Archives For October 2014

Barbara Waller by the native plant garden of First Baptist Church (Waukegan, Illinois)

Barbara Waller by the native plant garden of First Baptist Church (Waukegan, Illinois)

There are many Christians who are living with compassion towards God’s earth and working to foster a better relationship between people and nature. And what they do is an outward manifestation, a good fruit, of the work of the Spirit in their hearts. By sharing their stories and insights, I am hopeful that you will be encouraged and inspired by the goodness that a whole faith can bring.

 My first interview is with my friend Barbara Waller. She was gracious enough to sit down with me recently to talk about a summer learning program (Cool Learning Experience) she has been organizing and leading in Waukegan, Illinois, through the First Baptist Church. This program serves 3rd through 8th graders in this economically depressed area, engaging them in science learning experiences focused on the environment. Through the program, they also encounter the natural world in a variety of settings.  And if you’re around the kids at all, it’s clear that they’re just plain having fun. Known to her campers as Ms. Coyote, Barbara has worked tirelessly to build this camp in partnership with senior pastor Keith Cerk. Barbara has also been an effective ambassador for the program, inviting a multitude of generous partners in the greater Chicago area to share their services and resources. She is a gracious, warm, energetic, modest woman who loves God and cares for God’s earth deeply.

 Q: Can you tell me about the Cool Learning Experience program and how it started?

BW: Cool Learning Experience started in concept in 2007 at First Baptist Church in Waukegan when our denomination, American Baptist Churches USA established a children in poverty initiative. That year, one of the senior pastors and I participated in the denomination’s national conference for leaders from local churches to explore ways to provide outreach ministries to support children in poverty as an expression of our faith. We came back, and we thought, “Why not bring a summer learning program to our community?” As a church we decided to offer the program to middle elementary age children in the summer months when children generally experience the greatest learning loss and when many parents need a safe place for their children to be engaged in learning. In July 2008, First Baptist launched it as a three week, all-day, nature-based summer learning program to children in 4th and 5th grades.  With an all-volunteer staff, we served an ethnically and racially diverse group of 10 children, most of who came from families reporting incomes at or below the federal poverty level.

Truly for me, and I believe for Pastor Keith, too, it was a walk of faith.   After he and I read Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv, we knew immediately any program we offer must be nature-based. We were convinced that providing opportunities to experience the awe and wonder of nature while engaging children in fun learning outdoors would best support our mission to foster the well-being of children in every way – emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual. We decided to co-direct the program. This allowed us to draw upon Pastor Keith’s skills and passion for engaging people in exploring the wonders of nature and my experiences and passion for developing and implementing summer learning programs. We decided on a full day program to better serve those parents needing an organized program that would accommodate their workday schedule. They needed more than a half-day or 9-to-3 program.

Children examining a rare prairie wildflower as part of the COOL Learning Experience summer program.

Children examining a rare prairie wildflower as part of the Cool Learning Experience summer program.

N: How has the program grown since 2008?

BW: We grew from a daily maximum attendance of 10 children the first two years to maximum attendance of 73 in 2012 and 2013. In 2008, we served children in 4th and 5th grades. In 2014, we served 3rd – 8th graders. The program expanded from three weeks in 2008 to eight weeks in 2013. Teaching staff has grown from one part-time certified elementary teacher in 2009 to a 2014 staff of three full-time teachers, three teaching assistants, one administrative assistant, and five part-time counselors.   The continual growth in volunteers from teens to senior adult has been most amazing. We have grown from an all-volunteer staff of 5 in 2008 to 45 regular volunteers in 2014, and this does not include our many faithful parents who volunteer in various capacities as needed. We are very pleased to have more partners join us each year, creating even more diversity in our faithful supporters. We experienced the same with the cadre of volunteers who give thousands of hours each summer.

N: I understand the program engages the children in learning in nature in a number of ways.

