Ecological Restoration and Scenes of Grace



Ecological restoration is a discipline started by conservationist Aldo Leopold in the 1930s. Religious scholars Sarah Taylor (2007) and Gertel Van Wieren (2013) provided empirical assessments of ecological restoration among Christians, showing changes in practices and beliefs indicative of “greening” called for by many others but seldom empirically documented. This article reports four cases of Lutheran involvement with ecological restoration, assesses them in light of practices and beliefs identified by Taylor and Van Wieren, and concludes with refreshed Lutheran beliefs to corroborate ecological restoration in the sites studied and beyond.


[1]               Introduction

[2]               To restore land, waters or air damaged by human industrial activity was a technical challenge accepted by some scientists, engineers and landscape architects beginning in the 20th century. A discipline called “ecological restoration” traced its roots to Aldo Leopold. Restoration was appealing to many because real places and real communities might gain tangible repair and respite from industrial onslaught if ecological restoration could succeed to any degree.

[3]               People of faith became involved in ecological restoration. Sarah McFarland Taylor documented ecological restoration among religious communities of Roman Catholic women in Green Sisters: A Spiritual Ecology, empirically describing emergence of green practices and beliefs.[1] Gretel Van Wieren also identified ways that involvement in restoration projects could reshape practices and beliefs among Christians in her book, Restored to Earth: Christianity, Environmental Ethics and Ecological Restoration.[2]  The works of Taylor and Van Wieren make distinctive contributions to a rising tide of literature on greening Christianity because they root research in ethnographic and empirical observation of changing behaviors in relationship to scientific, ecological challenges. Taylor and Van Wieren move from practices to changing beliefs, noting their dynamic interplay and that emerging practices may renew expression of beliefs.[3]

[4]               The following article reports four large-scale, publicly visible projects in ecological restoration at ministry sites identified with Lutheran Christian traditions. After reporting brief portraits from the four sites, the article offers assessment of the new practices and potential next steps by comparison to practices identified in the studies by Taylor and Van Wieren. Joining the search for “new narratives” that Taylor found and “re-storied” beliefs described by Van Wieren, the article concludes with refreshed Lutheran imagery to corroborate the emerging practices in ecological restoration at the Lutheran sites. [4]

[5]               Together, new practices and refreshed beliefs could foster and enable the institutions under consideration and others like them to make consistent and resilient contributions to public efforts to address environmental problems, and to avoid reiteration of manipulative, conquest-based forms of belief and practice. The article adds four more examples from a particular religious family to the nascent catalog of religious ecological restoration that Taylor and Van Wieren began, while alerting Lutherans and their ecumenical kin to new behaviors and refreshed beliefs in relationship to environmental challenges.

[6]               Remnant Prairie

[7]               On the prairie of north-central Illinois, the Illinois Synod of the Lutheran Church in America adopted a parcel of 640 acres of land in 1972, intent upon constructing a church camp for youth and adult programming. Pastor John “Jack” Swanson, the founding Director of Lutheran Outdoor Ministries Center (LOMC), Oregon, IL, had an eye for nature and a head for ecological theology. Pastor Swanson arranged for a naturalist to inventory the land. Pastor Swanson and the other founding leaders wanted to know what kind of classroom they had for nature study, and what kind of habitat for hiking and camping they could host for participants at LOMC. The results of the survey by the naturalist were thrilling: there were remnants of original prairie on site, despite years of previous uses and abuse of the land. The grassland inhabited by indigenous people and encountered by pioneers moving westward was still present in patches of land that was now becoming a place named LOMC.[5]

[8]               A red flower called Shooting Star was prolific at LOMC. It was one remnant species at LOMC that—because it is beautiful and easy to recognize—became a symbol and inspiration to preserve the prairie and let it grow back. Swanson and LOMC founders treated their parcel of prairie like a cathedral, a sacred space for worship, as well as a classroom for both nature study and religious teaching. They established paths and camping sites in the prairie land, but asked people to stay on the paths and in the designated camping sites so that human activity would not destroy the remnant and recovering prairie. Specific areas on the camp land took on the buildings, play fields, roads and parking. The bulk of the acreage was set aside to be wild. Records indicate that LOMC invited church people to participate in the prairie maintenance practice of seasonal burning.[6] After 40 years, LOMC is a place in which the colors, seasons, sounds and quietness of prairie are available for pilgrim visitors. Impressive improvements in the dwellings for people, and the busy program for children and adults, have designated pathways and boundaries to protect the prairie wilderness. The prairie is one of the reasons to go and stay at LOMC, where the prairie is the outdoors in outdoor ministry.

