Living with God’s Other Creatures

Adapted from a sermon delivered by David Clough at First Congregational United Church of Christ in Portland, Oregon on January 7, 2018.

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Scripture

Romans 8:18-24: "I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. For the creations waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but ty the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.

We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have?"

Advent and Christmas

How was your Advent and Christmas?

I have to confess to you that Advent brings out a fundamental conflict among my family. My starting point is that the celebrations of Christmas begin on Christmas Day, which means my preference would be to put up Christmas decorations on Christmas Eve. My wife Lucy and our three children are keen to get things started sooner, so we have an annual tussle about when our decorations go up. This year we compromised on the weekend of the 16th December.

There’s another difference between us about expectation during Advent. The other members of my family are impatient for Christmas to come. I tend to be more aware of all the work I have to get done before Christmas, so confess that I sometimes find myself wishing it further away, rather than closer. It’s the same with my domestic preparations: I’m always late with shopping for Christmas presents, and deciding what we’ll eat, and what we’ll need to buy to cook it.

Traditionally, Advent was a time of repentance for Christians, second only to Lent, a time for Christians to consider God’s judgement and prepare themselves, to make sure they were ready to receive the Christ child. This has something in common with my more mundane sense of feeling like I’ve got a lot to get done before I’ll be ready for Christmas. But I’m sure I’m not getting Advent right: I spend too much time on the mundane jobs I need to do, and nowhere near enough time on preparing my heart for the coming of Christmas. That means I often have the feeling of being in church and unready to celebrate the coming of the Saviour, caught off-guard by a moment in a nativity service where we sing with our children a familiar song and suddenly the story fills my eyes with tears and sends a shiver down my spine, once again.

Epiphany: Living after Christmas

I hope you had a good Christmas. We did: everything did get done, somehow, we sang the final verse of ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’ celebrating Christ born this happy Christmas morning and in the days that followed continued the celebrations with family and friends during Christmas and New Year. But that was a week ago.

Today is Epiphany, when we traditionally remember the visit of the kings to the Christ child, and Herod’s massacre of the male babies in Bethlehem.

Epiphany confronts Christmas with the realities of political power, and its cruel abuse of the vulnerable. The question Epiphany presents us with is, what does Christmas mean in the everyday world as we know it, the world where Christians are killed leaving church in Nigeria, where famine still threatens millions of lives, where controversies still rage about the exit of Britain from the EU, and where President Trump remains true to form in boasting about the size of his nuclear button amid growing evidence of mental incapacity?

Epiphany challenges us to consider how Christmas makes a difference in the real world. That’s our challenge this morning: what does it mean to live as Christians after Christmas?

Surely the transporting vision of our God taking on vulnerable creaturely flesh like ours and our celebration of God taking up the cause of God’s creatures by becoming incarnate in our world, should make a difference for how we live in it? How do we return from the holidays to our everyday life and bring what we have seen and felt of Christmas to the world as we find it?

Romans 8

I think the words we have heard from Paul in the 8th chapter of the Letter to the Romans can help us with the Epiphany challenge of bringing Christmas to the everyday. Paul is writing to Christians in Rome who were living through difficult times, subjected to persecution on grounds of their faith. Neither Jesus’s birth nor his resurrection had been an escape from tribulation for these early Christians. Their faith in the victory won in Christ was maintained amidst many signs that all was not yet right with the world. Paul acknowledges the depth of their sufferings. He compares what they are going through with the pain women feel in childbirth. I can only claim second-hand knowledge of this pain, through being with Lucy as she went through labour three times over. Paul’s experience of labour pains is likely to be one step further removed, but his comparison must be meant to acknowledge that the sufferings of the world are extreme, demanding, and costly, and call for serious courage and resilience to endure. To live in a world going through labour pains was never going to be comfortable.

