Bolton Kirchner: Caring for Creation with WV Ministry of Advocacy Workcamps

Bolton appreciates nature with a photo at Sandstone Falls, WV before an Eco-Steward gathering in Hinton. Photo courtesy of Sabrina Jurey.

Bolton Kirchner, a 21-year old senior at Millsaps College in Jackson, MS, is one of three Eco-Steward interns serving in West Virginia this summer. He is certainly using his education this summer: he majors in environmental studies with a minor in faith and work.

After being commissioned as an Eco-Steward in May, Bolton returned to Millsaps to take a month-long summer course in what he described as “business sense for non-business majors.” On 26 June, he returned to West Virginia and began his seven-week internship with the West Virginia Ministry of Advocacy Workcamps (WVMAW).

Kirchner spends most of his time at the WVMAW’s site in Montgomery, the largest of the program’s five sites. Each site partners with a church and a construction supervisor. Although the WVMAW was once a PCUSA mission, “it now stands on its own as a 501-3C,” (a non-profit), according to Kirchner. He informs us the program aims “not to use any federal funding” and is currently supported by churches, individuals, and the Presbytery of West Virginia.

The WVMAW partners with people “devastated by natural disasters or by the disaster of poverty in areas of West Virginia,” according to the Presbytery of West Virginia’s website. The WVMAW also “enable[s] mission groups to come in,” to learn about the land, the people, and the disasters of nature and poverty in West Virginia, adds Kirchner. These groups provide assistance through what Kirchner describes as “maintenance and rehabilitation”; they help make families’ and individuals’ homes “safe and sanitary,” says their statement of values.

Kirchner fits into the WVMAW mission as a self-descibed “connector between the site supervisor and the volunteers,” which includes “help[ing] them connect with the home owners and helping them understand the poverty situation in West Virginia.” He also serves to assist the WVMAW’s environmental policy, which further details their vision to “serve people in sustaining ways that enhance respect for self and the land,” writes executive director Joan West Steward on the ministry’s website.

Kirchner expands this idea: “We see sustainability … in a way where we help [people] live where they already are,” as opposed to letting a home go to ruins as its occupants move away. “To do that,” continues Kirchner, “you have construction waste.” But there are ways to treat that waste responsibly, “bringing the faith and stewardship aspects” into play, says Kirchner.

For example, Kirchner reminds groups about “cleaning up after ourselves […] and respecting the home site.” On the more inventive side, Kirchner spent one afternoon putting his faith, stewardship, and artistic flare into action. He helped a boy from Mt. Hope, Andy, who Kirchner calls “a high-spirited young kid.” During the previous winter, Andy lost his club house, because his family needed to use the wood to heat their home. This summer, Kirchner and Andy made a new clubhouse. He explains, “we were able to take leftover wood and old tires.”

Besides helping people, Kirchner learns a lot. He describes the meaningfulness of “going into a home in which it is nothing like you’ve grown up” due to the poverty. He adds, “most places [we visit] see power–electricity–as a luxury; most places see AC window units as a luxury; and most places don’t have standard heating and air.” Despite the economic difference, the teams are met with what Kirchner designates as “the warmth and love that’s there.” He laments that many people look past this hospitality when they see poverty.

Kirchner also witnesses different ways to “live with the land” on the home sites. Many people hoard, because they fear getting rid of things that might come in handy some day, like the tires on Andy’s clubhouse. Kirchner enjoys witnessing the culture of gardening “and sitting outside because of the heat,” he says.

When not at home sites for construction, Kirchner becomes part of the mission groups. When a group has the space, he adds to their devotional time. “If possible,” he says, “I really like to weave into their theme ecostewardship.” With scriptures and faith images, Kirchner shares with the group what he sees as a God-given ability to take care of God’s earth.

When he leaves West Virginia, Kirchner will finish his senior year at Millsaps College. Afterwards, he says he plans to “continue to work in stewardship advocacy.” In whatever job he takes, he affirms: “I will look for fulfillment in any sort of work I do,” aiming to “connect my faith to day-to-day work.”

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All pictures courtesy of Bolton Kirchner.

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“There’s a place up in the mountains, far from where I live”

Sabrina Jurey spent half of her summer internship as an Eco-Steward at Bluestone Camp and Retreat during their summer camp program. In this post, she reflects on her time at Bluestone. She is now serving the rest of her internship at First Presbyterian Church in Hinton, WV.