[9]               A dozen miles from LOMC, there is another prairie restoration effort. In 1986 the Nature Conservancy opened a branch office in Chicago. Like LOMC, they employed a Naturalist to assess some land that had come up for sale near Franklin Grove, IL. On hillsides and bottomlands, the Naturalist identified dozens of species and significant remnants of original prairie. The Nature Conservancy began to purchase land and to employ restoration professionals and volunteers to set up the conditions in which the original prairie grasses could grow back. Through painstaking seed collection and record keeping, the restoration workers were slowly reversing the damage to the prairie that generations of plowing and pesticides and petrochemicals had wreaked. By 2014, the Nachusa Grasslands Preserve had 3100 acres—nearly five square miles—strategically located between an Illinois State Forest and a State Park. In fall 2014 Nachusa Grasslands, with the help of universities, the Brookfield Zoo reintroduced buffalo to the Northern Illinois prairie.

[10]           LOMC’s 200 acres of prairie therefore becomes a neighbor and satellite preserve to one of the largest grassland restoration projects in North America. Visitors to LOMC may walk in remnant prairie off the doorstep of their designated lodgings, but also witness and learn about large-scale restoration and preservation of prairie nearby. Pastor Swanson first articulated the connections for LOMC and brought LOMC perspective to local land preservation efforts. Swanson wrote that “the Spirit is the ecological name for God,” through which Lutherans and other Christians could converse with others about their sense of hope for restoration and health of the land, waters and environment. Swanson also identified the central teaching of Lutheran theology, justification by grace through faith, and its practical outcome of forgiveness, to be about “adaptation.” Swanson was thinking of the scientific notion of adaptation. To forgive is to adapt, Swanson argued, which is why forgiveness is both costly and practical. The ecosystem of the prairie where death and life cycle into robust habitat reflected God’s grace to Swanson’s hearing and telling.[7]

[11]           To the north of LOMC, where the prairie stretches to meet the floodplain forest of the Wisconsin River, stands a shack from which Aldo Leopold penned A Sand County Almanac in 1949. Leopold’s call for a land ethic has become foundational for conservation, habitat restoration and environmental advocacy. Nearby Madison Christian Community (MCC) is a congregation that preserves land like LOMC. MCC practices environmental stewardship and teaches other congregations and church-related institutions to do likewise. Theologian Peter Bakken, integrally involved at MCC, traced the connections between Aldo Leopold’s public thought and the land ethic, with Lutheran theology through the perspectives of pioneer eco-theologian Joseph Sittler (1904-1988).[8] LOMC founder Jack Swanson learned from Sittler. LOMC, MCC and other ministries have discovered their affinities with the vision of Aldo Leopold, richly engaged by Sittler’s kind of theology. LOMC has its 40 years of prairie preservation and eco-theological vision of its founder to bring to the table with partners such as Nachusa Grasslands and other restoration efforts, and to other ministries in the church which want to put themselves in service to the land and community.

[12]           In contrast to much frontier history, from sod busting to Dust Bowl, LOMC stands for prairie restoration in witness to restoration that God works in grace, centrally accomplished in Jesus Christ but reflected throughout creation. Therefore preservation and recovery of land and habitat is participation in the adaptation that is forgiveness—to use Pastor Swanson’s insight. It is a striking public witness for many who perceive themselves to be outside the boundaries of church or faith, but for whom a land ethic and the inspiration of restoration may spark hope. The remnant prairie claimed and treasured as a blessing by LOMC, and their prolific neighbors at Nachusa Grasslands, is also a context for people to confront human guilt toward the misuse of land and the environment by walking in recovering landscape.

[13]           Forest preservation

[14]           Before the rupture of the prairie sod, miles and miles of Eastern forest fell to settlements and industry moving down the waterways and eventually over the inland ridges. From ships and wagons to barrels, barns and barstools, the early industrial world was made of wood and fueled by wood.  Some of the wooded highlands of Northwestern Pennsylvania remained rustic well into the 20th Century despite activity by the timber industry, coal mining and gas drilling. Today environmental scientists assess the area to be a high priority for preservation because the mountains have a variety of important wetlands, threatened species and uncommon trees.[9]

[15]           A guardian to the natural environment in Northeastern Pennsylvania is the North Branch Land Trust, or NBLT, named after the nearby North Branch of the Susquehanna River. The organization equips land owners to preserve habitat by placing land into a legal status called “conservation easement” that prevents further industrial and residential development in order to remain natural green space. NBLT has preserved over 10,000 acres through easements and ownership in eight counties of Northeastern Pennsylvania. With agencies of Pennsylvania government charged with land management, and other conservation groups such as the nearby Natural Lands Trust, the NBLT embodies and enacts wilderness recovery along Bear Creek, a waterway that runs 17 miles through the Pocono Mountains to the Lehigh River in the Delaware watershed.

[16]           The Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod of the Lutheran Church in America sent representatives to acquire parcels of land along Bear Creek, in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, north of Bear Creek Village, in 1963. Six purchases in 1964 and 1965 were one parcel by 1966. The land was a new home for Lutheran outdoor ministry in eastern Pennsylvania because three former Lutheran camps were losing their sites to encroaching development in the Delaware Valley. The new Bear Creek Camp (BCC) opened in 1977.[10] While the new site was not far from the Northeast Extension of the Pennsylvania Turnpike (opened in 1957), which provides access from Philadelphia, it was high in the mountains above the city of Wilkes-Barre. The new camp would begin with over 3,825 acres, by far the largest Lutheran outdoor ministry site in the country. Unfortunately, funds from sales of the old camp sites were far below anticipated levels. Therefore, Bear Creek Camp sold a thousand acres to the Pennsylvania Game Commission which transferred it into designated State Game Lands.