But the comparison Paul makes is not just about the depth of the suffering involved. It links to our thinking about the progression from Advent to Christmas to Epiphany because it’s suffering with a meaning, with a direction, and with a trajectory. The groaning of a woman in childbirth is unlike the groaning of someone who has suffered injury because the pain is a result of something hoped for, the birth of a new child. The pain is almost unbearable, but the bearing of it takes place in the expectation that it is the means to bring about nothing less that the gift of new life. That’s what Paul means the Christians in Rome to know, too. Neither Christmas nor Easter means they are freed from the suffering of the world, but Christmas and Easter mean that this suffering is not the final truth about God’s world: these sufferings are the birth pangs of a new creation, liberated from its bondage to decay to be brought into the freedom of the children of God.

This doesn’t make the suffering ok, of course, especially when its burden is unjustly redirected in our world by the powerful to the burden the powerless, by the rich to the poor, by men to women, by white people to people of colour, by straight to queer, and so on. We must continue to work to resist these injustices, while knowing that such efforts cannot bring the groaning of creation to an end.

Here is Paul’s answer to the Epiphany challenge of bringing Christmas into our everyday world: Christmas doesn’t mean killing will end, or famines will not take place, or leaders will not fight futile wars, or the strong will stop exploiting the weak, but it does mean that such dreadful woes are not the final truth about God’s ways with the world. Christmas means that Christians engage with those woes of the world in faith that in doing so they witness to the mighty work of God in redeeming creation.

Living with Other Creatures

After Christmas, we encounter the world anew in the context of a Christian hope that the coming of God into our world in the form of a baby means that God has taken up our cause and will not allow evil to reign triumphant. We are left, though, with the question of how we are to live as Christians in this post-Christmas world, and in the final part of my sermon I want to consider one particular aspect of the Epiphany challenge of bringing Christmas into our everyday life in the world.

When John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist Church to which I belong, preached on this passage from Romans in 1772, he was struck by the way Paul’s vision included not just human beings, but the whole of creation. He saw the plain sense of the passage as an affirmation that God would redeem all creatures, and was drawn immediately to reflect on the many cruelties he saw inflicted on animals in the streets. Christians who believed in a God who was their creator and redeemer have reason to oppose such cruelties in the strongest terms, he said.

There’s another link with Advent and Christmas here. Christians often recall the prophecy in Isaiah 11 during Advent, where Isaiah prophesies the Messiah coming from ‘the stump of Jesse’. The first sign of the coming of the Messiah is peace between humans and other animals, wolves, lambs, leopard, kids, calves, lions, and little children (vv. 6–9). This new peace is made present in the Christmas nativity scenes in which the animals in the stable are the first to recognize the coming of the Christ. One part of making Christmas present in our lives, therefore, might be to seek ways to witness to the peace God seeks between humans and other animals, and to the redemption of all creatures described by Paul.

But as soon as we acknowledge this connection between Christian Christmas faith and animals, we must recognize, just as Wesley did, that the ways we are currently treating animals are at odds with this Christian vision, subjecting them to many unnecessary cruelties. We have bred broiler hens to grow to slaughter weight in windowless sheds in just six weeks, suffering pain from legs too immature to support their unwieldy bodies. We ignore the complex social intelligence of pigs, and confine sows in stalls that do not even allow them to turn around, raising their piglets in monotonous sheds that prevent most of their natural behaviours. We raise cattle intensively in feedlots, subjecting them to castration and other mutilations without pain relief.

And, as Gretchen Primack’s heart-breaking poem reminds us, following the labour pains of their mothers, we take calves from their mothers, sometimes before they have even met, and force the mothers to eat constantly so we can take the milk meant for the calves we have killed, often keeping them confined without being able to graze grass, before they are culled for beef after 3 or 4 lactations when their milk yield drops. Those who live near dairy farms describe the loud groans of grief and protest from mother cows who have had their calves taken from them, which can go on for days. I can’t think of a more direct example of the groaning of creation Paul wrote about, and in this case, we’re the cause. These are modern animal cruelties, unknown in Wesley’s day, which should appal Christians today just as the eighteenth century cruelties appalled Wesley. It seems to me that we have sleep-walked into farming animals in ways that are a practical denial that they are fellow creatures of our God.

