This article was originally published by The Mennonite

Wilding the church: Two stories

These two stories were submitted in response to a call for articles exploring how Christians are called to care for all of God’s creation. You can read additional feature articles in the April edition of The Mennonite magazine. 

Photo: An image from the Shenandoah Valley Church of the Wild. Photo provided. 

Wendy’s story

The snow is deep and the sun is low in the sky. Eighteen people are gathered at the edge of an urban forest, a cherished oasis in the city of Kitchener, Ontario, to worship together. I welcome everyone and begin with a breath prayer, entering into this time and place with our bodies and spirits. It is the fourth Sunday of Advent and we have come to celebrate and anticipate the coming of Light. We read John 1:1-5 and talk about the Light shining in the darkness. We also acknowledge the winter solstice, just days away, this season of darkness and our physical longing for the return of longer days.

The children are starting to get a bit restless: it is time for our walk. I break a fresh path through the snow into the forest. The children soon run ahead of me, stopping at each fork in the path to look back for a silent signal indicating which way to turn. The adults walk in silence, paying attention with our senses to the mysteries of the Divine Presence among us. In time we reach our destination: a small clearing of sorts, with some fallen trees that serve as benches for the children. The light is fading, and we form a circle. I pull candles out of my backpack, light them and pass them around. As is our practice, space is made for sharing insights and observations with each other, ways we have sensed God’s divine presence among us. After praying together, we walk back through the darkened woods with our candles in hand. A final blessing wraps up our time together, and we head back to my house for a potluck supper and warm drinks.

We have been doing this for a year now: gathering for worship outdoors to deepen our connection with God our Creator, with creation and with each other. We have chosen the name Burning Bush Forest Church to recognize a species of tree that is native to our bioregion and that is part of our “congregation.” It also reminds us of the story of Moses. God speaks to Moses in a burning bush, instructing him to take off his sandals for the ground he is standing on is holy ground.

My path to starting an outdoor church gathering began in 2014 during a four-month sabbatical from my

Burning Bush Forest Church.

position as pastor at St Jacobs (Ontario) Mennonite Church, though it probably goes back further yet to formative faith experiences at Mennonite camps and an agricultural heritage that relied on the land and lived by the seasons.

My sabbatical focus was to study post-Christendom and to visit new expressions of church. During those months, I was engaged in an ongoing conversation with a friend who was done with church. She could no longer sit still inside a church building. She longed for a more holistic expression of faith that would get her and her family outdoors and engage their entire bodies.

That same fall I had a son enrolled in forest school. One day when I was picking him up, the epiphany hit me: if there could be such a thing as forest school, why couldn’t there be forest church? Was that what my friend and I had been talking about? Out of curiosity I googled the term “forest church” and at the top of the list was the Mystic Christ website, an umbrella website for a movement in the United Kingdom that includes over a dozen forest churches. My imagination was piqued and I ordered their book. I was enamored with what I read and with the concept of worshiping outdoors, not just in nature, but with creation. I started doing more reading, talking and dreaming about what it might look like to start a forest church. Could people really worship outdoors in the winter in Canada?!

In the months following my sabbatical I led various experimental outdoor services with different people (including a series of “forest Sunday school” classes at SJMC). Finally, the calling to engage this idea more fully would not go away and in March of 2016 I launched Burning Bush Forest Church, which meets monthly on a Sunday afternoon in different natural areas in and around Kitchener-Waterloo.

Valerie’s story

In the middle of a wide rocky trail, framed on either side by thick forests of Autumn colors, I stand transfixed. In the direct center of my path, just yards before me, a golden Basswood tree leaf is suspended in mid-air, between the right and the left of the trail, facing me, motionless aside from its quaking shimmer. It seems delighted to see me, animated with character and personhood. A leaf person.

The mid-afternoon October sun blinds my eyes for a moment and I stoop to see better, dropping my backpack. My rational, analytical eye, my every-day orientation to the world, briefly scans behind and on either side of the leaf for spider webs or some other scientific explanation for what I’m seeing. But no. I cannot understand this with my rational self and give in to the mystery that is God, quieting my “What the hell?” reaction. I slowly drop my body to the ground and avail myself.