[17]           The forest in and around Bear Creek Camp is in recovery from two centuries of cutting and re-cutting. Local owners regularly cut trees for cash. Bear Creek’s board of directors likewise resorted to selective logging to bolster the anemic camp budget over the years. Financial support from Lutheran churches was modest, and camp fees were low to provide access for children and youth regardless of economic background. By the first two decades of the 21st Century, landholders in much of Pennsylvania were leasing mineral rights for a new wave of gas drilling. The new “fracking” procedures leveled acres of forest and chopped up stretches of wooded habitat with drilling pads, roads, pipelines and processing plants. It also ruined rural watersheds with toxic runoff. By the time fracking arrived in the area, however, Bear Creek Camp had already made some stewardship decisions which protected the camp program and the land from additional incursion.

[18]           The North Branch Land Trust first contacted Bear Creek Camp in 2000 to propose a Conservation Easement, which would be a legal commitment not to develop or build on a large portion of the forest owned by Bear Creek Camp in order to allow it to recover and grow in perpetuity. The Land Trust was interested in restoration of major stretches of forest to prevent segmentation in forest habitat inflicted by industry and private ownership. It also deemed Bear Creek’s land to be highly significant ecologically, based on environmental studies by the Pocono Conservation Landscape Initiative.

[19]           By 2006 the East Park Leadership and Conservation Center, or EPLCC, was ready to work seriously with NBLT, and in 2009 they negotiated an easement for 1,880 acres of the camp’s 2,886 total acres. NBLT channeled to Bear Creek Camp significant funding it had acquired for the purpose of creating easements in Northwestern Pennsylvania, from the Pennsylvania department of Conservation and Natural Resources, and ultimately from both state and federal sources.[11] The easement makes Bear Creek Camp an important link between thousands of acres of Pennsylvania State Game Lands and other North Branch Land Trust easements. It is also in close proximity to the 3,500-acre Natural Lands Trust Preserve. Bear Creek Camp and North Land Trust welcome the public to the land for hiking, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing and similar low-impact recreation. Environmental scientists from universities treasure the forested expanse, and the area is an outdoor classroom full of natural features.

[20]           The impact of the conservation easement has been positive for the camp, delivering it from the financial distress it had suffered and enabling a new level of staffing, programming and stewardship of the site. Meanwhile, the 1,880 acres of forest are still camp domain for hiking, sleep-outs and nature study to enhance the outdoor ministry program. Many outdoor ministries located close to centers of human population face the challenge of making sure that use of the land by the public would be restricted to activities that will not damage the habitat and will not threaten the safety of campers. In this effort, the camp gains allies from the conservation community who share the commitment for land well-being. Therefore the camp may restrict motorized four-wheelers, snowmobiles and so forth, and restrict hunting to the State Game Land, with support from their allies in the conservation community.

[21]           Bear Creek Camp has not yet made conservation of the forest a defining mark of its purpose and identity as a ministry organization as Jack Swanson and LOMC did. But when it does it may highlight the rare and important natural features of the mountain habitat to which scientists make pilgrimage and from which people of all ages may learn not only natural history but also a sense of wonder. With a conservation easement of 1,880 acres on its resume, BCC has a significant credential to make its circle of friends and supporters even wider than the local conservation community.

[22]           Stream restoration and mine remediation​

[23]           Near the crest of the Cascade Mountains in Washington State, nine-thousand-foot Copper Mountain and other high peaks ring a former mining village that for 50 years has been home to Holden Village, a center for community and worship. Lutherans and others know Holden for liturgies and other creative works produced in the secluded and beautiful mountain setting and treasured by the rest of the church. Among outdoor ministries Holden distinguishes itself for hosting adults and families year-round with multi-generational programming. It is also unlike many other outdoor ministries because it is on federal land managed by the US Forest Service, a part of the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest and ringed on three sides by the Glacier Peak Wilderness Area (Holden owns a small parcel of acres adjacent to the village, but is subject to a lease with the US Forest Service for most of its operational area).

[24]           To reach Holden requires a trip to the town of Chelan in central Washington State, followed by a long ferry ride on Lake Chelan and an eleven-mile switchback climb in a bus. Just beyond Holden, the road turns into trails by which only hikers may proceed into the mountains. Railroad Creek runs down the valley. On one side of the creek stands the village of chalets, dorms, dining hall and other buildings which are home to the Holden program and community. On the other side—one after another for almost a mile of stream bank—stand 80-foot piles of tailings, material discarded from a milling process that separated the copper. Until recently, there was a hulking rusted skeleton of the mill from the former copper mine, an idle sentinel over 36 miles of underground tunnels in Copper Mountain, dug between 1937 and 1957 when the Holden Mine operated. The US Government bought all of the copper during World War II and half of it most years after. [12] The Holden mine processed 10 million tons of ore in its two decades of operation. Across 90 acres of wetlands in the valley, the miners dumped 8.5 million tons of tailings on the south bank of Railroad Creek. Another 1.5 million tons of tailings are in the mine. After closure, much of the mine filled with water which leaks heavy metals into Railroad Creek in addition to the contaminated runoff from the piles. Total industrial disturbance covered 120 acres in the valley.