And it’s not as if it’s good for us, either. The unprecedented amounts of animal products we are eating are bad for our health as well as theirs, are wasteful of land and water resources, and are damaging to our environment. We currently devote 78% of agricultural land to raising animals and feed 1/3rd of global cereal output to them, when growing crops for human consumption would be a far more efficient way to feed a growing human population. And raising livestock contributes more to greenhouse gas emissions than transport globally, but has been largely ignored in climate change policy-making. Reducing our consumption of farmed animals would therefore be good for humans, good for animals, and good for the planet.

The good news is that this is an issue where our actions make a difference. I don’t know how to stop Donald Trump threatening Kim Jong-un, but I do know that if I and other Christians cut consumption of animal products, fewer animals will be drawn into the cruelties of intensive farming.

CreatureKind seeks to encourage Christians to take steps to reduce their consumption of animals and to move to higher welfare sources of any animal products they do use. Doing so makes a practical connection between our everyday practice of eating, our relationship to the wider creation, and our faith. I offer the possibility to you as a late Christmas present, the opportunity to reconceive even our ordinary eating as a sacramental. We have a six-week course for churches that would be ideal to run in Lent to help Christians think more about what their faith means for animals and how we treat them. Perhaps first steps could be communal, rather than individual: thinking how the food you share here at church could reflect the recognition of animals as fellow creatures.

Conclusion

So I’ve suggested that the challenge of Epiphany is how to bring Christmas into the everyday world, how to live a Christmas faith day to day. I’ve suggested that Paul’s vision of the groans of creation as labour pains of the new creation God is bringing forth can help us make sense of the suffering world we engage with as Christians. And I’ve suggested that as Christians we have reason to care about the suffering we currently inflict on farmed animals, and that we have faith-based reasons to stop contributing to its cruelty in our everyday life.

May God gift us this Epiphany with a new vision of how to live out an expectant Christmas faith in the everyday world we encounter and the disturbing and inspiring presence of the Holy Spirit as we seek to align our lives with God’s ways with our world. Amen.

Dwelling in the Wild Places, Welcoming the Light

Advent Meditations on Multispecies and Interspiritual Encounter

by Ed Sloane

For the last several months—since June—along with my friend and colleague, Michael, I have been involved in a spiritual adventure. Oddly, this adventure doesn’t require going anywhere. It is an adventure in the arts of dwelling. Out of a desire to live in greater spiritual kinship with all life in a place and to deepen our sense of justice to include more-than-human beings, we began an experiment in faith and worship in and around our home of Wheeling, WV (situated in the Upper Ohio River South watershed), which we have come to call Wild Church West Virginia. You can read more about our adventure from Michael here

Cows at the New Vrindaban Temple Goshalla (Cow Shelter) | Photo by Ed Sloane

Cows at the New Vrindaban Temple Goshalla (Cow Shelter) | Photo by Ed Sloane

We began this experiment in “rewilding our faith” out of a conviction that encounter with God and one another should not be limited or bounded by institutional walls. By stepping outside and going to the margins we can more readily encounter the mystery of God. ‘Re-wilding’ builds bridges where boundaries have caused division, cultivates an expansive sense of community and belonging, and honors difference while attending to points of commonality.

As we begin to know and feel with the human and more-than-human others with whom we dwell in a place we see that we are more connected and share more in common—something we would have never experienced if we chose to remain hermetically sealed in our own little institutional containers. Rewilding allows us to live in a more connected and capacious world, or, better, to acknowledge that the world is a composite of worlds and worldings. It has been such a joy to cultivate interspiritual friendships and to expand our sense of justice and kinship to include the more-than-human cohabitors with whom we share our place. Dwelling in the wild places, those dark corners of self, society, and season where the dividing lines are less visible and where the marginalized often make their home, forces us to focus our attention, or to pay attention, in a different way that seems especially suitable for the season of Advent. We have to slow down and let our eyes adjust. We have to pull others closer so that we might gently warm one another.

