There’s a small city park across from the complex where I live, and I like to take my dog for a walk there each morning. Last April I moved to western North Carolina and I’ve loved observing my new landscape. Mountains and lush forests are new to me, and this area has many hiking trails to explore. For short morning walks with my dog though, the little city park is perfect. I was shocked one morning in October to find that along one side there had been some clearing. Trees, shrubs, vines, all ripped out and left in a big pile on the sidewalk and blocking part of the street. It seemed so random and ugly.
This morning the parking lot at this little park was full. On a rare morning there will be one person sitting at the picnic tables, but this morning the pavilion was packed with people in yellow safety vests, sharing coffee and conversation. As we got closer, I noticed two things: a sign announcing that environmental restoration work was in process and to please not disturb new plantings, and the word “volunteer” on the back of all those yellow safety vests.
A crisp sunny Monday morning, a day when most people would be at work, and yet here were forty or so people gathered in their work clothes to plant native trees and other plants in a city park. Care for our environment – care for creation – is an important part of why people volunteer in their communities and beyond.
When I arrived here a few months ago, I looked for a church to join, and I found a small church that was in the midst of major changes. The old church building was undergoing renovation and so the small congregation gathered in the old parsonage living room for worship – about 15 or so of us. One summer morning we had a full living room and so my husband and I sat out on the front porch with another church member, sitting in wood rocking chairs, listening to the service through the open windows, looking out over the garden and the ridge of mountains beyond. During the anthem, I walked out into the community garden and picked a few berries, warm from the sun and bursting with sweetness. What I didn’t know then was that this transformation from dwindling congregation to community garden and renovated church space into co-working space/community gathering space/worship space was a long journey that required a lot of trust from the church. Over time, I’ve discovered that this church has attended carefully to each step along the way, trying to imagine something different so that they don’t just become another statistic, another closed small church in small town America.
The vision of this small church involves a great deal of volunteering and care for creation. In particular, care for native plants and pollinators. Western North Carolina is experiencing a loss of farm land and increasing development. The decision to take existing church-owned land and develop it for chickens, bees, a natural playground in the wooded area between the elementary school and the church, and a community garden is a missional decision. The church decided its mission was to care for creation and their neighbors. Last Tuesday as I sat at the kitchen table in that old parsonage, a group of second graders burst through the door, ready for the pastor to let them into the chicken coop to check for eggs (they found ten). One little girl ran into the kitchen asking for our community gardener, because she’d found broccoli big enough to pick and take home for dinner.
Perhaps one day these children will grow up and become adults who take a day off work to be environmental restoration volunteers in the communities where they live. The missional witness of my small church to care for creation is a blessing to the children who come in and see the work of the church.
Does your church’s mission work include care for creation? Have you taken risks to expand how you think about what it means to be the church?