Thursday, July 17, 2014

Christian Ministry in the National Parks

The Sunday we were at Yellowstone, we got up early to attend an 8:00a.m church service held on the deck outside, with a great view of Old Faithful Geyser, sponsored by the organization A Christian Ministry in the National Parks. The service was led by three young people, a man and two women,  who were either college students or seminarians. They had been recruited by ACMNP for this volunteer ministry, and all were working full-time in one of the dining rooms or kitchens in the park, and provided this ministry on Sundays and perhaps at other events during the week. The service was publicized as "interdenominational" and the order of service was certainly one you could find in many main-line churches. However, it had a very strong evangelical feel, due largely to the style of the preacher, but also the type of hymns chosen. The sermon, based on Romans 8:1-11, dealt primarily with the issue of sin, and how we are saved from it through the atoning death of Jesus Christ. The preacher (I think his name was Sam) was very earnest, and shared something of his own experience as a teenager with the shame and guilt he had felt from continually falling into the sin of lust. Shortly before the end of the sermon, Old Faithful erupted behind him. He turned and acknowledged the eruption, but I think the subliminal implications may have escaped him. He definitely missed a grand opportunity to use the eruption of Old Faithful as a metaphor for any number of possible spiritual meanings and messages.

The deck at Old Faithful Inn (where the church service was held)
 The folks pictured above were not at the church service - I didn't take a photo of that - they were waiting for Old Faithful to erupt. And here it is:

Old Faithful Geyser
 We have been reading Reinhold Niebuhr's An Inperpretation of Christian Ethics out loud in the car on this trip, and I couldn't help but hear the sermon in that context, and be aware once again of how narrow the evangelical understanding of sin is, how it tends to limit it to the individual (and ignore the sins of groups, organizations, corporations, classes, races and nations), and also how it makes the body or the "flesh" as the locus of sin (ignoring Niebuhr's brilliant insight that the greatest sins are spiritual, and that as you advance in spiritual growth, your capacity for sin becomes greater). I had actually written a seminary dissertation on the very passage Sam was preaching from in Romans 8, in which Paul contrasts "flesh" and "spirit," and as bad as that dissertation was (and it was pretty bad), it at least recognized that Paul himself does not use the term "flesh" (Greek: sarx) simply as a bodily entity, but as a symbol for a complex and broad world, material, mental and spiritual, which is opposed to God. Thus you are not "in the flesh" only when you are full of lustful feelings, as Sam had been as a teenager, you are also "in the flesh" when you are full of self-righteousness and sure of your spiritual superiority over others.

I could have engaged Sam in dialogue after the service, but I didn't. Maybe I missed a grand opportunity too!

A Christian Ministry in the National Parks was started in 1951 by a Princeton seminary student, Warren Ost. It was soon sponsored by the National Council of Churches until the NCC had to let it go for lack of funding. It is now an independent non-profit based in Denver. It is still ecumenical in theory at least - I notice that the UCC website has a link to it and an application process for UCC seminarians - but I suspect by looking at the staff that it has become heavily evangelical in its orientation. This means, I suspect, that sermons like Sam's, which dwell on individual sin and salvation,  are more the order of the day, and that thoughtful reflections on the creation, on the impact of humans on the creation (e.g., global warming), on the myriad moral, social, ethical and spiritual issues which are raised by the very existence of the National Parks (both positive and negative), are rare, if they exist at all.

There is also a "church and state" issue involved in having a "Christian ministry" in the National Parks and not a Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, etc. ministry also, or, no ministry at all. I was interested to find this paragraph in Wikipedia:

"In 1993, Karl and Rita Girshman, a Jewish couple, were visiting Big Bend National Park and were disturbed by one of the students serving with ACMNP. The couple sued and forced several changes in the way ACMNP, the NPS, and park concessioners operated. Prior to the suit, ACMNP used the distinctive arrow head used by the NPS on most of its correspondence. As a result of the suit, the NPS was forced to crack down on who and under what circumstances the arrow head could be used. Concessioners were barred from using religious affiliation in their hiring practices. Prior to the court case, ACMNP was able to guarantee employment with many of the park concessioners as it had arrangements to place students at various locations. As part of the settlement, the NPS sent a letter stating, that it would be against the law to "reserve or set aside jobs for individuals affiliated with one religious group or another... Employment discrimination by our concessioners will not be tolerated." Many parks made exceptions to ACMNP obtaining permits; after the case, ACMNP activities required obtaining permits just as any other group would."We think we've accomplished a lot more than we initially thought we could because of the intimate ties that the Christian Ministry had developed with the government," Karl Girshman said. "In most parks, they had a monopoly. They had been reserving amphitheaters, campfire circles and other public gathering places long in advance. Now there's a fair opportunity for other groups to participate."

This suit is interesting, but it hardly seems to have gone to the heart of the issue.

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