Streams in the Desert: 5 Steps Toward Restoring Waterways as a Church

[Ed. note: This article is part of our weekly series of church activities, called Cultivating Community, published on Thursdays.]

There's trash in them streams!

A stream cleanup: It’s a simple way to engage the community beyond your church’s doors, care and restore God’s creation, and actively live out your values of service and generosity. And it all takes about the same amount of time as planning, preparing, eating, and cleaning up a church pot luck!

Clearing trash away from local bodies of water helps both natural ecosystems and human communities flourish. Cleaning up litter, recording how much is collected, and making observations about plant and animal life around a body of water help improve the aesthetics, habitat, and water quality of local bodies of water, some of which may even provide your community’s drinking water.

Caring for waterways in this manner also weaves your church into the larger community. You take responsibility for protecting and restoring water, one of God’s greatest gifts to his creatures, and in doing so you become a witness to his goodness and a generous partner with both the human and ecological communities that surround you.

So where do you start? Here are some general guidelines and resources for involving your church in a local stream, creek, lake, pond, or river cleanup. If you’ve already done an event like this with your church, let us know! We’d love to hear your story and add your expertise to this post.

1. Scout the Stream
How do you find a waterway that needs some sprucing up?
•    Ask your fellow church members! Has anyone noticed a trash-chocked creek in a local park? Does someone have a neglected stream near their home? Look for ideas from your own community.
•    With a map of your locale, gather a group from your church and walk around the waterways in your community, keeping an eye out for streams, ponds, creeks, etc. where trash has accumulated. Also look for cleanup sites that are easy to access, will be straightforward to clean up, and are safe for a group to work in.
•    Contact your local parks and recreation department and inquire about potential cleanup sites. Park officials may already be aware of areas that need a little extra attention, or have sites that volunteers have cleaned in the past. Contacting your town, city, county, or state parks department is a good way to get ideas, and may also pave the way for you to gain permission to do a cleanup.

2. Plot the Course
The nitty-gritty of obtaining access to a waterway and planning a day of work can be the most important part of a stream cleanup.
•    Obtain permission
o    If you plan to work on public land, contact the appropriate department (likely a parks and recreation or public works department) to clear your plans with the officials there.
o    If you plan to work on private land (belonging to a company, individual, or other private entity), obtain written permission from the landowner(s) with property in the proposed cleanup areas. Invite landowners to participate with you in the cleanup.
•    Define the area to be cleaned
o    Avoid being overwhelmed with work by choosing a specific portion of the body of water’s shoreline to clean.
o    Determine ahead of time how large a swath of land you’ll want to clean up. Will this become more of a park cleanup, or be limited to the waterside?
•    Gather supplies
o    Each cleanup site will require different tools, but here are the most common items you’ll need: rakes, shovels, wheelbarrows, large garbage bags (for trash), large cardboard boxes (for recyclables), work gloves, boots or sturdy shoes, sunscreen, bug spray, work gloves, and a first aid kit.
o    Depending on how long the work day will be, you may want to provide a light breakfast and lunch or a selection of snacks for volunteers to eat throughout the day. You should always provide water for volunteers to drink.
o    Consider asking local hardware stores to donate supplies. Often local businesses that have an investment in the aesthetics and health of your municipality will be more than willing to help out. A local bakery or grocery store may even donate refreshments.
o    Determine what you will supply as the organizer, and what participants will be expected to bring.
•    Who does what?
o    Create a variety of jobs to accommodate volunteers’ interests and capabilities. Some possible activities include: picking up of trash from the waterside, hauling bags of trash into cars and trucks, preparing food for volunteers, holding bags and boxes for others to place trash into, driving vehicles to the dump or recycling center, and observing what plants and wildlife are in the working area.
•    Transportation
o    Let participants know ahead of time if they need to find their own transportation to the cleanup site or if your church will transport everyone.
o    If volunteers are expected to arrive on their own, encourage carpooling and provide them with maps to the site, if necessary.
o    Where are the nearest dumps and recycling facilities where you can bring the collected litter? How will the litter be transported there?
•    Schedule
o    Determine ahead of time how long the cleanup will last: A full day? A half day?
o    Will volunteers be expected to sign up for the entire work day or will they be free to come and go as they like?

3. Gather Together

One very successful stream cleanup.

Stream stewards with their bounty.

A plan is in place, but you need volunteers! Here are some suggestions for rallying the troops:
•    Use your church’s bulletin, website, announcement time, newsletter, or email announcements to gather volunteers together.
•    Be clear about the expectations for the day (how much of the shoreline will be cleaned, what the hours of the cleanup will be, how strenuous the work will be) and what volunteers should bring, if the organizers won’t be providing all the tools and materials.
•    Consider including a bit of inspiration with all this information. A Bible verse about water, encouragement to get involved in the wider community, or a brief explanation of our call to be stewards might help more hesitant church members understand and get excited about a cleanup.

4. Get to Work
•    Establish the day in prayer before you begin working. Consider praying a psalm that contains natural imagery, such as Psalm 8, 29, 65, or 104. Remember that the land you are caring for is God’s land; you are privileged to steward it.
•    Keep up morale by giving food, encouragement, and rest to volunteers.
•    Assign or allow volunteers to choose jobs according to their interests and abilities. Some volunteers may wish to do the heavy lifting of garbage bags; others may have no problem going into the mud to fish an aluminum can out of a pond; still others may be interested in documenting the plants and wildlife surrounding the work site—this can be a helpful indicator as to the quality of the water and health of the larger ecosystem.
•    Document the work in a journal or through photographs or video recordings. Use this documentation to encourage your church to do similar activities in the future.

5. Look Back, Plan Ahead
•    At the end of the day, reflect on what it was like to be in the outdoors together as a church community.
o    Did you meet anyone new or make any surprising friendships?
o    Did you learn something new about your community?
o    What was hard about the day? What was enjoyable?
o    Is this something you could do on a more regular basis?
o    What might you do differently in the future?
•    If given the opportunity, report back to your congregation about the day’s events. Involve the rest of your church to generate excitement about future service opportunities.
•    Thank your volunteers
o    Consider sending thank you notes out to your volunteers, thanking them with individual emails, or thanking them publicly in church.

Learn More
Here are some more web resources to help your church get involved with cleanups in your area:
•    American Rivers National River Cleanup – Full of suggestions and how-to’s on conducting a river cleanup in your area.
•    Adopt-A-Stream – Go deeper into waterway cleanups to make an even bigger difference in the future.
•    Watershed Activities to Encourage Restoration – Though geared toward folks living near Washington, DC, this organization provides a clear cut, informative guide for anyone doing group clean up projects.

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