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The little Presbyterian church in the big woods


Healing and hope are found amid the trees and on the trails

February 4, 2023

Churches in rural areas like First Presbyterian Church of Saranac Lake, New York, can find new life in connecting its mission to God’s Creation. (Photo courtesy of Joann White)

Ten pairs of trail shoes crunch up the carriage road. A dry August has browned trailside grass and prompted some early color amid the maples. Grasshoppers shoot off in all directions. A few monarch butterflies drift by in pursuit of milkweed. We are on our way to Elder’s Grove, an 8-acre stand of old-growth white pines that date to 1675.

The unmarked trail is a bit of a local secret, but sharp eyes find the turn-off midway up a hill. Our descent down a shallow valley is like a trip back in time. Fallen leaves and downed branches litter the forest floor. The sharp scents of pine and decay fill each breath. The trees get big — really big — towering more than 100 feet above us. Youngsters climb fallen giants and scamper down long trunks. Adults with outstretched arms form a circle, standing fingertip to fingertip to measure the circumference of a standing pine.

Folks from the First Presbyterian Church of Saranac Lake in New York are doing what they love best: delighting in God’s good Creation.

Founded in 1890 as a mission outreach of the Champlain Presbytery, the Saranac Lake church is nestled in the heart of New York state’s Adirondack Park, a 6.1-million-acre forest preserve established in 1892 for “the free use of all the people for their health and pleasure.”

Author and pastor Joann White takes her congregation out in nature in all weather. (Photo courtesy of First Presbyterian Church)

The park is home to 10,000 lakes, 30,000 miles of rivers and streams, 46 of New York’s highest mountains, and an estimated 200,000 acres of old-growth forest.

When I was called to serve the church in 2005, older members still wistfully reminisced about the packed pews and full coffers of what they called the “TB Days.” Yet, as I looked around the sanctuary on Sunday mornings, I saw plenty to celebrate. The village had become a haven for young retirees in search of scenic vistas and outdoor adventures. Summer visitors flooded into town to paddle Adirondack waters and climb the peaks. Local families with deep roots in the community had persevered and found new pursuits. With the state’s Adirondack Park Agency, Department of Environmental Conservation and a community college in the area, several civil servants and their families now called the village home. Perhaps there was a new mission field, ready to be discovered. We needed to do some holy listening.

It started with a congregation-wide survey led by our church health team. We wanted to know where and how members and friends felt closest to God. Some results were expected.

Most felt close to God in worship. Many found God in music, prayer and Scripture. However, a whopping 98% of those surveyed felt closest to God far beyond the walls of the church: in nature.

Our sense of the Creator at work in Creation spurred an emerging sense of mission, too. In 2008, we joined the PC(USA)’s Earth Care Congregations initiative, which invites churches to practice care for Creation in worship, educational ministries, facilities management and outreach.

First Presbyterian Church sees its location as an opportunity for unique ways to worship, like its “Sermons on the Trail” series. (Photo courtesy of Joann White)

We became community gardeners, growing vegetables for the Saranac Lake Interfaith Food Pantry. We got greener by making improvements to the church building. We blessed seeds, celebrated harvests and rejoiced in a Care for Creation Sunday. We adopted a stretch of local roadway and collected trash. We gathered local musicians for an annual Earth Care Coffee House for the community, an evening that ends with a hearty rendition of “This Land Is Your Land,” banjos ringing and harmonies swelling to fill the church hall.

It may not be a hymn, but a sense of the holy swirls amid the crowd, a sacred calling and kinship born of this particular place that we are blessed to call home.

Our little church in the big woods has found a new niche.

Church member Susan Storch marvels, “I am astonished that I belong to a church that does these activities at all and one that considers care for Creation as part of its mission and reminds us of it every Sunday.”

Getting outdoors has brought vitality to a congregation that once thought our best days were in the past. We’ve grown closer to God and one another.

The Rev. Joann White, pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Saranac Lake in New York

Today’s Focus: First Presbyterian Church of Saranac Lake

Let us join in prayer for:

PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
Tina Rhudy, Associate Director, Building Services, Administrative Services Group (A Corp)
Bob and Kristi Rice, Mission Co-workers serving in South Sudan, Presbyterian Mission Agency

Let us pray

O God, so many things stop us from following you. Thank you for those who carry us, nudge us, shake us, and point us in the right direction. Thank you for your son, Jesus, who reminds us over and over again that we can be forgiven, that we can make our way to you. Amen.

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