For the next 30 minutes, this leaf dances and whirls. She stands still and gazes. She drifts up to kiss the remaining leaves on the branch preparing for her eventual fall, much like I go back to kiss the memory of my children in my own preparation for the empty nest. The Letting Go. She twirls to the left and right, across the trail completely, then up toward the heavens and down toward the dirt, but never touches the ground, defying gravity and the inevitable. She is not ready yet, though leaves fly to the ground to begin their next loving journey in dozens around her.

Here is my soul in leaf form, resisting the falling and transformation. I am Moses perplexed and inadequate before the Burning Bush. I am Mary challenging my senses and identity with the holy visitor.

I leave that sacred space, that nonverbal conversation, with affection for that leaf, who never did make her landing in my presence. I relate to her. I witnessed and felt my own story of loss and change. With awe, tears and gratitude, I make my way back to the folding camp chairs perched on the forest floor like large awkward birds, meeting up with the others. One would ordinarily feel sheepish sharing an intimate encounter with a leaf, but it feels natural instead. And others nod their heads in understanding. We share our wandering experiences through story, poem and picture, and pray with drum, word, and sacred dance. At this retreat, along with my fellow seekers, I’ve encountered my soul in the external world of nature, and met God. An experience of what I’ve often thought church should be about: deep connection and transformation.

Many more wonderings and wanderings, and my restlessness with traditional church, lead me to seriously consider starting Shenandoah Valley Church of the Wild, following in the footsteps of my sister who pioneered the Ojai Church of the Wild in California over a year ago.

A Mennonite by choice some 10 years ago, I’m not leaving the faith or the church. I seek to stay connected to the Mennonite community, and at the same time expand my essential identity as “seeker of the sacred” into other contexts and forms. By chance, I read about Wendy’s experiment with forest church in the Mennonite Creation Care Network newsletter and contact her by email. One contact leads to another, someone knows another, a group forms and grows, video conferences, fast forward and The Wild Church Network is born, bridging the gap between Church, the human world and the wild.

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Within the reality of the ecological and climate crisis, really a crisis of disconnection from the natural world, of which we are a part, our times require the Church to reimagine herself in both purpose and praxis. Not necessarily more doing, advocating, replacing, acting, and preaching, although all this is needed, too.

What we really need is a spiritual shift in how we understand and practice our human relationship with the natural world and our connection with God. Part of this shift must move us from an anthropocentric position of “creation care” to one of a sacred reconciliation with creation.

As women who identify with the Mennonite faith, we value the Anabaptist orientation toward justice, peace and relationship building. In an uncertain and rumbling 21st century, we wonder if this orientation will extend to justice for threatened waterways that provide drinking water and habitat for humans and other creatures, threatened soil for healthy food, and threatened climate stability for all living beings. We wonder if that peace will extend to building inclusive relationships with all others, regardless of genus, species, gender, sexual orientation, faith, winged, four-legged or swimmers. The Spirit is calling from the wilderness.

It’s time to turn back to the wild where Jesus underwent journeys into the soul in the desert, where prophets developed their inner truth in the mountains, and the children of Israel wandered to become God’s people.

After centuries of complicity with empire, armed with a theology that empowered humans to conquer and subdue the Earth, the Church may finally be coming back around to the deserts and mountains in which she was birthed.

Valerie Luna Serrels holds an M.A. She is a Mennonite and lay leader of Shenandoah Valley Church of the Wild in the Shenandoah and North River watersheds. Rev. Wendy Janzen is a Mennonite pastor of Burning Bush Forest Church (and St Jacobs Mennonite Church) of the Grand River watershed. They are both grappling with the cry of the Earth and the call of the Spirit to reimagine church and faith in the 21st century.

These two stories were submitted in response to a call for articles exploring how Christians are called to care for all of God’s creation. You can read additional feature articles in the April edition of The Mennonite magazine. 

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