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Sustainability in Tucson

December 14, 2022
Church and community members participated in painting a mural on a wall of Mission Church in Tucson, Ariz.
Church and community members participated in painting a mural on a wall of Mission Church in Tucson, Ariz.

When Mission Church first moved into the Arroyo Chico neighborhood in Tucson, Ariz., they wanted to connect with their neighbors. Following the principles of Christian community development, they sought to learn what was most important to the people living near the church building.

“We had a big, tan, empty wall, so we offered it as a canvas for a mural – the story of the neighborhood – and invited neighbors to come and tell us their stories,” said Andy Littleton, the church’s pastor. “As we heard their stories, we looked for themes. The overwhelming, and surprising, theme was plants.”

Older neighbors told Littleton, church members, and community leaders about the days when native spinach grew in the arroyo (a little dry river bed) and when the local kids would slice and eat their own nopales (pads of the prickly pear cactus) after school. Younger residents expressed a desire for more shade and a community garden.

“We took a lot of notes. Around 100 people showed up for the mural-painting day and gave us more feedback,” Littleton said. (View the mural and read some of the community stories here.)

A few years later, a leader in local sustainability reached out to ask if Mission Church had any interest in being a part of some community projects. They suggested that the church apply for a grant that could be used to support stormwater collection and create greenspace. Given what the church had heard from the neighborhood, this seemed like a great way to give back, said Littleton.

“Our neighborhood is a heat island. We also knew our neighbors wanted to see more plant life in the neighborhood, so we knew it was time to jump at the opportunity,” he said.

The church connected with eight community organizations and asked them to endorse the project. Then a program that helps scale-up sustainability projects got involved and helped to improve the project’s proposal.

As a result, the City of Tucson approved funding for Mission Church to create three zones of stormwater collection along the street. One will be a chicane, featuring a basin and plants, which will also serve as a traffic-calming feature. Two others will be basins located beside the street.

In addition, a local nonprofit has pledged to donate 12 trees to be planted on or near the church property around the same time that the stormwater collection features are completed.

"There has always been a strong contingency in our faith tradition, even if it may not feel like it in our current cultural moment, who see the earth as a gift to be loved and stewarded," Littleton said, explaining why a Christian church would be involved in projects like these.

“One of our greatest callings as people is to 'make the earth be glad' because joy is one of the most powerful motives of the heart,” he continued. “We see this project as an implication of our faith, a way to make the earth glad, to love our neighbor, and to display the image of God and live out our vocation; to display the character of God who is good, pursues justice, and is especially concerned for the lives of the poor."

Mission Church is of course not the only congregation to be interested in supporting creation care, environmental sustainability, and green space. For example, the Climate Witness Project – an initiative of the Christian Reformed Church in North America, of which Mission Church is a part – has more than 290 congregations and campus groups involved in creation care initiatives.

“The Climate Witness Project is designed to walk with congregations as they learn about the realities of climate change, as they seek to be better stewards of the resources they have been given, and as they find their voice to speak to public officials about common-sense climate policy,” said Kris Van Engen, coordinator of the project.

Though this initiative began in the CRCNA, more than 20 denominations participate in Climate Witness Project activities.

And for Mission Church the story isn't over. A large conference on water conservation heard about their desire to love and steward the earth. They invited Littleton and other leaders to speak at the conference, and a city agency that operates a housing complex nearby expressed interest in collaborating on more community projects.

These will include more traffic-calming chicanes and collecting water to add green space to a housing complex nearby.

“Caring about the environment is part of our mission,” said Littleton. “I teach the people at our church that caring for creation is an excellent opportunity to build bridges with our neighbors who don't acknowledge God as creator. Most of all, I teach what I fight to believe, that God changes our hearts by giving us grace and promising more.”