[25]           After the mine closed, Lutherans inquired and received the village as a gift from the Howe Sound Mining Company. Beginning in 1960, the new stewards transformed the old company town into a destination for people seeking a Christian community experience with recreation, worship and Christian instruction. From the beginning, the tailing piles leftover from the mine were a nuisance. Orange clouds would occasionally stir and fill the valley when the winds would pull the sulfurous dust off the tailing piles. In the 1970s installation of soil and saplings over the tailing piles retarded the orange dust. But the tailing piles were still leaking heavy metals into the stream. There was good fishing upstream but no fish living in the stream along the tailing piles.

[26]           Beginning in the 1980’s, the Forest Service and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began to look at the Holden valley for a potential clean-up. After the Love Canal crisis in New York, Congress established the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 (CERCLA), the “Superfund” and legal power for the EPA to initiate remediation at polluted sites. Unfunded during the Reagan years, the name “Superfund” nevertheless lived on, and so did the legal power of the EPA to establish liability of polluters and require clean-up. Given the expense and long legal work involved, the EPA cannot address thousands of potential “Superfund sites.” However, the mile of tailing piles and old hulking mill structure located on US Forest Service land, ringed by designated wilderness area in the stunningly beautiful Cascade Mountains was a good case to exercise the law and address the legacy of pollution in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest. The agencies also exercised the Washington State Model Toxics Control Act (MTCA). In the case of abandoned properties, liability for environmental damage pertains to the companies who subsequently acquired the assets of the original offender. After a series of sales over the years, the liability for the Holden mine lay on the desk of the world’s largest mining company, Rio Tinto, Ltd. of London, England.  Rio Tinto chose to cooperate with the EPA and US Forest Service, making Holden one of its showcase examples of remediation.

[27]           The remediation is a multi-year industrial project. Survey and preparations began on site in 2008; major took place in the summers of 2013 and 2014; and thereafter Rio Tinto would have a presence to monitor and maintain the remediation. In 2013, Rio Tinto demolished the old mill and buried it in the mine shafts. They reshaped the tailing piles and planned a retaining wall for underground to prevent the leaking of heavy metals into the stream. Over the years the stream became straight from the invasive tailing piles, and after the retaining wall installation the stream will have curves typical of its pre-mining state.  Downstream, they built a water purification plant with its own power station. As of this writing, the new power station will be hydroelectric like Holden’s power station on Copper Creek, but the alternative would be diesel engines. Around those major components of the remediation was a lot of other work, including an access road behind the tailing piles, logging, landscaping and replanting trees, and all the mechanical engineering and support to accomplish the massive project.

[28]           The total cost according to Rio Tinto will be upwards of $200 million. Included are some reparations to the Yakama Nation whose traditional homeland included the area seized by the first miners and eventually incorporated into federal holdings under the Forest Service. The Yakama Nation joined Holden Village with the EPA and US Forest Service at the table of negotiation with Rio Tinto to shape the stages of the project and the outcomes.

[29]           Holden Village rented most of its residential facilities and the dining hall to Rio Tinto for the many workers throughout the entire summers of 2013 and 2014. That posed an interruption to Holden’s top season for guests each of those years, denying access to 5,000 visitors each summer. Able to have staff and some volunteers who underwent industrial safety training, Holden took advantage of the two summers to make capital improvements of its own to the village. The winter months returned Holden to its usual procedures, including its system for staffing the dining hall, the usual menu and extensive recycling. In the summer, however, a food service took over the dining hall to serve the remediation workers. During the remediation, resident workers used cell phones and television via a satellite link provided by Rio Tinto, in contrast to Holden’s normal practice for guests. The Holden community made efforts to welcome and reach out to remediation workers, inviting them into the story of Holden like any other guests and workers, even though their lifestyle was different from Holden traditions.

[30]           The benefits of the remediation to Holden Village included removal of the safety hazard of the old mine structure; an environmental solution for the problems caused by the tailing piles; and increased public recognition at levels previously unattained in the life of the retreat center. The drawback, beyond loss of summer residential programming for two years, was that the industrial impact of the remediation was so great as to inspire critical comparisons to the initial impact of the mine. The negative carbon footprint from the industrial-style remediation and the change of the valley into a place more deeply enmeshed with the wider economy did not go unnoticed. For the EPA, US Forest Service and the remediation engineers, the long-term benefits to the environment outweighed the new impact of the remediation. They pointed to the stream’s unnatural condition under the tailing piles, and the ongoing problems of a massive rusted mine structure in the middle of a wilderness area. The restored and reforested area would be a recreational destination, and Holden Village would be host. After fifty years of ministry, Holden Village faced a new shape in its institutional vocation. Holden did not choose the remediation, but it was meeting the challenge gracefully and with trust in God.