BW: Yes, the goal is to provide an inter-disciplinary, multi-year curriculum. Since 2012 our theme has been exploring water, land, and air. Thanks to one of our funders, we developed a curriculum which integrates science, math, technology geography, arts and creative writing to offer hands-on learning focusing on water, land and living things over a three year period. We treat air as an integral component essential to each system as well. We explored water in 2013 and land in 2014. Next year we will explore the living things in the diverse ecosystems of water and land. The curriculum is designed for delivery in six weeks of the eight-week program. Children are engaged daily in hands-on learning experiences in the outdoor classroom of nature around us, such as our butterfly and raised-bed gardens as well as local ravines, prairies, woodlands, local waterways, and Waukegan Harbor. Field trips to local and regional sites also support the written curriculum in significant ways. Visits to the Chicago Botanic Garden, Lake County Forest Preserves, Volo Bog, Prairie Crossing Learning Farm, and Horicon Marsh in Wisconsin have become standard trips each year. These repeat visits bring deeper learning for the children.

N: Can you share a story of a child who was impacted by Cool Learning Experience?

BW: During a trip to Volo Bog in 2013, a fifth grade boy suddenly grabbed me as we were following a naturalist into the bog and walking on a rickety boardwalk. In a fearful voice he said, “Ms. Coyote, she’s going to drown us. I don’t want to go!” He was very frantic and insisted on not moving another step. I said, “Come on, it’s going to be OK.” And literally within five minutes after spotting a turtle, he turned around and said to me, “Ms. Coyote! I can’t believe this. This nature is awesome. Nature is beautiful.” It seemed like a spirit of calm overwhelmed him. He truly enjoyed the rest of the walk as we went throughout the bog pointing to another turtle and some frogs. He was full of excitement when he saw a blue heron. That was a life-changing moment in his life. Since then I have never seen him express fear when exploring new places in nature. As a matter of fact, he now encourages other hesitant children.

NA: All of the camp participants have nature names. Can you explain how you chose your nature name of Ms. Coyote?

BW: You know what? It was by default. I selected it in 2008 when Cool Learning Experience participated in the U.S. Navy Starbase Atlantis program at the Great Lakes Naval Base. As part of this program, all of us, including the navy instructors, chose a name to adopt from a prepared list. After our children and staff picked their names, there were only two names left.  Coyote was one and I chose it because the other didn’t appeal to me. Interestingly, I’ve learned much more about coyotes since then, and I’ve learned that the coyote is an extremely adaptable animal. For many years I have thought of myself as having an adaptable personality. I attribute this primarily to living the first 21 years of my life in the rural, segregated South. You learned to adapt. It was necessary for survival in some pretty hostile environments. As I read more about the coyote’s qualities of adaptability and survival, I thought, “That’s me. That name fits me.” So, I now embrace my nature name with pride.

Participants enjoy the natural world in a variety of places (like Skokie Lagoons) in the Chicago area.

Participants in Cool Learning Experience enjoy the natural world in a variety of places (like the Skokie Lagoons in this photo) in the Chicago area.

NA: Can you tell me more about your faith journey?

BW: I’m grounded in the sacred texts known as the Bible. I remind myself daily of the awesome price was paid for me to be a free person inside and a transformed person for the better. That is very humbling. God knows all about me and loves me and loves all of the other billions of people on this planet.   Knowing and experiencing His deep everlasting love makes me feel special, and at the same time I feel such a sense of responsibility. If I believe Scripture to be God’s truths and I’m grounded in it, then I’m called to be transformed and to be an agent of transformation. My daily walk with God – freely choosing a discipline of daily prayer, studying the Bible – leads me on a path of service to humankind out of His deep everlasting love.

As I said earlier, I grew up in the country in the segregated South. I am grateful that my parents were people of faith. I witnessed my parents show love and forgiveness in the midst of unjust treatment and acts of hatred. You know, there is much truth in that old saying: children learn more by what we do than by what we say. I saw my folks love those who mistreated them and others in our community. I have a memory of my mom saying, “You can never hate.” I never saw them hate other people no matter how much injustice they experienced. As I grew older and reflected on that life, I realize that attitude was rooted in their faith, in their sense of who they were as children of God. And we caught it because they taught us well! I know that the God that I serve is a God of love, a God of forgiveness and compassion and grace and mercy who calls me to be likewise.