At our last liturgy, as Michael recounts, this praxis of dwelling occurred in beautiful fashion. We celebrated Advent/Christmas alongside our Vaishnava Hindu (often referred to as Hare Krishna) friends in their Goshalla (Cow Shelter) alongside many of the cows who call this place home. Happily, the cows were often vocal participants, offering their own joyful noise during song and prayer. In what follows, I offer some reflection on the readings from our last liturgy.[1]

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As the days grow shorter and colder, at least here in my little corner of the global North that is West Virginia, I am more aware of darkness in our world and in my own life. Before electricity and central heating, when life was somewhat more attuned to the rhythms of the earth and its seasons, this was a time of expectant waiting for the return of light to the Earth.[2] Location aside, light seems to be a potent symbol of hope for the dark nights of soul, society, and season. Both Vedic and Christian Scriptures draw upon this symbolic resonance. Further, both traditions connect the imagery of Divine Light to the expectant hope for a better world characterized by peace, harmony, and justice for all beings.

In the hymn to Usas, the Daughter of Heaven, The Rig-Veda proclaims, “Dawn comes shining like a Lady of Light, stirring to life all creatures…Beam forth your light to guide and sustain us, prolonging, O Goddess, our days. Give to us food, grant us joy, chariots and cattle and horses” (Rig Veda VII, 77).[3] In Christian tradition, the candles of the Advent wreath call to mind hope, peace, joy, and love and the light of God, which Christians believe is Christ, entering into the world. The words of the prophet Isaiah offer a vision of a world transformed by the light of God. As we read, “he shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.” Isaiah is clear too that this transformed world includes the more-than-human, “the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid…They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain” (Isaiah 11: 3-4, 6, 9). However, both the Vedic and Judeo-Christian traditions make clear that while the light’s dawning is inevitable our ability to notice it is not. Our own action and awareness is necessary. The question is, how are we to orient our action and attention; in what manner should we practice dwelling?

Christ is born into a world in which there is no place for him

Capaciousness is also an important theme for the Advent Season. After all, as we read in the Gospel of Luke, Christ is born into a world in which there is no place for him. People in Bethlehem are busy, preoccupied with other concerns, and they cannot, or will not, prepare a place in their lives for the divine. More to the point, they are hermetically sealed in their own worlds. They occupy a space in which they do not really dwell. As we hear, Mary “wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them at the inn” (Luke 2:7).  It is often passed over that Jesus is born among more-than-human beings. It is these, and those who live in something of a symbiosis with them (those who synch their lives to the rhythms of the more-than-human, ie. the shepherds), who first give witness to the birth of the new light, the Son of God. They dwell in such a way that they have a place to both notice and welcome this other.

In the Vedic scripture, The Rig-Veda, cows are identified as a sacred animal, acting as a conduit to the divine. As Raimundo Panikkar explains, “the Vedic world often utilizes the cow as a symbol. Cows draw the car of Dawn and are also called its beams; reference is made to the rain cloud as a cow and even the Gods are sometimes said to be born of cows. For Men [sic], cows represent riches and all the blessings of a happy earthly existence” (Rig Veda VI, 28).[4] These images suggest fascinating multispecies and interspiritual crossings. Echoing the story of the more-than-human species making space for Christ, the light of the world, cows draw light into the world; cows give birth to the divine. The Rig-Veda takes us further than the Christian Scriptures. Not only do cows witness to the divine, they actually bring the divine into our lives. The Rig-Veda offers a vision of multispecies play and symbiosis in which ecological processes co-mingle, and life is a co-creative venture.

Our tendency, especially in the West, has been to separate from the more-than-human, to define the Other as less-than-human (and therefore inferior and uncivilized), and to exhaust and extract rather than cultivate and nurture.

This encourages us to shift our ethical thinking away from stewardship and toward kinship as a principle to orient our action and attention. It seems that from these scriptures it is the more-than-human who are much more effective stewards of the divine than we humans. Our tendency, especially in the West, has been to separate from the more-than-human, to define the Other as less-than-human (and therefore inferior and uncivilized), and to exhaust and extract rather than cultivate and nurture. But, to echo Isaiah, this is not the way of the Peaceable Kingdom in which none shall hurt or destroy.

As an ethic suitable for rewilding our faith, for embarking on the adventure of dwelling, kinship challenges us to let go of the enlightened paternalism of stewardship, which leaves us with the comfort of control and the conviction that we know best what is needed. Becoming kin, embracing an Other as friend and coequal, and as a subject with whom our own being and becoming is mixed on some deep level is, of course, a challenging space in which to dwell. It means we might be changed. It means that this other human or more-than-human might know better and have something to teach!