[31]           Acid mine drainage and sustainable living

[32]           Water poured out of an abandoned mine entrance on the land of Camp Lutherlyn in 1987. Iron-laden water flowed down a hill to coat the bed of Semiconon Creek orange with acid mine drainage, ruining the habitat for trout and other species. Lutherlyn and its downstream neighbors, like many others in Pennsylvania, faced the problem of acid mine drainage in local waterways.[13] The Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA), passed by Congress in 1977, was to enforce responsibility on present-day coal operators but there were thousands of miles of contaminated waterways from unregulated 19th and 20th century mines.

[33]           The Pennsylvania Bureau of Abandoned Mine Reclamation reported in 1993 that the acid mine drainage at Semiconon Creek was harmful to wildlife but was not a human health hazard. By then, Camp Lutherlyn and neighboring conservationists were already geared to address the acid mine drainage. In 2002 Lutherlyn obtained a Growing Greener Grant from the PA Department of Environmental Protection to design and construct a passive treatment system. Other project participants were the Butler County Conservation District, Connoquenessing Watershed Alliance, Western Pennsylvania Coalition of Abandoned Mine Reclamation and private consultants.

[34]           Lutherlyn built a two-acre wetland in a ravine below the old mine entrance in 2003. The wetland captures the pollution and over time naturally processes the sulfur and metals. The construction phase brought major impact to the area around the old mine, and there was a repair shortly thereafter, but the wetland has become a part of the natural setting, a habitat for birds and many wetland-loving species. Clean waters flowed and the trout population downstream recovered. By 2008, the US Environmental Protection Agency removed Semiconon Run from the list of Impaired Waters in 2008 based on the improved water quality achieved by the treatment wetland. A decade of stream health as of this writing testified to the success of the wetland purification system.[14]

[35]           Lutherlyn included the acid mine drainage remediation in its larger program to build a healthy habitat and promote sustainable living at the camp. The wooded valley into which the acid mine drainage burst was the outdoor classroom for The Lutherlyn Environmental Education Program (LEEP). Begun in 1989, LEEP hosted thousands of school children each year for outdoor education. Those numbers were in addition to hundreds of summer campers in the Lutherlyn outdoor ministry program who also gained environmental education through LEEP. The wetland, which has long since blended into the natural landscape, and the story of the acid mine drainage clean-up, are now living lessons at one end of the outdoor classroom.

[36]           Additionally, on the other side of the camp’s land, the Terra Dei Homestead began at Lutherlyn in 1994 to teach low-impact practices for living. Natural cooling methods, solar energy and composting waste are features in the first straw bale construction house in Pennsylvania. Terra Dei has an organic garden, meadow restoration and reforestation of species of concern, including American chestnut trees. The straw bale construction of Terra Dei inspired similar construction for a Worship Center that blends with the natural landscape and is a low impact building.​

[37]           The mine which caused the acid drainage dated from 1860-1950, but strip mining in the 1980s on adjacent property likely exacerbated the drainage problem. Western Pennsylvania’s long history of coal, oil and gas exploitation made a honeycomb underground for which mapping was inadequate since drilling and mining dated from the mid-19th century. Besides surface subsidence and acid mine drainage, there are migrating and trapped gasses underground, which sometimes burn. Given a complicated legal legacy in which mineral rights are separate from surface rights, land owners and residents in Western Pennsylvania have to be vigilant about industrial activity which may have already been right under their feet, often without consent by surface dwellers.

[38]           Constant vigilance and serious stewardship decisions face the Lutherlyn Board of Directors and executive staff. In recent years the gas industry aimed drilling and pipeline construction at Lutherlyn property. Lutherlyn succeeded in negotiations to put the pipeline far enough underground not to disturb woods, field and water table, instead of cutting a 100-foot swath for an above-ground pipeline through the outdoor classroom of LEEP. Gas drilling pads on next-door properties involve Lutherlyn, a lease holder, through horizontal drilling. While the fracking occurs at some 6,000 feet underground, far below the water table as well as the aforementioned pipeline, nevertheless Lutherlyn vigilantly tests its water which remained safe for human consumption. Unfortunately in 2014 the amount of drainage from the old mine doubled, overloading the wetland system. An energy company admitted that their drilling in a nearby mine caused the increased flow. Unusual, torrential rains washed away the sulfur that had started to re-accumulate in the creek bed, but the environmental stewards at Lutherlyn remained watchful.