NA: It’s very clear from your life that you care a great deal about God’s earth. Why? How does taking care of God’s earth relate to your faith and your walk with God?

BW: I have loads of fun memories growing up in the country surrounded by wild places to explore, creeks to fish in, wild berries and plums to pick, lightning bugs to catch at night under star filled skies, and much more. My childhood was a time when we were immersed in the natural world. Nature offered us endless fun adventures, wonders, and peaceful places. I still remember falls in Memphis, Tennessee. I would lay out under the trees and on the leaves. There’s something about the fall sun in the South.

Nature also offered us food to sustain life. I strongly believe I learned some foundational life lessons growing up in the country where we depended on the land for growing vegetables and raising animals to provide food for our family and others in need. I remember when it was time to kill the hogs, there was always a man designated to shoot the animals. As a child I didn’t ask why this man had that job. Years later, I realized their reasoning. He was the marksman and better skilled than others. My parents and others didn’t want these creations of God to suffer needlessly. So, for them it had to be done as humanely as possible.

They were also mindful of how they use other natural resources of nature, especially water, wood and, coal for cooking and heating. I remember my mom saying, “Waste not, want not.” Honestly, this was drilled in us. So there was never waste of water, food, wood, or anything. I learned early that there were neighbors who had less than we, and you just didn’t waste because there were many needs in our community. Just as God had instructed his chosen children throughout scripture how to care for others, like gleaning the fields – all of those things we just did. We didn’t question it. I learned caring for others was the righteous thing to do.

And caring for the earth was a part of caring for others. You see my folks were depending on the land to provide vegetables and fruit to feed their children. They knew if they didn’t care for this land, it wouldn’t continue to care for us, producing enough quality food. They were thankful for hogs and chickens to sacrifice for food to sustain human life, so they acted humanely. I read in one of Michael Pollen’s books something like, “Food is not a product of industry. It’s a gift of nature.” I love that statement. Food produced from our land was indeed a gift of nature that sustained us. How could you not take care of the land? I observed much through the senses of a child, but when I became an adult those observations became instructive and life shaping. My folks understood God as creator of all things – land, water, plants and animals. He created it for our use and pleasure. Yet, they knew to respect and value all these creations.

Scripture tells us He gave humans dominion over all living things. As I now understand Scripture, dominion does not mean we can do whatever we want to His creations. No, we are called to be respectful and responsible for all God created. God has entrusted all that He created to our care. I have dominion and responsibility for my children but it doesn’t mean I can abuse them or leave them home unattended when they were infants. I couldn’t feed myself first. No, you care for them first. So God has given us an awesome responsibility.

I’m not of the mindset that we can say, “Well, I can mess this earth up because we’ll get a new earth anyway.” In the first book of the Bible, Genesis, we read of God giving humans this awesome responsibility of dominion and at the end of the Bible in Revelation we read of His plan to create a new heaven and a new earth. In the end God is going to bring it all together according to His will. Now, the question is what have I done in between the beginning and the end? And I believe that’s what I’m going to be held accountable for by our loving God who created it all.

It’s a pleasant surprise anytime I read a news story with good news.

So I was delighted yesterday to read an article in the New York Times (“Gaining in Years and Helping Others to Make Gains”) that highlighted the stories of the six winners of the Purpose Prize, an award given to Americans 60 years old and above who are making a positive impact on the world.

It’s an inspiring article worth reading just for its own sake and for thinking about as you and I consider what we will do with our experience and skills as we get older. Do we head to the beach and the golf course or do we invest as much energy and time as we can back to our communities as long as we can?

What struck me were the stories of two of the winners. Elements of their stories resonated with my growing conviction that Christianity needs a new reformation.

One of the winners is the Reverend Richard Joyner. He is 62 and the pastor of the Conetoe Baptist Church in a rural part of North Carolina. The Purpose Prize award is to recognize the impact of his founding of the Conetoe Family Life Center. Here’s a brief section of the article that describes the Center and its impact:

The center uses its 25-acre garden to improve the health of the congregation members and to increase the members’ high school graduation rates.

