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Becoming a zero-waste church

How a Brazilian church is blazing a trail and inspiring people to reconsider their relationship with creation.

Written by Seren Boyd | 20 Jun 2023

The congregation at Coqueiral Baptist Church, Recife, Brazil.

The congregation at Coqueiral Baptist Church, Recife, Brazil. Credit: Mocah Films / Tearfund

A church’s choice of coffee cups may not seem important – but it is absolutely central to the mission of Coqueiral Baptist Church.

The switch from disposable to reusable cups is a milestone on the road to becoming a zero-waste church – but it also signposts something far bigger.

Because this congregation in the city of Recife is on a journey, to better understand God’s call to care for creation, in Genesis 2:15.

For Pastor Josias Vieira, the issue is black and white. ‘There is no way to serve God and love him without relating harmoniously with his creation – because God reveals himself in his creation.’

Pastor Josias Vieira.

Pastor Josias Vieira. Credit: Mocah Films / Tearfund

This has been a gradual awakening for Josias but something he’s now passionate about. He describes himself as ‘a theologian by training, an eco-theologian by conversion’. 
Since Josias and others on the church’s Environmental Team started sharing their concerns about issues such as single-use plastics, many in the congregation have reached the same conclusion.
In one service during Plastic Free July in 2022, a young man on the team read from the pulpit a letter to the church about their ambition to become zero-waste.
‘Then our pastor, José Marcos, asked who had already started to use a reusable cup and about 30 percent of people raised their hand,’ says Josias. ‘And I was sitting in the back and I started to cry with happiness because I realised that this was the breath of the Spirit, and not just the enthusiasm of a few people in the church.’

Rethinking waste

A big part of Coqueiral Baptist Church’s journey towards zero-waste has been moving away from single-use plastics. 

There can be little doubt that the local neighbourhood has been a powerful object lesson. Plastic pollution blights this corner of the city, clogging the River Tejipió, blocking sewers and exacerbating the floods that come every year now. 

‘And when this water overflows, it doesn't [only] flood the streets, but it [also] invades the houses of people in the community,’ says Josias. ‘They realise it's the plastic, the disposable waste, causing this.’

The church’s ministry now includes disaster response, as well as advocacy and influencing. Its Clean River, Health City campaign, which inspired its zero-waste initiative, engages both local authorities and local community in caring for the river.

Members of the congregation of Coqueiral Baptist Church engaging in worship.

Members of the congregation of Coqueiral Baptist Church engaging in worship. Credit: Mocah Films / Tearfund

Yet, even this church was once complicit in the environmental damage. Disposable cups and cutlery were useful in a busy church with its many social projects – until the church started joining the dots, says Josias. 

‘We understand [now] that the use of plastic is one of the worst harms being done by  humanity to God's creation today, and that if we treat God's creation like this we sin against him as holy creator,’ says Josias.

He believes, like Tearfund, that God’s restoration plan – in which he is ‘reconciling the world to himself in Christ’ and giving humanity ‘the ministry of reconciliation’ (2 Corinthians 5:18–19) – is for the whole of creation.

‘It makes no sense to worship God and not love your neighbour, and your neighbour is nature. Because God’s salvation plan relates to everything he created.’ 

Dálethe Melissa, a university student and member of the Environmental Team, agrees. ‘The whole of creation groans with labour pains, as it says in Romans 8… We have to understand this process and it’s very important, because that’s how we can start to seek to coexist more harmoniously.’ 

Influencing the local church

The Environmental Team have led the way, talking about their own lifestyle choices and suggesting plastic-free swaps. The Preaching Team include creation care in their talks, their messages reinforced through audiovisual campaigns and social networks such as WhatsApp.

And, little by little, things are changing. When the church celebrated the 20th anniversary of Pastor José Marcos’s leadership, members decided not to serve soft drinks in disposable cups as they would have previously.

People from the community who visit the church for its many social projects are also noticing the absence of disposables – and bringing their own reusables.

Melissa is excited about this ripple effect. ‘Seeds were planted in the hearts of  people who are already modelling beautiful attitudes here within the church … and this seed is already being germinated in other parts of the community. We can't measure this, but we can dream that it will spread further than we could ever imagine.’ 

In fact, Coqueiral Baptist Church’s influence now extends far beyond Recife. 

A church study group set up alongside its Clean River, Healthy City campaign became a Christian youth group, We in Creation (Nós Na Criação). This has grown into a Latin America-wide youth movement, which works with the local church to help it live out its faith in harmony with creation.

Dálethe Melissa, the movement’s executive secretary, believes passionately in the potential of the local church to transform communities’ attitudes to the environment. 

‘As signposts to the Kingdom of God, we need to become subjects of transformation and people who tackle the climate crisis and the environmental crisis,’ she says. ‘We need to change the way we relate to creation, denouncing the unjust structures that take pleasure and profit from violating creation, and transforming our local communities. This is our invitation to the church.’

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Written by

Written by  Seren Boyd

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