Right at Home: Building Church Partnerships with Local Nature Preserves

June 3, 2010


[Ed. note: This article is part of our series of weekly church activities, Cultivating Community, published on Thursdays]

It’s the reason we can take antibiotics when we get sick. It gives us flowers to enjoy and fruit to eat. It cleans water and freshens the air. It is responsible for pretty much everything we live in, sleep on, eat off of, and work with. But biodiversity–that catch-all term for the world’s plants, animals, microorganisms, genetic variations, and ecosystems–still has yet to become a popular word in creation care conversations. Maybe this is because it conjures up painful memories of science class. Or maybe this concept–what the Convention of Biological Diversity calls “the combination of life forms and their interactions with each other and with the rest of the environment that has made Earth a uniquely habitable place for humans”–sometimes seems too large to wrap our minds around.

Let’s bring biodiversity, as it were, down to earth. This coming Saturday, June 5, is World Environment Day, and the theme for the day (and for the entire year of 2010, as declared by the international community) is biodiversity. Although World Environment Day is observed more explicitly by countries outside of the United States (we tend to concentrate on Earth Day as the day when we publicly recognize the importance of environmental stewardship), we too can participate in celebrations and activities that recognize this year’s theme for the day.

Ocean waves at Blowing Rocks Nature Preserve

Whether your local nature preserve is epically gorgeous or subtley lovely, it's worth getting to know. (cc image courtesy DioMkr via flickr)

Every step of stewardship helps strengthen and nurture the earth’s biodiversity by protecting and cultivating the abundance of created life, but a particularly helpful step that your church family can take locally is to develop a partnership with a local nature preserve. After all, we exist in and rely on the biological diversity of

everything God has provided, so what better place to start learning about and caring for it than in our very own back yards?

Why Build a Partnership?
Developing relationships with the community of a local nature or forest preserve will allow your church to share, discover, and

Spider web at Baylands Nature Preserve in Palo Alto

Exploring local nature preserves, we discover creation's gems in our own back yard. (cc image courtesy Jill Clardy via flickr)

grow in the love and hope of Christ in new and creative ways.

  • Rootedness: What God has created in his diverse ecology is beautiful and intricate and healing and inspiring. Yet we tend to spend most of our time in the environments humans have created, which are useful and efficient, but don’t often call us to something higher than ourselves. Building a relationship with a local preserve as a church counteracts the bland sameness of the commercial environments we so often dwell in, and can root an entire community in what is close to God’s hand, instead.
  • Immediacy: Working with naturalists in a local environment allows us to see, learn about, and care for what is unique to our local ecosystem. Grizzly bears or flamingos may not be regular visitors to your local preserve (and if they are, lucky you!), but learning about the workings of a native pitcher plant species or being able to identify the tracks of local wildlife will prove to be equally enchanting, not to mention important to preserving biodiversity even in familiar places.
  • Discovery: You might not know it yet, but endangered species, polluted waterways, and invasive plants are all problems that plague your local environment. Learning about local challenges through the teaching of local experts will better prepare you to be faithful caretakers of your home.
  • Service: It is in the nature of Christ’s church to be of service to neighbor, and to serve in ways that make life better for others. Because of this calling and the number of members in service to it, a church can be a formidable force for good when it works in tandem with another local organization to serve a community in tangible ways.

Getting Started
Initiating a relationship between a church and a nature preserve will be a refreshing and invigorating experience for both parties. Here’s how to start the conversation:

  • Locate a preserve: If popular local preserves are not already on the radar of your fellow church members, you can find one to partner with through your state’s department of natural resources or this helpful preserve locator from the Nature Conservancy.
  • Get in touch: Most preserves will have a contact person for their volunteer programs. When you call your local preserve, ask to speak with this volunteer coordinator, and explain the nature of your church’s interest in volunteering with the preserve. Explain how many people might be involved, and detail any special experience or skills that can be found among your group (previous experience clearing trails, teaching, doing maintenance or repair work, identifying or working with wildlife or plant species, etc.) so that the volunteer coordinator can assign work accordingly.

Going Deeper

Trail through forest at Lime Rock Nature Preserve

Local preserves allow for discovery and exercise--for free! (cc image courtesy quillonphoto via flickr)

Starting from a position of willing service to the preserve’s needs, your church community will eventually gain trust and develop relationships from which a stronger partnership and new opportunities will emerge.

  • Learning: As you grow more involved with the nature preserve, you will discover opportunities to learn more about the preserve, in particular, and about local ecological needs, in general. Educational programs, camps, and classes all offer opportunities to deepen your church community’s understanding of ecosystems. This is great especially for kids, not only to increase their “green time” over their “screen time,” but to provide them with field experience in biology, the water cycle, and conservation issues, so that they can grow up not only enjoying the outdoors, but also intimately knowing about the needs and process of God’s creation, and learning how to live in and interact with it responsibly.
  • Expanding: Once your church’s partnership with a local nature preserve becomes more established, look for ways to broaden the community’s involvement in the preserve. Through their ministries, churches often work with a variety of communities and populations that could benefit from greater engagement with creation. In particular, low-income communities that many churches serve often don’t have access to green outdoor space or education about those spaces. But access to a safe, interesting outdoor environments can reduce health problems, boost confidence, and encourage individuals in their relationship with God. So work creatively with your church’s various community connections, joining them to experience God’s diverse world together, right where they live.

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