“It’s not easy getting people in the South away from fried chicken and sweet tea,” Pastor Joyner said.

In 2005, Pastor Joyner had faced too many funerals at his church of 300 congregants. In one year alone, 30 under the age of 32 had died. Most of the deaths were health-related, stemming from poor diet and no exercise, he said. His own sister and brother had died of heart attacks.

So he founded the center which offers after-school and summer camp programs for children 5 to 18. The youths plan, plant and reap the produce, which, in turn, they peddle at farmers’ markets, roadside stands and to local restaurants. They also maintain beehives to produce and supply honey to low-income neighbors. The income they earn goes to school supplies and scholarships.

Getting involved with farming was not easy for Pastor Joyner. “I was a sharecropper’s son, and we experienced a lot of racism,” he said. “I never wanted to ever have anything to do with farming.”

But that changed. “The eyes of the youth have helped me to see the land in a different perspective,” he said. “Land is the soul. Farming gives these youth, who are struggling, the power to grow something that impacts the health of their family.”

“As healthy eating and exercise have become routine, people in the community have lost weight, emergency room visits for primary health care have dropped by 40 percent, and the number of deaths have dwindled. The youth are enrolling in college and finding jobs.”

What does this story tell us about the relationship between our love for our neighbor and how we care for the land and raise food?

And think about this from another angle – could Pastor Joyner have continued in good faith to preach salvation from the pulpit while ignoring the health problems of his congregants and community members? Could he have ignored the connection between what is done with the land and the food that comes from the land with the health of people around him?

Being completely filled with filled with God’s love compels us to treat God’s earth with love and patience and self-control. This, in turns, requires us to raise food differently and eat differently. And that, in turn, gives us abundant life, both physically and socially.

This awareness needs to be an essential element of what Christians are aware of and what our hearts are full of. This needs to be an essential element of how we as Christians live.

One of other Purpose Prize winners is 76-year old Charles Irvin Fletcher. This former microwave systems engineer has long been interested in the potential healing value of equine therapy for children with disabilities.   To implement the insights he had about how the therapy should be done, he established SpiritHorse International in Corinth, Texas in 2001. Here’s what the article describes:

His ranch is now home to 31 horses and ponies, and is the headquarters for a worldwide network of 91 licensed therapeutic riding centers that serve children with disabilities in the United States, South America, Africa, and Europe.

At Mr. Fletcher’s ranch in Corinth, roughly 400 children with disabilities, some as young as nine months, receive free weekly riding sessions on ponies with names like Buttercup and Peter Pan. The riders have a variety of medical conditions, including autism, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis and spina bifida. 

More than 5,000 children have been helped through the network since the gates opened.

“I believe that horses can feel spiritual messages,” Mr. Fletch said. “They can feel love. They can feel gratitude. They can feel approval, and they transmit those very simple feelings to the children.”

He added, “The reason this therapy works so well is that children with disabilities also have a very open spirit, and the horses sense it.”

Is there anything in conventional Christian theology and instruction that would prepare us for this? Is there anything we hear in church that would remind us that we share an amazing world with amazing creatures with spirits of their own?

What adds an interesting dimension to this story is that Charles Fletcher is all about science. He is an engineer by training. His unique approach to equine healing is based on his commitment to science and measurable outcomes. Yet, he matter-of-factly points to the spiritual connection between horses and people as one of the fundamental reasons why equine therapy works.

This world and its creatures are, I am convinced, part of God’s story.

And an important, irrevocable part of our right place in the world is to be the shepherds of God’s earth even to the point of service and sacrifice. That service and sacrifice is to be part of our story. 

But too often it isn’t, and we miss opportunities to bring life and healing and beauty into this world and in doing so to honor God.  And in part this is because the Church has a very large blind spot when it comes to how we think about God’s earth.

Now more than ever that must change.




This Practical World

Nathan Aaberg —  October 12, 2014 — Leave a comment

Call me a fan of Moby Dick. My first reading of this sprawling classic captivated me, even its many meditative interludes dwelling on all things whales and whaling.

