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Go to Sunday school with the United Nations

Curriculum from the Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations highlights UN Sustainable Development Goals

by Rich Copley | Presbyterian News Service

LEXINGTON, Kentucky — The Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations spends a lot of its time working on international policy with diplomatic and ecumenical partners around the world. But as 2020 is ending, the ministry staff is really excited about going to Sunday school.

This month, the ministry launched “Engaging Our World: Sunday School Resource for UN Sustainable Development Goals.” The curriculum follows two editions of the UN Ministry’s “Study and Devotional Guide on the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.”

The UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals were approved in 2015 following consultations with world governments, civil society organizations and citizens. The Study and Devotional Guide shows the biblical basis for goals such as eradicating hunger, achieving equality and caring for the Earth and ways that the church has been engaged in this work for a long time.

Still, 17 goals with 169 targets can seem overwhelming.

Sue Rheem, Mission Specialist for International Advocacy for the Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations, says the ministry’s former director, Ryan Smith, had the idea of creating a Sunday school curriculum to help engage congregations in the work. He turned to longtime Christian education specialist Martha Bettis Gee to make the idea a reality.

“He was committed to getting them into congregations in ways that maybe they could understand them,” Gee said of her initial conversations with Smith, who has since left the UN Ministry to become Programme Executive and Representative to the United Nations for the World Council of Churches. “It’s a pretty daunting task because with 17 goals, it’s difficult to get people into them without them just throwing up their hands and say, ‘I can’t do this.’”

Gee said that to make the curriculum work, it was essential to organize the goals in a way that would be more quickly comprehensible while still showing how they are interrelated. She also understood that most adult Sunday school classes would not embark on a 17-session plan.

The central organizing theme presented itself in the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s Matthew 25 invitation to churches, with its primary goals of eradicating systemic poverty, dismantling structural racism and building congregational vitality.

“Once you get into that passage and you start looking at the Sustainable Development Goals, it kind of naturally organizes it for you, because you can see what God is calling us to do about those goals through the lens of that passage,” Gee said.

The curriculum presents the goals based on 5 P’s as Gee and the UN staff call them: People, Planet, Prosperity, Peace and Passion.

“When I first started reading it, I got shivers down my spine, because it is so phenomenal,” Rheem said. “Martha presented the goals in easily understood categories and provided the ’why’ we as Christians should be doing this work through deep theological grounding.”

Ivy Lopedito, the UN Ministry’s Administrative Assistant who worked on the design and publication of the project, called Gee’s work “a real gift to the church.”

“Something like this curriculum gives us as Christians in the church who are focused on making this world and our nation and our churches a better place a place to get involved and start,” Lopedito said. “You’re able to focus on one goal, but then that goal can relate to all the other goals.”

The curriculum was published online in PDF form earlier this month. Rheem and Lopedito are working on getting physical copies published to be available when most churches can return to in-person gatherings. Gee and Rheem  will be presenting at the February virtual gathering of the Association of Presbyterian Church Educators (APCE) and working on an online version of the class.

“I don’t call them the gate keepers,” Gee said of APCE. “I call them the door openers, because that’s how you get a resource into a church. It’s the educators that help people engage in a study of any kind.”

And engagement is the whole point of this study: to give churches and congregations tools to act on the UN goals.

Rheem said, “It’s our hope, especially in this time of COVID, which has revealed the stark disparities in our society — of increased poverty and racial inequality — that this curriculum may be used a tool for individuals and congregations to explore more deeply with these issues of social justice  and feel empowered to take action.”

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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