Sabrina sits on the screened-in porch of the lodge at Bluestone.

If West Virginia is “almost heaven,” then, sprawled across one of her rolling mountains, surely yet another step closer, is Bluestone Camp and Retreat. Looking out over sometimes-vibrant, sometimes-misty green hills and cradled under a bright blue sky, it is an incredible place to spend a summer.

And I am blessed and lucky enough that is where I spent the first part of mine. After the Stewardship of the Land conference at Bluestone, my fellow Eco-Stewards headed off for other internships, for summer college courses, or for life outside of camp. I remained there, up on that mountain.

I had a week-and-a-half almost completely to myself, for personal reflection, for plotting, for planning, and for pondering all that was going on in my life and all that was going to go on.

And then staff began to arrive. I found myself in the midst of a family of friends who knew one another and had worked together in previous summers. I hoped but didn’t know yet that at the end of five weeks, I would be part of this family.

We trained and bonded as a staff, and before we knew it, campers arrived for week one. And before I could blink, I sat with a group in front of me, looking expectantly at me, waiting for me to teach them something about the environment.

It is an interesting moment, this one, when you realize that you are supposed to have some wisdom to impart to others.

I cannot promise that any actual wisdom came from my lips, but I talked to those campers, and they talked to me. We conversed back and forth, and brainstormed together. Our particular topic for these lessons was trash, and more specifically, how we can create less trash in our lives by reducing, reusing, and recycling. That first lesson lasted about 35 minutes; the next went for about 40. After the first day, groups were spending an hour with me, and a few had enough to say that our lessons lasted closer to an hour and twenty minutes.

I, apparently, made my point to at least a few campers. For the most part, the counselors told me that their groups enjoyed my lessons. Some of the fourth week campers were disappointed that they got only one eco-lesson for the week. The camp director’s wife told me that their son wanted to make some changes in his life … because of what we talked about at eco-time.

Wow.

I came out of the first week of camp encouraged and humbled by my reception, and that feeling only continued through the rest of camp. The younger kids were creative beyond what I was expecting when we thought about how to reuse that which would otherwise be thrown away; the older campers sometimes got side-tracked–because they wanted to talk about the oil spill in the Gulf, food-related issues, or other important eco-justice issues. I was impressed with the discussions we had.

And, as much as the campers may (or may not) have learned from me, I learned from them–and from the rest of the staff, and from the whole of the camp experience.

I learned the subtle art of keeping a conversation on task … more or less.

I learned the power of positive thinking–that a hot day means we get to enjoy ice cream and popsicles even more.

I learned that you can never drink enough water.

I learned that if you open your eyes some, practically anything in the trash can become part of a robot.

I learned that some eight-year-olds are already on the super-hero path, ready to save the world in a myriad of small ways.

I learned that I may be stubborn, but God is persistent. I learned (as I have before) that I come alive when I get to work with kids. I learned that God wants me in children’s and youth ministry … and maybe this time, that knowledge will stick.

The Bluestone Song says it best:

“Can’t stay on the mountain while life goes on below
But I’m bound now and determined to take her when I go
Don’t want to go from where I came … I want to live like I’ve been changed
Got a family beside me and the Lord above to guide me
No matter where I go from here I’ll always be at home.”

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Trying in “Small Ways”: Ecostewardship at Highlawn Presbyterian

This peaceful garden is enclosed within Kanawha United Presbyterian's church building.

I asked Ann Schurman, a member of Highlawn Presbyterian Church in Huntington, WV, to tell me about what her church does to be a good steward of creation. She replied, “I feel like we try in small ways around here. Hmm. You might have to strike small.”

Recycling is big at the church. “That was our first … beginning effort,” reports Schurman. The church has encouraged the congregation to bring in soda cans for over 20 years. Money made from the recycled cans goes to the youth who have started designating the money for Heiffer International, an organization providing livestock as “a sustainable source of food and income,” says their website. Schurman says the money “can average from $9-10 to $2-3” weekly.

In recent years they have added plastics and paper. They also have a container for glass, although Huntington does not currently have a location to recycle glass. Schurman said she is “trying to solve the glass problem.” Volunteers from the congregation take the recycling to the various centers, Schurman being one of those faithful servants.

Included in their “on-going” missions, the church has a bin in their recycling area for cell phones and magazines. The magazines are transported to the veterans home and the cell phones go to the local shelter for victims of domestic violence, since the phones can call 911 without a plan.

