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.

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