by the end of this century.


“The demand for diminishing natural resources is growing. Income gaps are widening,” Rheem said. “The industrialized nations have many people who live beyond nature’s means. For example, one person in a very rich country uses as much energy as 80 people in a very poor country. Overconsumption is leading to waste, which pollutes our environment and uses up our resources. Crushing poverty and growing populations also put pressure on the environment. Sustainable development requires us to conserve more and waste less.

Sue Rheem works in the offices of the Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations. (Photo by Rich Copley)

“We must use our resources wisely. Sustainable development calls for a decent standard of living for everyone today without compromising the needs of future generations.”

If the situation seems overwhelming, Rheem and Bettis Gee are not going to disagree with you. But that is why they developed the Sunday school curriculum — to help Presbyterians across the country understand the situation and their role in addressing it. And that is why they brought the curriculum to APCE.

“You open the doors to the wider world to help people in your congregation broaden their understanding of their call to be disciples,” Bettis Gee said. “And this is such important work that the UN has done. You guys really are the folks who can take that work and see that it lives on in our churches.”

Rheem and Bettis Gee told the workshop audience that the curriculum was the idea of PMUN director Ryan Smith, who departed late last year for a similar job with the World Council of Churches. Before that, he engaged Bettis Gee to create the curriculum, and Rheem said that what struck them when they saw the first draft was how Bettis Gee took 17 goals with 169 targets and boiled them down to a series of five main points and six lessons in ways that could be handled by a typical 45-minute Sunday School class.

The five main points or P’s are: people, prosperity, planet, partnership and peace.

The entire project is also seen through the lens of the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s Matthew 25 invitation, which is focused on dismantling structural racism, eradicating systemic poverty and building congregational vitality.

What is revealed through the curriculum and exploring different issues and different ways of looking at Scripture, Bettis Gee said, is that everything is interconnected.

“What happens across those sessions is you’re building,” she said. “When you get through with session two, and you go on to session three, you’re going to be looking at how these goals that I’m doing in session three related to the ones I just did in session two. So gradually, you’re going to be building on what you have learned and synthesizing what is happening.”

Ultimately, what congregations using the curriculum are encouraged to do is take action, whether it is on a modest or large scale, to apply what they have learned to their lives and the life of their church.

Taking on the sustainable development goals, Rheem and Bettis Gee said Presbyterians are doing work all 193 UN member states have signed on to do. But more than that, it is continuing the work of the church.

“As we were reviewing these goals in our office, we really recognized that this is work that the church has been doing since the beginning of church,” Rheem said. “So this is something that is good for us to reflect on and to know that this is work that we can continue to do to create a more just and sustainable future. It’s easy for us to do because we’ve been doing it, and we are doing it, and we will continue to do it as followers of Christ.”

The Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations is one of the Compassion, Peace & Justice ministries of the Presbyterian Mission Agency.

Give to the Peace & Global Witness Offering to continue the valuable ministry of the Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations.

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