As a general rule, the church enjoys repurposing. Schurman comments that there is “a lot of that mentality around here.” When creating a serene garden space in their enclosed courtyard, many of the bushes removed were transplanted around the outside of the building.

The church also enjoys bringing in people outside of the congregation to give them fresh perspectives and encouragement on different issues, including environmental ones. On June 27, 2010, Robin Blakeman, an organizer with the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition and ordained Presbyterian minister delivered the sermon, which had references to the recent oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico. Schurman noted, “it’s always nice to have somebody come in … always helps to have the external voice coming in.”

Last year the church started gardening and composting. Their garden provided fresh tomatoes and squash for their monthly trip to deliver a meal to the Huntington City Mission, a non-denominational, faith-based mission that feeds poor and homeless persons, among other projects. This year “time and people’s availability” kept the garden from getting off the ground. However, the church still encourages congregants to bring fresh produce from their gardens for the meals they deliver to the mission. Schurman mentioned one gentleman provided all their lettuce for a recent trip.

The church also enjoys using their van for carpooling to different church events. “If a member is going to have a small group study at her home … we’ll use the church van,” says Schurman. Not only do individuals save gas money, but also the earth benefits from less pollution and parking is much less of a hassle. While at the group study, participants are likely to enjoy fairly traded products as a large number of congregants report purchasing the wares.

“You might have to strike small,” said Schurman. You will have to judge whether or not to strike that word. Regardless, all actions towards stewarding creation make a difference, small or not. Highlawn Presbyterian Church is taking steps and often times it is the steps that count, not the size.

Caring for God’s People & Earth: Education at Kanawha United Presbyterian

Chris Rogillio’s children grew up when the “reduce, reuse, and recycle” lessons were being taught in schools. Her children brought these lessons home with them and they interacted with Rogilio’s faith background, especially those scriptures about creation, scriptures that had always been dear to her. Although, she remarks, those scriptures are “easier to read than to put in place, because it takes effort.”

Rogillio makes that effort. She is the Director of Christian Education at Kanawha United Presbyterian Church (USA) in Charleston, WV. This congregation makes an effort to be good stewards of creation. Recently they installed an energy-efficient water heater; they have purchased kitchenware instead of continuing to use disposable plates and cups; they recycle paper; the children collect aluminum tabs to donate to the Ronald McDonald House; and they replaced the many windows in their education center with stationary, double-pane windows for heating and cooling efficiency.

The people at Kanawha United do what they can with what they have, which is all anyone can do. Rigillio helped organize two different camp groups last year to focus on social and eco-justice. The camps and the responses from the children inspired Rigillio. She decided to do programs on what she calls “a different bent” with the children at Kanawha United.

So this past fall (2009), Rogillio combined the church year and Sunday school with ecology and social justice. She used her gifts and passions to write two curricula each for her elementary and middle school age Sunday school classes–four different programs in all. The first was on God’s creation and the next on creation in the Psalms. Both curricula were about “God’s creating, … our part in it, and how everything has a part,” as she describes it.

“We tried to stay away from the things they get at school all the time,” Rogillio says. She told me they are already taught about reducing, reusing, and recycling, so in Sunday school, she had them look at the seeds and roots of plants and our faith. The curriculum “blend[s] our faith journeys into how God has planned creation,” notes Rogillio.

As Rogillio continued to portray the programs, she talked about how the students also juxtapose their faith journeys with the journey their food takes before being placed on the kitchen table. They talked about the various workers involved in cultivating, reaping, and transporting food and the social justice issues involved with the care and payment of these persons. Investigating these justice matters, the curricula promoted local foods that profit local farmers and have little to no role in the poor treatment of people or the land.

Continuing to think about how our food habits effect others, Rogillio’s curricula teaches the children to be careful about wasting food. She says, “God has enough food for everybody if we share it and don’t waste it. … If we use it [the earth] right, it sustains itself.” And the lessons and activities mirror these truisms. Rogillio says they never use food items for games or crafts, because there are hungry people in the world. They do have one exception to this rule, however: “candy, because we eat it [after we’re done playing],” Rogillio amusingly related.

