Jewel and I celebrated our golden anniversary with a two-month visit to 25 national parks and as many friends west of the Mississippi. We “camped” inside our Odyssey van, cooked our food on an old Coleman camp stove and hiked the amazing mountains, canyons and lakeshores of the western United States and Canada.
Though we have spent a lifetime serving in mission with the global church, as Easterners we are too little acquainted with this part of our own continent.
As we traveled, we pondered the intersections of the North American West with global Christianity.
— Frederick Jackson Turner posited a “frontier thesis” for making sense of the American experience. That understanding has continued to shape our understandings of the impact of the West on the global community. The optimistic, too-often brash progressivism of the United States and Canada is not unrelated to the great westward movements of Euroamerican colonizers.
That optimistic progressivism, in turn, has had profound impacts on everything from Christian theology and missions to the global spread of technology and the emergence of an “American dream.” For generations the sheer physical spaciousness of the West has beckoned dreamers in every sphere. In Nevada we saw a quote from Henry David Thoreau in 1862, “Eastward I go only by force; westward I go free.” There, too, we saw a road sign warning that we would see no gas stations for the next 167 miles.
— It is no accident that the Boeing aircraft company, which revolutionized air travel in the 1950s with the introduction of swept-wing passenger jets, is located near Seattle. Or that the Fuller School of Intercultural Studies, which revolutionized evangelical understandings of global missions in the 1970s, was founded in Pasadena, Calif. Or that the missionally robust Dutch/Russian Mennonites who settled in the North American West in the 1870s are still pioneering Anabaptist missions in the 21st century from places like Abbotsford, B.C., and Fresno, Calif.
— Neither is it coincidental that the Jesus movement of the 1970s was birthed in California or that the global “age of the Spirit” gets traced to Kansas and California’s Azusa Street in the rise of Pentecostalism in the early 20th century. Or that the most comprehensive and timely news source for global Anabaptism, Mennonite World Review, is in Newton, Kan. (Paul Schrag didn’t pay me to say that; I learned it first while working at Eastern Mennonite Missions in Salunga, Pa., long before I became a columnist.)
God has woven together strands of physical and human geography in the North American West to create a unique birthplace for spiritual innovation underpinning the globalization of Christianity in the 21st century.
There are parables to ponder in the flora of the West. High on the rugged slopes of Wheeler Peak in Nevada’s Great Basin National Park is a grove of bristlecone pine, the oldest trees in the world, living up to 5,000 years. They thrive only in the harsh conditions on the edge of the timberline. Is it accidental that the oldest and the harshest are thus intertwined?
The giant sequoias of the High Sierra, the largest trees in the world, thrive in the presence of periodic, cleansing fires that sweep through after lightning. Is it coincidental that the largest living things depend on fire?
Richard Showalter lives in Irwin, Ohio, and travels in Asia, Africa, the U.S. and beyond as a teacher, preacher, writer and servant.
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