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Guillermo Márquez-Sterling on Youth and Unique Mission Trip

Guillermo Márquez-Sterling is associate pastor at Coral Gables United Church of Christ in Coral Gables, Florida. In this edited conversation, Márquez-Sterling talks about their MTR mission trip in June 2013.

Guillermo Márquez-Sterling is associate pastor at Coral Gables United Church of Christ (UCC) in Coral Gables, Florida. At a 2012 national UCC youth gathering, his youth group learned about mountaintop removal (MTR) coal mining in Appalachia. They came home determined to learn and do more about MTR. In this edited conversation, based on emails and phone calls in April and July 2013, Márquez-Sterling talks about their MTR mission trip in June 2013.

What is mountaintop removal?

Mountaintop removal (MTR) is a coal mining process that creates a traumatic environmental crisis to the Appalachian Mountains. It clears the mountain of all the forest, soil, organic matter, animals, birds and humans. Then it dynamites hundreds of feet of rock to get at the coal. The rubble gets dumped in valleys and streams. What’s left is no longer a mountain.

How did your youth prepare for the mountaintop removal mission trip?

They did research, watched films and formulated a plan to let our elected officials know that MTR is not an acceptable form of coal mining. A member of our church’s Going Green team spoke with youth about MTR. Youth spoke at the Earth Sunday worship service about their trip. At the “Party for the Planet” after that service, they made smoothies, served vegetarian food and gathered more signatures for their petition.

We made appointments with our local power company and the offices of our elected officials. We promote recycling and are starting to get rid of plastics in our lives and church. We remind each other that when you go to the store, you can bring your own canvas bags.

What did you do on your mission trip, and who went?

Twelve youth and four adults went on this trip, which had three parts. We rented a cabin in the Shenandoah River Valley and had a fantastic mountaintop experience enjoying forests and nature. It was a lot different than the flat concrete jungle of Miami. We did daily devotionals that describe mountaintop experiences—Moses on Mount Horeb, Elijah seeking refuge, David running from Saul and Jesus on the mountaintop for the Transfiguration.

Next we went to Wise, Virginia, in the southwest tip of the state, to meet with residents and Appalachian Voices leaders. They gave us a running account of what they’ve experienced and took us as close as possible to an MTR site.

Finally, we went to Washington, DC, to meet with our area’s two U.S. representatives. Our youth dressed up, gave a presentation and presented their petition. We also met with a Podesta Group environmental lobbyist who was extremely generous with his time.

What sights, conversations or experiences especially affected your group?

We talked with Mr. Kilgore, a retired coal miner who has black lung disease and has lost his vision. He started crying as he described the pain of witnessing mountains he loved in his youth getting destroyed. Our kids really connected with him. We saw the house where a boulder had crashed in and killed a young boy. We met some children, and lots of people who are older, tired, not educated or computer savvy. We met a 30-year-old guy who’d grown up in Wise and used to mine coal in a shaft. But MTR requires fewer people, so miners like him have lost jobs.

I have hiked the Appalachian Trail in sections, so I know what mountain streams, rivers and creeks should look like. The waters we saw are red and murky. You’re not supposed to swim, bathe or fish in them. One youth said, “Now I know what it feels like to be a mountain.”

What’s next now that you’ve seen what mountaintop removal coal mining does to people and places?

The environmental lobbyist talked with us for 90 minutes. He advised us to start spreading the word about MTR through social media and church events. We’re also going to partner with churches in central Florida, because their regional power company uses MTR coal. We can start with UCC churches, and we know that Presbyterian churches in Florida have fantastic youth groups.

This trip affirmed the importance of intentional living. Young people understand the importance of reducing their carbon footprint.

How does Coral Gables UCC include creation care in worship?

We have a theology that identifies God as Creator. We sing a lot of hymns giving thanks to God for creation. All three of our pastors are progressive and environmentally aware, and we discuss issues that come up, like the Gulf Coast oil spill and melting ice in the Arctic. We observe Earth Sunday and do a blessing of the animals. Our Going Green committee oversees our environmental ministries, and they sponsored an Earth Day poster contest for children and youth.

How does Coral Gables UCC practice creation care in church life?

The church is closed every Monday to save on light, electricity, air conditioning and custodial help. We partner with an organic produce buying club that delivers to our church. This year we began a very small community garden on our church property.

When we had to replace our 50-year-old air conditioning system, our Board of Trustees did a lot of research and got three separate units. They’re very energy efficient, as we can stage them to use only what we need at a particular time, instead of always cooling the entire building.

We are constantly asking our people to put their faith into action. To practice your faith on behalf of the earth is very unifying, for we all want to enjoy God’s creation regardless of our political affiliation. We also promote awareness through the UCC’s Mission 4/1 Earth, which is a shared resurrection witness between Easter Monday and Pentecost Sunday to green up, power down and shout out.

Get up to speed with Appalachian Voices’ Mountaintop Removal 101 webpage. Use Interfaith Power and Light’s carbon footprint calculator for your congregation and household.