Do you remember Captain Bildad? Ishmael meets Captain Bildad and Captain Peleg, the two owners of the Pequod, when he signs up to sail on the ill-fated whaling trip under the direction of the obsessed Captain Ahab. What’s interesting for the purposes of this blog is that Captain Bildad and Captain Peleg are Quakers.

From their reading of the Bible and of the words of Jesus in particular, Quakers have long been marked by their commitment to nonviolence. This has led them to be conscientious objectors in times war. But in Captain Bildad we see a Quaker who…. well, I can’t resist sharing some of Melville’s prose:

Like Captain Peleg, Captain Bildad was a well-to-do, retired whaleman. But unlike Captain Peleg – who cared not a rush for what are called serious things, and indeed deemed those self-same serious things the veriest of all trifles – Captain Bildad had not only been originally educated according to the strictest sect of Nantucket Quakerism, but all his subsequent ocean life, and the sight of many unclad, lovely island creatures, round the Horn – all that had not moved this native born Quaker one single jot, had not so much as altered one angle of his vest. Still, for all this immutableness, was there some lack of common consistency about worthy Captain Peleg. Though refusing, from conscientious scruples, to bear arms against land invaders, yet himself had illimitably invaded the Atlantic and Pacific; and though a sworn foe to human bloodshed, yet had he in his straight-bodied coat, spilled tuns of leviathan gore. How now in the contemplative evening of his days, the pious Bildad reconciled these things in the reminiscence, I do not know; but it did not seem to concern him much, and very probably he had long since come to the sage and sensible conclusion that a man’s religion is one things, and this practical world quite another. This world pays dividends.

How do you and I reconcile such things?

Do we believe that a person’s religion is one thing and “this practical world quite another”?

Do the Christian ideals of love and compassion have anything to do with this practical world, especially the world that is not human?

Reading this passage from Moby Dick reminds us that we are not the first ones to note the disconnect between being followers of the Lamb, of the good shepherd and the way we treat God’s earth.

Dutch whalers at Spitsbergen (Abraham Storck, 1690)

Dutch whalers at Spitsbergen (Abraham Storck, 1690)

Of course, living in this practical world is not easy. For most of human existence, simply surviving has been a tremendous challenge.  What’s more, we must indeed take from the world in order to survive in the world. And even when we have the best of intentions, we can make mistakes as fallen beings.

But, nevertheless, I believe the degree to which we are willing to truly open our hearts to the transforming work of the Spirit of our loving God reveals itself in the details of exactly how we treat our neighbors and God’s earth day after day, year after year, century after century.

Our faith and our God are in the details.

And, if we have eyes to see and ears to hear, we will see that we are, as a world and as a Church, getting the details wrong in fundamental ways.

The emptying of the oceans and the filling of those oceans with plastic are testimony that we don’t believe that following God has anything to do with this practical world. The clearing of tropical forests and the death that the clearing brings to the forests’ inhabitants testify to that same disconnect. When we bring no ethical consideration to what we eat and the profound impact our food choices have on our neighbors and God’s earth, then our lives say we don’t believe our religion should enter the practical world.

A story of a real-life Quaker provides inspiration for how being inspired by God can prompt us to look at the world differently than Captain Bildad. John Woolman was a prominent Quaker in the 1700s who gently but tenaciously appealed to his fellow Quakers to not be part of the slave economy. His journals, published only after his death in 1772, are now considered a classic spiritual work of early America.

From The Journal of John Woolman you can read the following passage about a system that paid dividends that he would not be part of:

Stage-coaches frequently go upwards of one hundred miles in twenty-four hours; and I have heard Friends say in several places that is common for horses to be killed with hard driving, and that many others are driven till they go blind. Post-boys pursue their business, each one to his stage, all night through the winter. Some boys who ride long stages suffer greatly in winter nights, and at several places I have heard of their being frozen to death. So great is the hurry in the spirit of this world, that in aiming to do business quickly and to gain wealth the creation at this day doth loudly groan.

