Catholic school students learn to be stewards of creation

Arvada school’s Earth Day project aims to cleanup historic neighborhood

Roxanne King

In Pope Francis’ second encyclical, “Laudato si,” (“Praise be to you”) the pope urges the faithful to be good stewards of the Earth. The title is taken from St. Francis of Assisi’s beautiful Canticle of the Sun, which praises God for the wonder of creation.

Inspired by the pope’s document, Erin Hensley, a parishioner at Shrine of St. Anne Church in Arvada, used it to support her case for re-instituting recycling at the parish school. She recently mobilized a Green Team comprised of 20 enthusiastic students from kindergarten through seventh grade and on April 3 kicked off the recycling program with funny skits at the school assembly. 

For Earth Day, April 22, the Green Team, joined by others from the school community, will do a litter cleanup around the parish campus and in their historic Old Town Arvada neighborhood.

“I wanted my children to attend St. Anne’s and grow strong religious roots, but I also wanted to know they were caring for the physical roots beneath their feet—God’s creation,” Hensley, the mother of two students at the school and one toddler, told the Denver Catholic

Hensley’s efforts to reduce waste at the school won’t just help the environment but will also have a positive financial impact on the parish community.

“The quest to reinstate recycling actually saved the school and church $3,500 annually,” Hensley said. “The fact that we were able to save this much money in the transition and that it’s happening during Earth Month gives me goose-bumps!”

School principal Patricia Hershwitzky said that while the financial savings is terrific, the real benefit is calling the students to stewardship and to living lives of Christian dignity.

“Caring for the environment and making it orderly is a reflection of our awareness as being children of God,” she said.

Hensley aims to make the cleanup fun by using an app called Litterati, which has been used to help communities tackle environmental concerns and come up with sustainable solutions. Litterati notes that litter blights the environment, endangers wildlife and hurts the planet.

“With our current throwaway society, we as Catholics are called to demonstrate a love for human life but also a love for all life—the life of our planet. We must be mindful of what we buy and discard moments later,” Hensley said, noting that in “Laudato si,” Pope Francis writes, “Living our vocation to be protectors of God’s handiwork is essential to a life of virtue; it is not an optional or secondary aspect of our Christian experience.”

Hensley assessed that the school collects 10,000-plus gallons of trash a month, but that nearly half of that can be recycled and kept out of landfills.

“Over the course of the school year, that’s enough plastic, paper and aluminum to cover every square foot of our gymnasium up to our knees—and now it’s going to make new paper and plastic materials,” she said.

The school’s efforts to recycle paper, she continued, should save nearly 100 trees a year, as well as 30,000 gallons of water and 10 barrels of oil from not having to produce paper pulp from those trees.

Next school year, Hensley hopes to expand recycling into the school lunchroom and, eventually, to add composting and perhaps a school garden. To help achieve those goals, she’s applied for a Green Up Our Schools grant, which provides money for elementary school waste reduction, recycling and composting plans.

“She’s a visionary in this,” Hershwitzky said. “And she puts the feet behind the vision.”

Our Lady of Fatima fifth-grade teacher Maddy Crouse and her students head the recycling efforts at her Lakewood school. This year she and her fifth-graders led the move to expand the school’s recycling efforts into the lunchroom, which uses foam trays that were being thrown away daily.

“The (fifth-grade) students put together a Power Point presentation and talked to the other students about the difference between landfill trash and recycling,” Crouse said. “(Now) we have (student) trash supervisors who stand by the bins to help answer questions, especially from younger students, to make sure the trash and recycling stay separated.”

Not only do the recycling projects educate youths about where trash goes and its environmental impact, Crouse and Hensley said, but they help the youths to build vital leadership skills and empower them to know they can make positive change.

“This is discipleship in action,” Hensley said. “There are many ways Catholics are being awesome disciples regarding protecting human life; this helps other living things as well.”

COMING UP: Healing hatred and anger after Charlottesville

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The confrontation in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the nationwide reaction to it are clear signs of the tensions simmering just below the surface of our society. But we know as people of faith that these wounds can be healed if we follow Christ’s example, rather than the path of revenge.

It was with a heavy heart that I learned about the Aug. 12 clashes between white supremacists and counter protesters in Charlottesville that resulted in the injury of around 34 people and the death of Heather Heyer. It was an “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” melee.

These events remind me of Pope Francis’ 2017 World Day of Peace message, in which he pointed out that “Jesus himself lived in violent times. Yet he taught that the true battlefield, where violence and peace meet, is the human heart: for ‘it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come’ (Mk. 7:21).”

What we witnessed in Charlottesville was an outward expression of hundreds of hearts, and as a shepherd of souls, I cannot stand by silently while people allow hatred toward others rule their hearts. Particularly reprehensible were the derogatory words the neo-Nazis and their white supremacist allies shouted toward African Americans, Jews and Latinos. This is not how God sees his children!

Every human being is bestowed from the moment of conception with the dignity of being made in the image and likeness of God, and we are all loved by him, even amid our sin and brokenness. Satan seeks every opportunity to twist these fundamental truths in the hearts of human beings and we can see the devastation it brings throughout history.

It can be tempting to respond to these attacks on our fellow man with violence, just as the members of the Anti-fascist movement (known as “Antifa”) did in Charlottesville. But this is not what Christ taught, since it allows hatred to gain a foothold through a different avenue. It is worth repeating: the human heart is the true battlefield.

Jesus’ response to violence and persecution stands in contrast with the way of hatred and anger. Instead, he taught his disciples to love their enemies (Mt. 5:44) and to turn the other cheek (Mt. 5:39). Christ’s radical answer is only possible because God unconditionally loves every person and is ready to forgive us when we repent. God’s love is the only thing that can cut through the hatred that is bringing people to blows, heal the human heart and form it after his own. As people of faith, we are called to bring the truth of love to these festering wounds so that hearts may be healed by Christ.

Joseph Pearce, the Catholic convert and former white supremacist, is a perfect example of this. In a recent article for the National Catholic Register, he recalls how it was his encounter with the objective truths of the faith that demolished his race-centered identity and seeing his enemies love him when he confronted them with hatred that changed his heart. We must pray for the grace to love as Jesus loves, to love as the Father loves.

“The way out of this deadly spiral,” Pearce says, “is to go beyond the love of neighbor, as necessary as that is, and to begin to love our enemies. This is not simply good for us, freeing us from the bondage of hatred; it is good for our enemies also.”

May all of us follow the great example of Mark Heyer, the father of the woman who was killed after the white supremacist rally. His daughter’s death, Heyer told USA Today, made him think “about what the Lord said on the cross, ‘Forgive them. They don’t know what they’re doing.’”

Jesus desires that every person have a heart that is whole and free from hatred, anger and pride. He desires to form our hearts, and that only comes about when we are receptive to his unconditional love, for only in receiving his unconditional love will we be able to give it to others. I pray that all the faithful will be instruments of healing for our country by bringing Christ’s forgiveness to their neighbors and their enemies.