Christians have been comfortable with the stewardship ethic, because it echoes other tendencies toward enlightened paternalism to which we sometimes fall prey. Indeed, it is tempting to take the fact that The Rig-Veda and Hinduism precede Christianity and suggest that Christ fulfills and completes these earlier revelations. Christians often fall to this temptation. Humans more generally, mainly Western humans, fall to this temptation too. We like to think in linear terms. Our religion, our species, our civilization is the more evolved, the more complete. Wild Church, and the interspiritual and multispecies encounters it provides, and an ethic of kinship encourage a different thinking about how we situate ourselves in time and place, and in relationship to the Divine. When we attune ourselves to the rhythms of the Earth we find that other beings and other traditions continue to cultivate and enrich the mystery of God.

Anthropogenic (human induced) climate change, the fruit of Western intoxication with colonialism and consumer capitalism, requires we become more attentive to how we dwell in place, how we make our homes, and how we encounter difference. Interestingly enough, when we attune ourselves to one very specific place, our world becomes much larger. In fact, we discover that what we once understood as our world, our place, is really in fact a shared commons that is composed of many worlds, which are distinct enough that we can learn something and be invited to think about our own world-making in new ways, but similar enough that we have something to talk about and share. I don’t have much faith, hope, or love for the future of the ‘world’ we now occupy. There is too much destruction, pain, and exclusion there. In this present darkness though, I do believe in the advent of new light. I do seek to attune my heart that I might hear in the hymns sung by my more-than-human kin and my more-than-Christian friends a proclamation that a different world, or, better, the flourishing of many once excluded worlds is possible and that all beings might some day dwell together in the wilds of the Peaceable Kingdom(s).

Ed Sloane is a doctoral candidate at the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry. His research focuses on place and community based pedagogy in religious education and multispecies justice. Ed also serves as chair of the West Virginia Chapter and is a board member for the Catholic Committee of Appalachia. He is the co-coordinator of Wild Church West Virginia. 

[1] The readings were, in order from the liturgy: Rig Veda VII, 77; Isaiah 11: 1-9; Luke 2: 1-20; Rig Veda VI, 28. The readings from the Rig Veda can be found in Raimundo Panikkar, Mantramanjari, The Vedic Experience: An Anthology of the Vedas for Modern Man and Contemporary Celebration (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977): 169-70; 286-8.

[2] I think it worth reflecting on the ways that electric lighting screws with this symbolism. When electricity, and the privileges attached to it, provides endless distractions, fuelling consumer lifestyles and ecological damage, should our hearts long for darkness? How has the taken for granted, and silently destructive, character of lighting shaped the imagination of the privileged? How do those who do not have access to electric lighting, or those who constantly worry that their economic marginalization might result in the loss of light experience the lack or loss of light in their lives?

[3] In Raimundo Panikkar, Mantramanjari, The Vedic Experience: An Anthology of the Vedas for Modern Man and Contemporary Celebration (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977): 169-70.

[4] Ibid., 286-8.

Gopala, Jesus, and the Friendly Beasts

Interspiritual Friendships and the Care of Animals

by Michael J. Iafrate

A few months ago, I sat in a crowded movie theatre watching the local premiere of the documentary Hare Krishna! The Mantra, the Movement and the Swami Who Started It All. The majority of the audience was made up of members of a nearby West Virginia Hare Krishna community called New Vrindaban founded in 1968. The film tells the story of A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada’s journey from India to the United States, virtually penniless, in 1965, his founding of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), and the explosion of his spiritual movement. Many of the devotees around me knew Prabhupada personally and have been connected with New Vrindaban since nearly the beginning.

Michael and Ed Sloane with a friend after Wild Church service | photo by Matt Smith

Michael and Ed Sloane with a friend after Wild Church service | photo by Matt Smith

There was a certain surreal quality in the event, as I felt both like a guest among adherents of a religious tradition very unlike my own, but also like an “insider” among friends. Though I am Roman Catholic, the story of the “Hare Krishnas” is well known to me, having met devotees through the punk rock scene while I was in high school in the early 1990s. Sitting among the devotees, I smiled at the film’s vibrant presentation of the history and its impressive collection of archival footage. I laughed out loud with the rest of the audience at its inside jokes and nodded at its articulation of a contemporary spiritual figure’s ancient wisdom.