[39]           In a quiet dell at Lutherlyn, an old farm field with overhanging trees is ready to serve another, quieter purpose that will also express a green vision for conservation, while acknowledging finitude of all human endeavors. A proposed green cemetery would enable internment with least wasteful and least invasive procedures. Burials may be in a shroud or pine box without embalming, or the space may be used to spread ashes from cremation. In lieu of headstones, a geographic positioning system coordinates will suffice. The vision for a green cemetery brings together classical Christian witness amid death with hope for environmental restoration. It will give individuals and churches an opportunity to participate in care and renewal of the land and environment even in their own deaths.

[40]           Voices of leadership at Lutherlyn speak of a robust vision for multigenerational care of the land, waters and atmosphere. They link the acid mine drainage wetland on one end of camp to the Terra Dei Homestead on the other end. The acid mine drainage project illustrates the consequences of peoples’ exploitation of the land, they note, while Terra Dei offers alternatives for living in care and cooperation with God’s creation. Below the surface and around the perimeter stand invasive threats from a wider economy bent on high levels of energy consumption, some of which Lutherlyn tries to manage by direct involvement. And in a longer frame of reference, Lutherlyn hopes for a memorial area for loved ones to re-integrate into earth, building on hope in a gospel of love undeterred by the reckless ruin humans wreak on the earth. Lutherlyn affirms connection between an eternal message of good news and the hopes evoked by a restored waterway, tended woodlands, and ingenious efforts to live more sustainably.

[41]           Assessing the restorations and possibilities ahead

[42]           Studies by Sarah McFarland Taylor and Gretel Van Wieren, cited above, provided characteristics of greening that may arise in Christian engagement with ecological restoration. Borrowing and summarizing from them, the four cases profiled above exhibit potential for next steps in ecological restoration and greening of beliefs and practices.

[43]           Taylor identified cultivation of diversity with biodiversity and space for people of different perspectives to work together; likewise, Van Wieren profiled ecological communal values that grow by engagement in ecological restoration. Holden Village welcomed a large population of workers into their ministry site, in place of summer visitors, and went to the negotiating table with major companies and government agencies. Lutherlyn joined with state and local conservation agencies to install the wetland, then faced negotiations with drilling companies. Bear Creek worked with the North Branch Land Trust and state officials. LOMC had local relationships with conservationists at the time of its founding, and later a major restoration project for a neighbor. The four Lutheran cases each had a large dimension of public action that made the institutions major players for building civil community in their region. Their actions as well as their words were casting a public theology in relationship to the environment and civil society. Explicit development of that public theology, and sharing it with others, would be a next step valuable to others in the ecological restoration and greening of religion and society.[15]

[44]           Both Taylor and Van Wieren identified ecological restoration to be an opportunity for “reinhabitation” in the local bioregion, and living sustainably, defined as human use at a rate not to exceed the natural regenerative capacity of a particular bioregion. Van Wieren indicated that earth’s healing capacities, experienced in ecological restoration, were a gift evocative of forgiveness. Lutherlyn had a long-term commitment to sustainability expressed through the positive model of the Terra Dei Homestead as well as the remedial action to address acid mine drainage. Holden Village meticulously composts and recycles, and eats low on the food chain. All four of the ministries could engage in further sustainability strategies and direct care of the local places they inhabit.

[45]           To conserve heirlooms of the natural world is a major purpose of ecological restoration noted by Taylor. LOMC cherishes the dark night sky over its prairie, providing a place for astronomy study and teaching. Holden Village is the gateway to a designated wilderness area within the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest. Bear Creek’s forest links state forest and game lands with other easements to provide a greenway of biotic sanctuary for a variety of species in an area pressed by industry and urban expansion. For Van Wieren the conservation aspects of ecological restoration are a practical way to respect wild “others” and to work for their opportunity to flourish despite human damage to the habitat. The four Lutheran ministries could provide leadership not only by their examples but by interpreting their stories to the rest of the Lutheran church and the world beyond. Outdoor ministry was born in the conservation era. Although most Lutherans originally came into outdoor ministry from other motivations, they can accept responsibility for conserving wild places beginning with the stretches of “property” in their outdoor ministry sites.

[46]           Cosmic liturgy, Taylor noted, brings ritual reverence and renewal toward nature within a larger, biblically-informed vision of God’s grace in and through nature. Taylor described in detail connections that devoted Roman Catholic women were making between their traditional worship and the new efforts for ecological restoration. Van Wieren named the sacred dimensions of restoration work, identified and articulated in liturgical or devotional practices, to be “ecological symbolic action.” All four of the sites in this study made connections between worship and perceptions of the sacred value of the outdoor environments in which their ministry organizations resided. Worship and devotions are daily practices at Bear Creek, LOMC and Lutherlyn during the summer programs, and year-round at Holden Village, which is widely known for production of new liturgies and music. Holden offered the respite of contemplative time and inclusive, welcoming community associated with their worship life to the mine remediation workers. At LOMC, an ELCA congregation worships on site, often outdoors, in addition to worship in the summer camp program. Evening devotions with stargazing over the prairie unlock the wonder of outdoor sanctuary, like the cosmic liturgy noted by Taylor and Van Wieren. Lament, mourning & prayer for wounded creation could increase in each site, tapping a level of liturgy that confronts the ironies and pain of humans trying to assist the healing of earth, and to experience healing, in the midst of damage they caused.