After Advent and Lent, the Sunday school turned again to eco-theology, using the study ReNew: The Green VBS. Although intended for Vacation Bible Study, Kanawha United used the daily lessons for consecutive weeks in Sunday school. ReNew slowly teaches the Parable of the Sower to children, focusing each lesson on a different kind of soil. During this program, the children planted seeds and enjoyed setting up a compost bin. Although the church does not generate enough food waste to maintain a compost bin during the normal year, Rogillio mentioned the children are excited to start composting again during the Kanawha Forum, an annual musical program that includes a number of meals prepared and served at the church.

As happened with Rigillio and her children, what the children learned at church did not just change the children. A group of adults helped build raised garden beds at a local assisted-living community. Their involvement in this project was what Rigillio called “an outgrowth” of the stewardship emphasis for the children. Rigillio is encouraging the adult classes to be involved in curricula exploring social and eco-justice. One group will be going through Robert D. Peirson’s Becoming a Good Samaritan Church, which has some earth-stewardship in it. Indeed, as Rigillio notes, social and eco-justice go hand in hand: “you can’t care for God’s people if you don’t care for the earth.”

Rigillio and Kanawha United are great examples of how individuals and groups can use their gifts and their passions to serve God. Sometimes things fall into place, other times the Spirit gives you a little extra creativity. Everything has a place and our place as humans and as the church is in relation to God, neighbor, and this earth. We cannot ignore one of them without ignoring the rest of them. We cannot focus on one without focusing on all of them.

Remembering Joanna

Joanna Rittmann

It is with sadness that we recognize the loss of our dear friend and Eco-Steward Joanna Rittmann. A few weeks ago, Joanna died in an automobile accident near her home in Louisville, Kentucky. A moving memorial service and burial, attended by some of our Eco-Stewards, were held in her beloved Braxton County in West Virginia. A second memorial service was held at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, where Joanna was pursuing a Master’s of Divinity degree.

We are grateful for the beautiful week we spent with Joanna during the Eco-Stewards Program in May. It was a gift to witness Joanna’s joy in reconnecting with the landscape and people of her native West Virginia.  Joanna shared so much with us that week: prayer, song, photography and a passionate commitment to earth stewardship.

In her words from an earlier post on this blog, Joanna wrote: “Care for one’s environment is care for those with whom you share it. It is care for the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer’s work in and through us and all of creation. We all need each other to survive. A Bible verse comes to mind, Romans 8:22: ‘For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now’… I hope to learn how to lessen the groan caused by the negative behaviors of the human race and how to live more simply.”

Today, we offer this prayer to Joanna and her family: God of the mountains, we are grateful for your servant and daughter, Joanna.  We pray that your light perpetual will shine upon her, and her family – especially her husband Jimmy, and mother Arbutus.  We know she is now safely in your loving arms. Be with all of us who miss her, and may we have the courage she had to live out our convictions with passion and grace – especially in the caring of this your planet.  As it was in the beginning, O God, so in the end may your gift be born, so in the end may your gift of life be born. In Christ we pray, AMEN.

Below, please find Joanna’s obituary and a slideshow from the 2010 Eco-Stewards Program:

Joanna’s Obituary:

Joanna Marie Rittmann, “Free Spirited and Loyal, Loving and Loved”, 24, of Louisville, KY , formerly of Frametown, WV passed away June 24, 2010 in an automobile accident.

Joanna was born Septmeber 28, 1985 to Arbutus Hooton Hudnall and Johnny Hudnall of Frametown, WV.  She was preceded in death by her father, Johnny Hudnall.

She is survived by husband, Jimmy Rittmann of Louisville, KY; mother, Arbutus Hudnall of Frametown, WV; brother, Kevin Hudnall and wife, Sandy of Graham, NC; sister, Beverly Moore and husband, Bobby of Frametown, WV.

Joanna graduated from Braxton County High School in 2004.  She also achieved a History Major and Religion Minor at Berea College in 2008.  Joanna was a student at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary earning her Master of Divinity.  Joanna was passionate about environmental and social justice, music, and Biblical Hebrew.

Service will be 1 p.m. Wednesday, June 30 at Richard M. Roach Funeral Home, Gassaway, WV with Rev. Lewis Brogden officiating.  Burial will be in the Braxton County Cemetery, Suton, WV.

Friends may call from 10 a.m. till time of service at the funeral home.

A memorial service to celebrate her life will be held  4 p.m.,  Saturday, July 3, 2010 at Caldwell Chapel at the Louisville Presbyterian Seminary Campus.

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