Hinton, WV

The mountains of West Virginia played host to a group of young adults with hearts and minds for earth care last week.

Eight Eco-Stewards spent the week traveling around West Virginia, where they visited churches and farms and learned about local environmental issues like coal mining and mountaintop removal. The group ended the week with the Stewardship of the Land event, a community gathering that offered workshops, lectures and networking opportunities for eco-minded Christians and activists.

The Eco-Stewards program is a venture of Presbyterians for Earth Care and the Presbyterian Church Camp and Conference Association. It invites young adults interested in connecting their faith and concern for the earth to come together for a week in the summer.

The locations change every summer — past programs have been in California, New York and Pennsylvania. This year’s trip to West Virginia provided the chance to learn about mountains, coal, land use and sustainability. But all the trips end up teaching about other themes as well: hope, resilience, beauty, forgiveness and grace, to name a few.

“The message of grace is a really central part,” said the Rev. Rob Mark, a Massachusetts pastor and one of the coordinators of the program. “Grace relates to place.”

The greatest commandments are to love God and each other, Mark said.

“Implicit in that for us is loving what God has created,” he said. “Part of loving others is caring about the way these people live and the place in which they live.”

When reviewing Eco-Steward applications, Mark looks for people with a passion for the earth and a commitment to faith lived out. They don’t have to have any science background, but they do need to be open to learning, trying new things and being challenged. He also looks for “someone who’s willing to be uncomfortable a bit.”

In return, the program aims to empower young adults to see the connections between their faith and caring for the planet. Spending a week in a new situation also tends to bond people, and the community and vocational discernment that are often fostered are valuable.

“I love seeing the light bulbs go off,” Mark said.

For Allison Greenwell, an Eco-Steward from Indiana, learning about practical steps to sustainability was a highlight of her week in West Virginia. An environmental engineering major, she also appreciated seeing real-life practices through a faithful perspective.

“God didn’t just give us the earth to use all its resources,” she said.

This year’s Eco-Stewards program took a three-pronged approach. In addition to the traditional weeklong program, the Eco-Stewards participated in the community event at the end of the week. And four of them will stay on in West Virginia, serving in paid internships throughout the area. The interns will be involved in community gardens, food banks, churches, disaster relief and the Presbytery of West Virginia’s Stewardship of Creation Ministry Team.

Bringing the kingdom of God closer to Earth is key for environmental ministry, and the Eco-Stewards program works to train better caretakers of the land we’re given.

“In caring for the earth, we learn more about God, our creator,” Mark said.