[47]           The liturgical observances therefore go hand-in-hand with revised religious narratives, or “re-storying” to use a term offered by Van Wieren. Taylor found that the “green sisters” were trying to tell in deed and word a “new cosmology” recommended by eco-theologian Thomas Berry, and the cosmic theology of Teilhard de Chardin. At LOMC, a tweaked version of the traditional Christian story begins easily with quotation of the camp’s founder, Jack Swanson, who wrote that “the Spirit is the ecological name for God,” and that forgiveness is “adaptation” in an evolutionary sense. While nascent and not nearly as developed as Berry or Teilhard, Swanson’s revisions to “the story” were vivid and memorable for everyday people. Likewise, Holden has been a harbinger to reforms that eventually emerged in the wider church and society. Inclusive language for God, resistance to war, the preferential option for the poor and advocacy of LGBTQ rights have, over the years, found a place for articulation and consideration at Holden Village when elsewhere in the churches they were more difficult to speak. Now with major mine remediation and stream restoration, Holden is working on telling that experience in a way that shows their continued ownership of a traditional Christian narrative but with openness to new work of the Spirit of God among themselves, neighbors and world. Each of the four ministries could do more telling and interpreting of the stories of the restorations that have started among them, drawing those restorations closer to the central message they bear. At the least, the re-storying would emphasize that the environment is not ancillary to church, and that the outdoors are not outside church.

[48]           Beliefs to corroborate ecological restoration

[49]           Van Wieren and Taylor identified “re-storying” and “new narratives” corresponding to the new practices they observed with ecological restoration. Narratives in the four sites at the time of this study were under development and connections to theological themes in the Lutheran tradition were only just beginning. However, one way Lutherans may interpret new practices in ecological restoration would be with imagery of “scenes of grace” related to the grace of God that Lutherans find in “means of grace.” To conclude the study of four Lutheran sites involved in ecological restoration, a brief explanation of “scenes and means of grace” will illustrate some refreshment in expression of Lutheran beliefs that involvement in ecological restoration evokes.

[50]           In traditional Lutheran teaching, Jesus Christ is God-with-us for grace to the world. God’s grace was resiliently present when Jesus died on a cross, Lutherans affirm. Grace is also present in the God’s creativity that sustains the world. It is traditional Lutheran teaching rooted in catholic Christianity that the presence and promise of Christ come in particular means of grace: baptism, communion and the proclaimed word. Christ brings grace to the world, communities of believers, and individuals by the means of grace which bear specific promises to do so. Yet everywhere else the same Christ lives in bodily resurrection according to traditional Lutheran beliefs. Therefore, Martin Luther and many Lutherans after him could affirm the presence of Christ in “masks of God” in the world around. While ambiguous and at times furtive, masks of God could bear witness to the same grace centrally affirmed and fully promised in baptism, communion and the proclaimed word.

[51]           Luther’s “masks of God” imagery allowed for change and surprises. In a different instance, Luther identified grace under an “opposite sign” such as a cross. In still other phrases, he wrote that believers could see Christ in neighbors and be “little Christs” to their neighbors. “Scenes of grace” imagery likewise flirts with possibilities for God’s changing, surprising and sometimes challenging involvement in and with the world without disturbing or denying the centrality and normativity of the means of grace. Yet “scenes of grace” like “masks of God” and similar imagery can remind Lutherans and others that the means of grace are not self-contained enclosures but are dynamically relational toward people and all creation, just as Jesus Christ was and is relentlessly relational and loving to God’s world.

[52]           To posit or trace “scenes of grace” would be one way to affirm and corroborate restoration efforts from a Lutheran perspective. It would give Lutherans a way to associate some core teachings about the presence of Christ with specific work to heal and preserve the natural world. Lutherans may identify new practices in ecological restoration to be expressions of grace. However, Lutheran criticism of works should raise sights beyond human works—valuable though they may be—to broader “scenes of grace” shaped by God in nature. Legitimate voices and claims of communities beyond humans inform “scenes of grace,” and remind that natural elements in “means of grace” do not exist apart from ecosystems. “Scenes and means of grace” could embolden Lutherans to continue to join ecological restoration with others who approach the efforts from different paradigms of meaning.​

[53]           Given “unprecedented” environmental problems, “scenes and means of grace” could help Lutheran Christians to stay engaged with ecological restoration and the greening of religion and society even when that work becomes long, difficult and weighted with ambiguities.[16]  In facing environmental problems, people may attempt avoidance, stand apart in judgment, or pitch in with their neighbors and society to cherish and care for the world. The four Lutheran institutions profiled above chose the latter, notwithstanding problems and a host of unknowns. The scenes that emerge around their responses, like those profiled by Taylor and Van Wieren, may be valuable to others who would like to aid the healing of creation while remaining open to the surprising work of God.

