When the youth of Guatemala’s San Agustín Chahal church gathered in June 2011 to plant 150 trees on the church grounds and in a nearby preservation area, it marked the end of a Sunday School lesson series—and the start of something much bigger.
The lessons, “Caring for God’s Creation,” began with Genesis 2:15, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it,” and explored what it means to care for God’s earth in the 21st century.
Following the tree planting, the Sunday School leaders began thinking about how they could help promote greater care for the earth within their community.
Such considerations feel apropos for those in Chahal, the name of whose community originates from a Mayan word that translates as “guardian of the seeds where forests are born.” Not only were the leaders inspired to be guardians of God’s creation, but this sense of stewardship was part of the heritage of the community.
Though the name of the community was, according to the Mayan Popul Vuh sacred writings, invoked by historic Mayan Princess Ixquic, community members did not seem to be aware of this legacy. One could not walk through the city without spotting plastic bottles and trash lining the roadsides, waterways, schoolyards, and parks. Still, most community members seemed unconcerned with the issue.
Beginning With Education
So the Chahal Nazarene Church developed a program to train young people in environmental awareness, conservation, and preservation, beginning with basic principles of picking up trash and the value of recycling.
The congregation also dreamed of a way to provide environmental education in the community, hoping it would inspire greater stewardship among citizens of Chahal in caring for the earth and one another.
From Plastic Waste to Building Construction
It turns out that 600 ml (20.29 oz.) plastic bottles—those commonly used to store cooking oil, water, and other beverages—make for excellent interior construction material to line building walls. The church, as well as the schools, needed classrooms built, so when the Sunday School leaders realized that much of the trash in the community could be reused to directly serve both the local congregation and schools, they got to work.
The congregation launched a campaign in 2012 as a part of its ecological education program “Everyone Wins in Recycling.” The congregation challenged local students aged 4 to 13 to gather as many 600 ml (20.29 oz.) plastic bottles as possible; these would become the building blocks for three new classrooms.
In school, the students learned that to prevent bottles from collapsing once they are weight-bearing, they needed to be filled completely with non-biodegradable materials—plastic bags, soft and flexible plastic scraps, Styrofoam, or aluminum foil. As they gathered and filled bottles, the students began to see how much their efforts minimized the trash problem in their community by reusing discarded plastics.
The community rallied alongside the students in the recycling campaign. Together, they surpassed the original goal of 22,000 filled plastic containers, collecting 30,000. And as the church began constructing bathrooms and classrooms using the recycled materials, the community began to see the impact of the efforts. For every 120 plastic bottles filled, they could build one square meter (11 square feet) of wall.
Recycled trash used in building construction:
– 22,800 plastic bottles
– Weight per recycled bottle: 0.7 pounds (317.52 grams)
– Total area covered: 2,045 square feet (190 square meters)
– Total recycled trash used: 7.98 tons (7.24 metric tons)
The Vision Expands
In 2013, the congregation extended its educational program into 100 new schools, and in 2014, the primary school and the secondary school that show the greatest involvement in the recycling efforts will each receive a new classroom—built, of course, from reclaimed materials.
In 2014, the church hopes to replicate the project in the neighboring municipality of Fray Bartolomé de las Casas, and six other cities are included in their long-term vision.
Already, the church’s efforts have been regionally and nationally recognized. In June 2013, the leaders participated as finalists for innovative ecological projects through the “Organización de Estados Americanos” (OEA) (Organization of American States). Out of 32 projects from 19 Latin American countries, the Chahal project won second place. It was the only church participating in this event.
The event gave international exposure to the Chahal church’s environmental conservation and its Christian stewardship of creation. The Guatemalan government representative in the event said, “This is the best initiative to reduce the environmental impact of plastic.”
Yet, what is of utmost importance to the church is that it has brought the Chahal community together. Project leader Edgar Rosales Peche said, “In the Chahal’s 100-year history, neither governmental nor non-governmental bodies have been able to rally the community to address environmental contamination. The Church of the Nazarene has gained great credibility in society by carrying out this project with honesty, transparency, honor, and ethical integrity.”