Like the devotees, too, I knew the film glossed over some of the more troubling aspects of Prabhupada’s views. But the evening was an appropriate celebration of a religious community with a remarkable history, particularly in this part of the country. And as the film concluded with some of the ways the Hare Krishna movement has touched national and global cultures, the event was an opportunity to pause and be thankful for perhaps the most important gift the Hare Krishnas gave me—a gradual deepening of awareness about the sacredness of creation, and particularly of other-than-human animals.

Wild Church altar | photo by Michael Iafrate

Wild Church altar | photo by Michael Iafrate

As a teenager, several of my friends had “gone veg” for a variety of reasons: animal rights, environmental, health, political, and so on. And so the conversations among us began. Krishna devotees I knew, though, situated all of these very good arguments for vegetarianism within a wider spiritual context that I, as a fairly typical young Catholic omnivore, found intriguing—and eventually very challenging to my own worldview and lifestyle as I entered adulthood. Though it would take a few more years, after college I realized that through these encounters I had come to internalize an evolving commitment to nonviolence, to seeing creation as sacred, and to understanding eating as a religious act—or better, a sacred or sacramental act. I have been vegetarian, and sometimes vegan, ever since. And when people ask about my reasoning—whether it is for animals rights, environmental, health, or religious reasons—I simply say all of the above.

Becoming a Catholic vegetarian at that point in my life, and before I entered into graduate theological programs and various forms of church and activist work, helped me to enter a path of discovery of resources within my own faith community that witness to a neglected but important tradition of concern for animals, one that is now, thankfully, becoming more well-known and widespread. In the twenty years since I’ve embraced vegetarianism, I have watched the development of deeper reflection on animals among Catholics: a richer appreciation for the care of animals from our tradition’s past, as well as creative expressions of “animal theology” among Catholic theologians, often deeply connected with wider social justice and “life” issues and with more recent eco-theologies as well. This recent reflection has even arguably “trickled up” into “official” church teaching, as concern for animals is seen in the Catholic Catechism and in the teaching of Pope Benedict, and most recently as Pope Francis affirmed the intrinsic worth of animals in his encyclical Laudato Si’.

The gifts I received from these early interspiritual friendships did not end with my own vegetarianism, however. Often, when Christians open themselves to encounter with other faith traditions and learn what they teach about vegetarianism or meditation, they realize that their own traditions contain lesser-known ideas and practices along these lines as well. And they are then content to return to a Christian context which now “meets their needs,” thankful to non-Christians for bringing to their attention aspects of Christian tradition they had not previously seen. While these kinds of revelations are certainly worthy of celebration, I have come to appreciate a more relational and dynamic approach to interspiritual friendships.

Since returning to the Ohio Valley after a time away, I have been blessed with continuing and deepening (and multiplying!) interspiritual friendships with people of many faiths, including members of the New Vrindaban community. Together, in both informal and formal ways, we have initiated a number of local practices of interspiritual friendship, not only to “take” from one another, or to become more aware of obscured aspects of our own traditions, as valuable as these might be, but to nurture real friendships; to share experiences of common worship and contemplation; to enter together into that Holy Mystery within, between, and beyond the words of our particular traditions; and to work together as people of many faiths to create a better world.

One of the ways we have done this is through a small interspiritual community we are calling Wild Church West Virginia. My friend and colleague Ed Sloane and I had heard of the outdoor Eucharistic liturgies of the ecumenical Wild Church Network and Watershed Discipleship movement, and thought it would be appropriate to explore the possibility of a Wild Church community here in West Virginia, bringing to it the uniqueness of the place where we are rooted. From our Catholic context, it seemed especially fitting given our own involvement in the Catholic Committee of Appalachia (CCA) and the Roman Catholic Church’s ecological turn under the leadership of Pope Francis.

