Plastic is cheap to produce, light, durable and available all around the world. Disposable water bottles, packaging and toys make up just a portion of the nearly 300 million tons of plastic produced each year; only 10 percent of it gets recycled.
Single-use plastic bottles spilled out of a dumpster and onto the ground at a local park, which shows that Odessa, Ukraine, is not an exception to these statistics.
Sitting on the southern coast of Europe along the Black Sea, Odessa is a port city with a population of over 1 million. It’s the third largest city in the country. TEAM missionaries Kurt and Rochelle zurBurg and their children joined a church planting team and made Odessa home in 2006. Along the way, they have been surprised by unique opportunities for being missional.
Before moving to Ukraine, Kurt zurBurg worked in the United States as a math and science teacher. Once in Odessa, zurBurg had no idea his teaching background would influence his daughter’s school and surrounding neighborhood.
After meeting zurBurg, the school’s director asked if he could come teach English once a week; he agreed to the opportunity, then felt the Lord impressing upon him to incorporate his love of science. “I started sliding science lessons into the English lessons, and the next thing you know I got to know the science teachers in school,” he said. “We started doing demos together. The Lord opened up the doors to be a blessing to a lot of the students and teachers using my science background. It’s been fun.”
Each Friday zurBurg provided engaging, hands-on lessons — a style of teaching different than the standard Ukrainian method. Many were impressed. “They were just off the charts loving getting their hands messy, touching, feeling, mixing and measuring,” zurBurg said. “So that was really cool. That’s where the relationship started.”
The head of teachers soon approached him about helping her pioneer a year-long ecology project for a classroom. While living in the city, zurBurg had noticed that Odessa had no recycling system in place for plastic bottles. So he suggested educating the class about the negative impact plastic has on the environment, and how they could address the problem in their own school. “I had these demos on the process of recycling and how it’s all done,” zurBurg said. “I also showed them pictures about the problem of plastic all over the world.” From there, the recycling project took off.
zurBurg took teachers, parents, students nearly 500 miles southwest of Odessa to tour a recycling facility in Lviv. The students loved seeing the process first hand, and the facility workers were equally impressed by their interest.
Once back in Odessa, they held an opening ceremony to kick off a project to recycle plastic bottles in the school. A nearby TV station even attended the ribbon-cutting. “From there we started,” zurBurg said. “We had little bins where we collected the plastic bottles that the school produced because they don’t have drinking fountains, so they [students] buy their water in bottles every day.”
It took a little time for the idea to gain momentum. “They needed a catalyst,” zurBurg said. “They needed something to sort of spur them on towards starting this — a little spark to do what they knew they should be doing. The attitude towards trash here is sort of hard, because you see a lot of people — they’ll throw trash out their window and not think anything of it because it’s sort of a socialistic mentality. It’s like, ‘This is not mine. This is the government’s, so really it’s not my job to care for it in any way, shape or form.’ But now that Ukraine’s not socialistic anymore, there’s a new opportunity to explain how every person has a personal responsibility for caring for things around them.”
Eventually more teachers, students and parents noticed the benefit of recycling. “They got pretty used to it knowing that instead of this plastic sitting in a dump for up to 500 years as it disintegrates slowly over time, they know that this is actually going towards a good thing to help out the environment,” zurBurg said.
The year-long project continues and possibilities for more recycling efforts are opening up outside of the school as zurBurg is researching the feasibility of community-wide recycling plans. He is even researching the purchase of a collection truck and recycling compressor.
zurBurg has enjoyed helping the community get involved with creation care. “At first, I think we tend to like to dichotomize things a little too much as if it’s spiritual and physical as they’re separate, but I don’t think God seems to do that very much,” he said. “It’s like my spiritual relationship with my heavenly father will be reflected in physical relationships with people and how I love my family, how I love my wife and how I love my neighbors and the people around me. There are connections all over the place. God gave us this world and said, ‘Care for it.’ It’s a real simple thing. It’s like I keep saying, ‘Pick up your room.’ We need to take care of our room and pick it up. He gave us a beautiful room … also, I think it’s real important because, if you speak of general revelation, the revelation of the presence of God as we look at creation, in a sense, we’re almost spitting on it. We’re sort of marring or maiming the beauty of what he has made. We need to care for it. That’s not the endgame. The endgame is walking and knowing the Lord and following him, but yeah, we need to pick up our room along the way.”
zurBurg’s involvement with the project and ongoing relationships with parents, teachers and students have also opened doors for spiritual conversations. “What we do is we go in to serve the community and establish a presence,” he said. “And we just wait for God to open doors. He does.” zurBurg has had many conversations come up as relationships have grown through this experience. “He can use your passion for whatever you’re in … as long as you’re passionate about the Lord and passionate about loving people, he can use that, and he does. We see it happen all the time. I think sometimes we really categorize what a missionary needs to be. I see it much broader than that, and we’ve experienced it ourselves.”
- Written by Kate Cremision
- Photographed by Robert JohnsonDownload This Issue of TEAMHorizons