Redemption by the Side of the Road

February 14, 2011


By Andy Patton

Flourish magazine, Winter 2011

The Crossing, a church in Columbia, Missouri, sits just off of a high-speed, four-lane highway lined with fast-food chains, a Wal-Mart Supercenter, and a cluster of modular, low-rent apartment units. Grindstone Parkway was empty when the church first moved there, but the city has since expanded, peppering the land north of the road with commercialization. South of the road is The Crossing’s land, a strip of residential housing, and beyond that, forest. The church is sandwiched between a wilderness of trees on one side and a wilderness of parking lots and corporate logos on the other. It’s a place where a work of environmental redemption playing out in a small lake next to the road would seem quite strange—if it wasn’t so easily overlooked at 50 mph.

Choosing redemption
When The Crossing moved to its Grindstone Parkway location in 2006, it ran into two problems: the lake sitting on a corner of the church’s new 24 acres and the hundreds of Canada Geese that frequented it.

“The runoff from the property circumvented the lake,” says Leszek Vincent, a plant scientist and member of The Crossing, “so that the nutrients brought in by the geese were just building up and concentrating.”

The geese, with their nitrogen-rich droppings, were making the lake into a toxic cauldron that, in addition to being an eyesore, the church suspected was leeching harmful levels of nutrients into the local creeks and water table.

The church had a choice to make about the lake. The easiest and cheapest option was to bulldoze the lake and turn it into a parking lot or a field of grass. But The Crossing chose a labor-intensive, time-consuming, and costly second option—to save it.

“We wanted to go the extra mile and communicate something to our culture: that we Christians can be very productive and constructive in turning around situations that have gone to a bad place,” says Vincent, who has been one of the driving forces behind the vision and implementation of the project.

Vincent, the pastors, and a team of volunteers got busy. During countless workdays, they moved in topsoil to dilute the goose droppings’ harmful effect on the ground and capitalize on their ability to fertilize the soil, instead.

To address the general problem of the geese, The Crossing made an unorthodox decision: to grow a wall of plants, since geese will avoid visual barriers, such as shrubs and tall grasses, that predators could hide behind.

“I had three species of plants in mind that were native to the area,” says Vincent. Once planted, these “would provide a visual barrier to the geese as well as adding to the biological diversity of the environment.”

The team trucked in rocks. It excavated. It added a peninsula to change the flow of water through the lake. It planted more species of local flora. It fostered a liveable habitat.

Not only have the changes to the lakeshore had an impact on the ecological health of the property itself, but they have benefitted the larger surrounding ecosystem as well.

“Typically what places that have a lot of water running off their parking lot will do is try to get rid of it as soon as possible into a creek and send it downstream and let someone else worry about it, ” says Dave Cover, one of the founding pastors of The Crossing. “But we put in plants that would serve to filter out the water…By the time it goes out into Columbia’s creeks it has been filtered and slowed down quite a bit.”

Created good, restored to goodness
Criticisms of such a work are not difficult to imagine: Wouldn’t that money be better spent helping people in need? What does the kingdom of God gain from cleaning up a lake? The work of restoring a degraded piece of land seems so small. Churches ought to be saving souls, not habitats. Yet the pastors of The Crossing don’t see work on the lake as something that happens despite the Gospel, but because of it.

“When God created the world he created it good…To trample and neglect something God cares about is really a sign that there is something wrong with us,” says Ryan Wampler, a pastor with The Crossing’s campus ministry.

The Dutch reformer Abraham Kuyper said, “There is not one square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’” The Crossing—which took the title of its blog, “Every Square Inch” from Kuyper’s words—agrees. To its pastors, the work on the lake is about restoring the particular square inches that God has entrusted to their care. They take it very seriously.

To the question, “Why?” each pastor’s answer invariably begins with Genesis.

“When God created the world he made it good. He cares about it…God put man in creation to be a steward of it and cultivate it back to goodness,” Wampler says. In a similar spirit, Cover says, “Genesis One is spiritual and material…God loves physical creation, and we want to be a church that cares about what God cares for.” The way The Crossing sees it, if there is not one square inch of creation over which Christ does not cry, “Mine!” then there should not be one square inch, including degraded geese ponds, over which the church—speaking with its labor, its teaching, its money, and its life—should not cry, “His!”

The pastors and the others involved in the project feel the opening chapters of the Bible are not primarily about how the world got so bad, but about how the world is good. When they talk about stewardship and restoration, the reality of the Fall comes up again and again, but not in a way that portrays the brokenness of the world to be its most fundamental characteristic. Rather, as the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote, they see creation as being “charged with the grandeur of God.”

Vincent, whose expertise is in plant biology, says, “The fallenness of creation is manifest right down to the biochemical level. Even so, the environment speaks of redemption to me, and there is a beautiful picture of that in The Crossing’s lake.”

A roadside witness
The Crossing community is aware that investing in a lake might seem strange to some inside and outside the church. But it’s made the investment anyway because it senses an urgent need to step into an area where it feels the modern church has missed its calling.

“Because the church is not hitting the message [of stewarding creation], people will go elsewhere to explore,” Cover says, “And the church comes up void and empty where it should have been leading the way.” He asserts that too often the church has made the mistake of being more concerned with the spiritual than the physical, “a dichotomy that is very foreign to the Gospel…The Gospel is holistic, not dualistic, and to make it dualistic is to corrupt it.”

So cleaning up the lake is not just about being a good neighbor. It is about holding out a whole, uncorrupted Gospel to the watching world.

In the four years since The Crossing moved onto the property, the lake has gone from being a blight on the local environment and the stomping ground of a single species to a thriving, complex ecosystem. It is now a home to everything from fish to fishermen, and a complex food chain now plays out on The Crossing’s property: Snakes, frogs, birds, butterflies, muskrats, and yes, even a few geese, pass through with the seasons. The lake provides a safer and more abundant place for them to nest and feed than would have been otherwise possible so close to the surrounding development. Varieties of native plants yield their fruits and flowers to people and animals. The lake has become a place of abundance and flourishing.

“This facility can communicate something of the richness of life,” Vincent says. “There is a resonance of beauty and wholesomeness that we have tried to restore to this abused environment, and we have turned something that was really bad back into something that is much, much better.”

Andy Patton is the managing editor of online content at Flourish. He and his wife Lindsey are currently traveling in Europe and Africa while he writes from overseas. Andy grew up in Columbia, Missouri and studied English and creative writing at the University of Missouri.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Diana Novinger February 28, 2011 at 3:30 pm

Loved the article. Thank you Andy!!!!

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