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The little Presbyterian church in the big woods

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

by Joann White | Presbyterians Today

Churches in rural areas like First Presbyterian Church of Saranac Lake, New York, can find new life in connecting their 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.”

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.

Once a boomtown

Back in 1890, Saranac Lake was a boomtown. Visitors from around the world came to the mountains in search of a cold-air cure for the white plague of tuberculosis. Trains arrived from New York City, Utica and Montreal, filled with passengers. Some hoped for a medical miracle. Others looked for work or planned to launch small businesses. The Trudeau Sanatorium and the New York State Sanatorium at Ray Brook filled and overflowed to “cure cottages,” private, family-run sanatoria that sprang up along village streets. A regimen of rest, healthy food and clean cold air coaxed many to health.

Those were golden years for the church. The session was filled with doctors, membership swelled to more than 300 and the small sanctuary overflowed with worshipers on Sunday mornings. Many members worked in the cure industry.

Scottish immigrant and TB widow Jane Conklin, a founding member, built a house and launched a cure cottage. Dr. Hugh Kinghorn came for treatment of pulmonary tuberculosis and stayed on as a beloved local physician and church elder. Young Helen Larsen worked after school as a “tray girl,” delivering dinners to patients on bedrest, a skill that came in handy later in life as a deacon.

In ministering to TB patients and the local residents who tended their needs, the mission church had found a perfect niche for serving God and neighbor.

But by the 1950s, the widespread use of antibiotics rendered the cold-air cure obsolete. The Trudeau Sanatorium closed on Dec. 1, 1954. Local cure cottages, for lack of patients, were divided into apartment houses. Unemployment soared. People left. The village’s greatest export became its youth as local children aged up and moved out in pursuit of school and work. The Presbyterian church suffered, too.

A concerned Christian education committee voiced grave concerns about plummeting Sunday school enrollment. By 1960, the Rev. Jim Eerdman lamented that he had found “relatively few members and friends vitally concerned with the work and witness of the church both here in the community and around the world.” The mission field had irrevocably changed. With the demise of the cure industry, both village and church struggled to claim their identity and move ahead.

Holy listening

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.

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

Church member Mary Duk describes the holy connection she senses in hiking or paddling like this: “The manmade world recedes. God’s Creation, from the majestic mountains and trees, the far-reaching sky and wild scents of the forest to the tiniest red-capped fungi, embraces me. I am reminded that I am part of this wondrous Creation.”

As the church health team pondered our survey outcomes, we began to wonder if renewed vitality could be found in programs that got us out of doors and into the woods and waters.

Into the woods

We started with walks after church, carpooling to local trailheads where folks of all ages could explore together. Dubbed “Sermons on the Trail,” our walks feature reflection on Scripture. A grab bag of Bible verses makes the rounds at the trailhead, each walker choosing a few verses to share along the way in a loosely structured take on lectio divina, the spiritual practice of “divine reading.”

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)

Some verses provoke little commentary while others unleash big questions, deep conversation and even serious debate while we walk. Can leopards change their spots (Jeremiah 13:23)? What does it really mean to turn the other cheek (Matthew 5:38-40)?

Along the trail, we revel in the beauty of God’s good Creation: water tumbling over Shingle Mill Falls, carnivorous pitcher plants blooming on the bog, high peaks capped with early snow. Along the trail, we get to know one another in deeper ways — friendships form, prayer concerns are shared and there is plenty of laughter.

Those trail walks inspired other activities. We paddled local lakes and waterways. We camped out. We broke out the snowshoes and cross-country skis. We even worshiped. An annual church picnic at Buck Pond Campground is a congregational favorite as hardcore campers and day-trippers come together for a cookout and campfire vespers with communion. Elder Anita Estling finds special delight in “the bringing together of generations, all relaxed and soaking in God’s great outdoors. And the combined spiritual and social aspects of these outings always make them special and memorable.” As the fire burns low, we toast marshmallows, reflect on the day’s adventures and watch the stars come out.

A vital mission emerges

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.

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.

The church holds an annual Earth Care Coffee House for the community, which ends with a hearty rendition of “This Land Is Your Land.” (Photo courtesy of Joann White)

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.

It has also granted a fresh perspective on Jesus, who retreated to the wilderness to pray, wandered local trails and roadways with his followers and sailed across the Sea of Galilee. Jesus looked to the birds of the air and flowers of the field to disclose holy truths.

Given our Adirondack setting, he might have pondered the bald eagle circling Lake Colby or the lady slippers dancing along the shores of Kushaqua. Perhaps we are reading Scripture through a wilderness lens, but it seems safe to say that Jesus, like 98% of the congregants in Saranac Lake, felt closest to God far beyond the walls of the church — and that’s all right with us.

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

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