by Olivia Smucker
Singing the closing hymn from atop a tree stump isn’t how most congregations would end their service, but New Creation Fellowship Church (NCFC) isn’t any ordinary congregation.
Located in Newton, Kansas, the church devotes itself to inclusion and connection within the community and the broader world. It is a place where “people can just come and be.” Part of this connection involves the joining of environmental issues with spiritual disciplines. When participants discovered that a cherished mulberry tree on the church’s property was dying and needed to come down, they planned ways to continue its life in the church after death.
The solution was two-fold. First, NCFC’s preschool teacher, Kristin Neufeld Epp, suggested that the felled tree be divided into seven or eight logs for the kids to climb on and explore. Once this had been completed, the second piece came into play. The congregation ended a worship service amongst the logs and blessed what the tree had given and would be giving in its new form.
The New Creation Preschool (NCP) serves as a non-profit outreach of the church and regularly incorporates the church and its members in their programming. “Grandparent volunteers” from NCFC, as well as volunteers from Bethel College and area high schools, assist in the classrooms and playtime.
Being outside is important to the programming as well; Neufeld Epp takes her classes out to play and explore at all times of year, even winter because it’s the “best time to see your breath.” Thus the new natural playground pieces were a welcome addition to the two indoor slides, balance boards and running track that are already enjoyed by NCP’s students.
“We knew that the decision carried more weight than just ‘do we need to cut it down,’” said Pastor Derrick Ramer, who conducted the ‘funeral’ for the tree. “I believe we need a more holistic understanding of what it means to follow Jesus and that [involves] where we find ourselves in the ecosystem.”
With that in mind, Ramer and his congregation gathered by their parking lot on June 2 to formally celebrate the change that their tree had undergone. Standing on the seat carved into the tree’s six-foot stump, Ramer led the congregation in a blessing on what the tree had provided to its community: food and shelter for birds, shade for people, and so on. After a moment, they moved on to a blessing for the tree’s remnants, which would provide a place to sit or play. As a closing, the hymn “This Is The Day” was adapted into a more flora friendly version entitled “This Is The Tree,” and the tree was christened for its new life within the church.
Although certainly a unique event, this tree funeral fits in well with NCFC’s June worship series meant to focus on four different aspects of creation care. The previous Sunday dealt with the biblical view of nature and what is written about its care. The next service tackled humanity’s place in creation and what our role as stewards of God’s creation looks like now. The following Sunday focused on Jesus in creation. This series concluded with a service on lament and pursuing peace within an environmental context.
“Because those most greatly impacted [by climate change] are often the smallest contributors, this…is a peace and justice issue” said Ramer. “Creation care is part of the here and now kingdom of God.”