Inspired by CCA’s place-based liberation theology, Francis’ theological vision of global eco-justice, and the Wild Church Network’s various expressions of deep ecological liturgy—and deeply moved by the interspiritual experimentation of Bede Griffith’s Saccidananda Ashram (Shantivanam) and the monthly Yeshu Satsang in Toronto—Wild Church West Virginia was born on Pentecost Sunday 2017. Our current mission statement reads:

Wild Church West Virginia is an experiment in “re-wilding our faith.” We believe that many people of faith and good will seek a connection with God and one another that is not limited by institutional walls. Loving encounter grounds and nurtures tradition. By stepping outside and going to the margins we can more readily encounter the mystery of God.

Our monthly outdoor agape meal liturgies witness both to the goodness and brokenness of creation. We have gathered in the hilly, wooded terrain of land connected to Bethany College in West Virginia and in the breathtaking natural “cathedral” of Raven Rocks in Southeast Ohio. Yet we also plan to gather at ecologically damaged places—mountaintop removal sites and street corners which represent to us the destructive social environments humans have constructed and which cry out for justice.

As the community grew, we saw that many people attracted to Wild Church West Virginia were from non-Christian faith traditions, or people alienated from various Christian churches, or people who, like us, share a deep curiosity about “other” faiths and believe that we can and should celebrate with and learn from one another. Though rooted in the Catholic tradition, we soon, very consciously, made more of an effort to become a wildly inclusive, interspiritual community that acknowledges the holiness of the many names of the Divine and welcomes people of all religious traditions to the table.

For our December Wild Church liturgy on the second Sunday of Advent, we worked with a number of devotee friends to hold an Advent/Christmas celebration at New Vrindaban’s goshala (cow shelter), part of their cow protection program. Gathering in the chilly barn among the community’s cows, the interspiritual and multispecies liturgy celebrated Christ coming into the world among people of many faiths and among other-than-human animals, blending Hindu and Christian chants and hymns accompanied by harmonium and guitar (including “The Friendly Beasts”) and readings from Vedic, Hebrew, and Christian scriptures. Ed gave a rich homily on the readings, stressing the unique ability that animals have to teach humans about the Divine and reminding us how fitting it is that animals and their caretakers were the first to welcome the coming of the Light of the World. The lay-led agape meal’s offertory included a Hindu arati service led by a devotee (including the waving of lights before the altar and icons), and we blessed and shared locally made bread and apple juice made from local apples—no wine, as devotees abstain from alcohol. The liturgy was followed by a short kirtan with communal chants to Krishna under the name Gopala (“protector of the cows”) and a sharing of prasadam, a vegetarian sanctified meal, in this case paneer over spinach rice.

Arati service | photo by Jocelyn Carlson

Arati service | photo by Jocelyn Carlson

In our Wild Church liturgies, silent interfaith meditation gatherings, and sacred conversations, the friendships begun in our local interspiritual community continue to deepen, and we dream together of new possibilities around the arts and in activism. Together, we are coming to believe in a vision similar to that of Sufi mystic, scholar, and author Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, that we are called “to return to our own root and rootedness: our relationship to the sacred within creation.” With Vaughan-Lee, we believe that “Only from the place of sacred wholeness and reverence can we begin the work of healing, of bringing the world back into balance.”

That work of healing and of bringing creation back into balance, we believe, must include all of us, learning across traditions. It must also come to include all beings, and indeed may even be led in many ways by those beings long considered to be less than human. Here in West Virginia, a place deeply damaged by the so-called First World’s extractive mentality, we continue to “rewild our faith,” and to learn from the friendly beasts and from their caretakers, including those whose spiritual traditions have been most attuned to non-human animal lives.

Michael J. Iafrate is a theologian and songwriter from West Virginia and a doctoral candidate at the University of St. Michael's College, University of Toronto. He currently serves as Co-Coordinator of the Catholic Committee of Appalachia (CCA) and was the lead author of CCA’s “People's Pastoral” letter The Telling Takes Us Home: Taking Our Place in the Stories that Shape Us. His writing has appeared in National Catholic Reporter and Religion Dispatches, various journals, and the collections Secular Music and Sacred Theology (2013) and Music, Theology, and Justice (2017). He is also a singer-songwriter and old time musician, and his most recent album, Christian Burial, was released in 2017.