Gilson (Gil) A. C. Waldkoenig is the BB Maurer Professor of Church in Society at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg, PA.


[1] Sarah McFarland Taylor, Green Sisters: A Spiritual Ecology (Harvard, 2007).


[2] Gretel Van Wieren, Restored to Earth: Christianity, Environmental Ethics and Ecological Restoration (Georgetown, 2013). See also Mallory McDuff Sacred Acts: How Churches Are Working to Protect Earth's Climate (New Society, 2012).


[3] Willis Jenkins, Ecologies of Grace: Environmental Ethics and Christian Theology (Oxford, 2008) gives an overview of greening of Christian thought, and a summary of criticism. In terms offered by James Gustafson, greening is a move away from “despotism” over nature toward “participation” within nature. See Gustafson, A Sense of the Divine: the Natural Environment from a Theocentric Perspective (Pilgrim, 1996). The present essay joins Taylor and Van Wieren to give priority to practices and how practices may re-shape beliefs.


[4] The method of study began with site visits to interview key informants regarding the local environmental history and restoration project, the impacts of the project on the ministry activity, and initial perspectives on potential meaning of the restoration. Characteristics of religious ecological restoration identified by Taylor and Van Wieren showed that the organizations studied were in early and unfinished stages of engagement with ecological restoration, but additional possibilities for greening came into focus. I then applied a green permutation of some traditional beliefs I previously sketched in “Scenes and Means of Grace,” Dialog: A Journal of Theology (Winter 2011).


[5] Mike Helffrich, “Environmental Reconnaissance” (1972), unpublished manuscript, LOMC Office. Swanson and LOMC were involved in the Prairie Preservation Society of Ogle County, Inc. in the 1970’s according to manuscripts at LOMC office.


[6] Memo dated February 27, 1981, sent to “Retreat Groups” from Pastor Jack Swanson, in files at LOMC office.


[7] John E. Swanson, “A Trail of Two Conversions: A Theological Position Paper,” unpublished manuscript, located at LOMC office.


[8] Peter Bakken, The Ecology of Grace: Ultimacy and Environmental Ethics in Aldo Leopold and Joseph Sittler PhD dissertation, University of Chicago, 1991. See also, Church on Earth: Grounding Your Ministry in a Sense of Place by Bakken and Jeff Wild (Fortress, 2009).


[9] “Preliminary Baseline of Existing Conditions: Bear Creek Camp,” unpublished manuscript by the North Branch Land Trust” (April, 2009).


[10] Blake C. Marles, Esq., “A Real Estate History of Bear Creek Camp” (March 3, 2010); Cliff Eshbach, “A Brief History of the Bear Creek Camp Area” (n.d.); Roy E. Guilford, “A History of the Camping Program of the Eastern Pennsylvania Lutheran Camp Corp. Lutheran Outdoor Ministries in Eastern Pa. 1970-1996;” unpublished manuscripts at the Bear Creek Camp office.


[11] The easement brought the camp $1.3 million, a million of which became an endowment to sustain camp budgets over ensuing years. “Funding for the project came from a Community Partnerships Program Grant award to NBLT from the Pennsylvania department of Conservation and Natural Resources. Funding for these grants comes from Keystone Recreation, Park and Conservation Fund (Key 93), the Environmental Stewardship Fund, the Growing Greener Bond Fund and federal funding sources.” Quoted from “Bear Creek Camp” at North Branch Land Trust web site: retrieved March 25, 2014.


[12] United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service web page for Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest retrieved July 1, 2014.


[13] One estimate says 5,000 miles of streams and rivers in Pennsylvania suffer acid mine drainage contamination. Earth Conservancy, retrieved April 10, 2014.


[14] EPA news item, “Abandoned Mine Reclamation Passive Treatment System Removes Pollutants” on EPA web site,, retrieved 7/3/14.


[15] Celia Deane-Drummond and Heinrich Bedford-Strohm, Religion and Ecology in the Public Sphere (T&T Clark, Continuum, 2011).


[16] Willis Jenkins in “Christian Ethics and Unprecedented Problems,” chapter two in The Future of Ethics: Sustainability, Social Justice, and Religious Creativity (Georgetown, 2013), confronted relative “incompetence” in ecological problems. Jenkins affirmed Christian engagement with ecological restoration but in a modestly defined catalytic role. Meanwhile, Larry Rasmussen in Earth-Honoring Faith: Religious Ethics in a New Key (Oxford, 2013), p. 155, affirmed “restoration justice” but urged religious people to work for broader flourishing of creation, including outcomes not yet discovered. Meanwhile, a Lutheran perspective on sin would prompt analysis of “scenes of disgrace” alongside and intertwined with perceived “scenes of grace.” Nevertheless, the call to serve neighbors, including creation according to James A. Nash in Loving Nature: Ecological Integrity and Christian Responsibility (Abingdon, 1991), resounds across and through the ambiguities, difficulties and limitations.

© February 2015

Journal of Lutheran Ethics

Volume 15, Issue 2