As my journey hath been without a horse, I have had several offers of being assisted on my way in these stagecoaches, but have not been in them, nor have I had freedom to send letters by these posts in the present way of riding, the stages being so fixed, and one body dependent on another as to time and going at great speed, that in long cold winter nights the boys suffer much. I heard in America of the way of these posts, and cautioned Friends in the General Meeting of minsters and elders at Philadelphia, and in the Yearly Meeting of ministers and elders in London, not to send letters to me on any common occasion by post. And though on this account I may be likely not to hear so often from my family left behind, yet for righteousness’ sake I am, through Divine favor, made content.

Woolman clearly sees a system that provides the convenience of speedy communication to the system’s users but does so at tremendous cost to its workers and to God’s creatures. He will not ignore it.  He will not go along with it.

How would you and I live differently if our hearts were truly reshaped by God so that we strove every day to make the details of how we treat all people and all of God’s earth reflect the love God fills us with? How would our lives be different? How would our churches and communities be different? How would our country and world be different?

Are we Captain Bildads?  Are we addicted to the dividends that the practical world generates when it is not bound by love and compassion?

Or does God come first?

And what would the details of our life look like if God came first as we try to live in this global, complex, increasingly uber-technological world?

Call me eager, eager to dive into those questions through this blog and with your help.

I am reading from Psalms these days. The passionate expressiveness of this poetry moves my heart.   Anger, despair, joy, faith – they pervade the Psalms. I felt compelled to try my hand at writing one myself, and so here is my first attempt. It is inspired by the plight of tigers, especially the Siberian Tiger. Tigers in their own way and in their natural habitats are kings as David was a king. I’ve rooted the psalm in the themes and even some of the words and phrases of the psalms in the Bible. See if you can identify them. Am I being anthropomorphic? Of course. But I believe that one of our roles in the world is to be the voice and celebrator of the whole world. In the Bible, many creatures and even hills and cedars have voices. In Revelation we read of all of life praising the Lamb. So why not in psalms?

Hear my plea, O LORD, and deliver me,
   for I am near death and my people will perish with me.

You are my Creator and Sustainer,
   from your hand I have received my prey.
You watch over the world;
   you care for the land and water it;
   you know every bird in the mountains.
The hills and every living thing sing to you;
   you are worthy of praise without end.
You have known our people from generation to generation;
   you have known that even in our might we worshipped you.
In mysterious ways you gave us stealth and power,
   we have ruled this land of snow and forest at your leave.
   When have we betrayed you?

My enemies seek to take my life and take this kingdom from me.
   Across cold rivers I am driven to my last stronghold.
Men, even men who call upon your name, hunt me day and night;
   I have no rest, no place to rest my head.
You have given men creative power beyond all imagining,
   but they forget you and rule as tyrants,
They are cruel and perverse shepherds;
   They say, “We are gods! The world is here for our pleasure.”
Beasts of steel devour the pines and oaks of the forest;
   the deer and wild boar find their sustenance no more,
Their stomachs empty, they groan and despair;
   I search in vain for them, and in hunger I groan.
I, the hunter, am now hunted;
   on the land and through the air the chariots of men pursue me.
Their hearts overflow with greed and cunning.
   Gold, not your love, is their master.
As men worship you as the Creator and celebrate their salvation,
   I face the end of my days and the fading away of my people.
Alone I find no trace of my kind in all the snowy vastness.
   I have no sons nor daughters to rule after I am gone.
Is this fear? Is this dread that fills me?
   My spirit, like snow in the wind, knows no peace.
But I trust in you, my Creator,
   I turn to you for help.
You will not turn your face away forever;
   will you turn your face away forever?
Save me so that we will persist in this land,
   deliver this land and its many creatures.
You have showed men your light and righteousness;
   you can fill them with love and righteousness.
When they follow you and give their lives and hearts to you,
   they bear abundant fruit that brings light and joy.
Change their hearts, LORD, change their hearts;
   help them bear the good fruit of a living earth.

You will not forget me, LORD.
   You will not forget.
You will again sustain me.
   You will deliver me.
The hills and woods will again praise you and I with them.
   We will sing.