by Justin Cox
Hauling My Chair up the Mountain:
The Common Hope Retreat at Wild Acres Retreat Center
While traversing the twisting roads of Little Switzerland, NC I thought back to a conversation I had with a third year Wake Forest School of Divinity Student named Brian. Brian was on his way out of the program, and I was on my way in. We were discussing class schedules, he on his last semester and I on my second. I asked his opinion about some class taught by Fred Bahnson. Brian quickly told me to take anything Fred taught. I could tell by the excitement in his voice that whatever Professor Bahnson “was putting down” Brian was certainly “picking it up.” The conversation had taken place last year, and yet it was fresh on my mind following me up the mountain as I and two other classmates arrived fashionably late to the Wild Acres Retreat Center.
My purpose there was marked by both curiosity and to fulfill a class requirement. This fall I had decided to take Brain’s advice, although a year later than expected, and had signed up for Fred Bahnson’s course Field, Table, Communion: The Work of the People. The past several weeks had left me reeling as we read and discussed works from Wes Jackson, Norman Wirzba, and Ellen Davis. I consider myself an advocate for reconciliation through my own Christocentric understanding of faith; reconciliation with God and from person to person, but reconciliation with creation? My theology hadn’t even begun to scratch the surface. As the weekend unfolded I became painfully aware of the gaping hole this had left in me and how this trip, and course in general, would force me to look through a new lens which I had up to this point neglected in my ministry.
Because of our late arrival, I missed the opening session of the retreat. However, many of my classmates and others attending the conference were still up mingling on porches and conversing in rocking chairs. Bonding outside the classroom would have to wait as I headed to the only area with guest accessible WIFI on the grounds, the rustically decorated and spacious lobby. As I completed and submitted an assignment for another class, I listened to an impromptu jam session by another group who were visiting Wild Acres that week. Guitars and mandolins were strummed from around the base of the large fireplace, their sounds lifting up and out of the chimney to slowly roll down the mountain into the darkness below. I listened long after I finished my assignment. Then, like the mountain melodies, I made my way out into the darkness, and back to my room to await the sunrise and the start of the first full day of the retreat.
After searching all over for coffee at 7am, I found it just in time to grab a cup before breakfast started. Community, I would find, would be present at every meal. While breakfast was served in more of a buffet type fashion, lunch and dinner took on a more “family style” setting. Populous round tables required asking those just a few seats away to “pass the potatoes” or request another helping of the comforting meatloaf. Food was a big proponent of why many of us were there, but community and interaction was just as much a part of the desired story we all wished to take part in. Over these meals, I met people from all over the nation. We shared food and we shared stories of what brought us to this space at this time. I would share many exchanges over the course of three days, but the one which resonates most with me came from Nikki. Nikki was/is from Flagstaff, AZ and is from the Indigenous people of the land we know as the United States. Her roots with her people and the land run deep. She doled out her story to me during one meal, explaining her Seventh Generation understanding; to take care of the earth to benefit those who will inhabit the world seven generations from now. In short, the concept means to think of your children’s, children’s, children’s, etc…Her view addresses the point of what we, as humans, do now to the land and environment we inhabit will have lasting effects our descendants will have to deal with long after we’re gone. She told me of her river guiding venture which helped young people from her tribe and others find employment and establish a connection to the larger world. Her partner in this undertaking was from another tribe and she explained the difference in understanding they had from one tribe to another in how they dealt with spiritual matters, creation accounts, and eschatology. I, in turn, told her how different Baptists could be, and we both laughed as a communal bridge was being built between us.
For two mornings I was able to worship with a mountaintop view. You realize how fragile and inadequate words can be at times when describing nature. This was one of those moments. Wild Acres boasts a small outdoor amphitheater with stone steps that soak in the sun during the day and provide warmed seats during the cool nights. Sections of grass separate the stone column sets, which prompted me during worship to slide my Vans sneakers off and plant my feet in the dew covered grass. Worship was filled with liturgy from different faith traditions in an eclectic fashion, forming a mosaic of appreciation to the Creator. We were invited to stand, move around, or just sit. One morning music welcomed us to worship, being supplied by fellow and former Wake Divinity students Sarah and Abbey. “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” was played on fiddle, dulcimer, and guitar. I must admit, I’ve never heard it better. This amphitheater would also be the scene of a beautiful bonfire on one particular night. I observed people sitting around in groups, separate but altogether, which I still saw as a form of worship in itself. God’s children talking about the Spirit while sipping spirits. Quite the powerful moment.
And then there were the people who gave insight to what they were doing in their specific context as part of the food, faith, ecology movement. Rev. Heber Brown, III who dreamed into existence the Black Church Food Security Network. Heber has been casting the truthful vision to the African –American community that “church land is stable land” and it should be used to feed its people. Steve Blackmer, Executive Director of Kairos Earth and Church of the Woods, who explained to those with ears to hear that he wasn’t sure what was happening with this movement, but he felt that it was the right “time” for something big. Rev. Sam Chamelin spoke about his ministry in Maryland, the Keep & Till which started after he heard someone say of the rural church being “dead, uninteresting, and diseased.” Sam set about to dispel that statement through the lens of agrarian discipleship, pushing back against the model of church where people are pumped out as products. These talks would help me see God’s creation as the “great Table”, with everyone being invited to bring their own chair and join the discussion.
During our last afternoon session, we were asked to participate in a “visioning exercise.” The prompt involved what kind of community we wanted to help cultivate as part of this movement. I’ll be honest I struggle with this sort of practice. Yet, I found myself reflecting and hashing out on paper a vision which I had not brought up the mountain with me. I saw myself eating tomato sandwiches with a neighbor. Now here’s the kicker, I’m not a big fan of tomato sandwiches. Why in the world would I have a vision of eating one? As I began unpacking my thoughts I began to realize I wasn’t eating the sandwich because I liked the tomato, but because I loved the person who grew it…my neighbor. Once I made the connection I ran with it.
I wanted to be part of a community that grew different things in backyard gardens which were shared on back porches.
I wanted to be part of a community where I had a coffee cup in my neighbor’s house and they had one in mine.
I wanted our fenced in backyards to have gates where our children could run in and out of without worry.
I wanted to be part of a community where locks on doors didn’t exist.
And, as a faith leader, I wanted to be part of a community that practiced church outside on decks and in yards. Beside old wells which hadn’t been used in years. I wanted church in between Black Eyed Susans and Hostas with no steeple in sight.
That’s what I vision. That’s what I long for…
BIO: Justin Cox serves as the Minister to Students at First Baptist Church Statesville, NC. He is a CBF Leadership Scholar pursuing his M.Div. at Wake Forest School of Divinity in Winston-Salem, NC, where he and his wife, Lauren, live. When he’s not writing papers for school, his ramblings can be read at www.blacksheepbaptist.com.