Reading The Bible With The Land In Portland

Grounding and cultivating wild Christian disciples and fearless spiritual leaders: that’s the mission of the Wilderness Way Community of Portland, OR, a radical ministry under the umbrella of the Oregon Synod-ELCA. In early August, members of the Wilderness Way spent some intentional stewardship time together, discerning the fate of a 6-acre property that is owned, but currently not being used, by ELCA. The community then collaboratively penned a letter to the Oregon Synod, detailing their process & conclusions:

We each walked around the property, praying and listening. We tasted the luscious blackberries, strolled through the rows of grapes, followed the path to the cross and the fire pit, and then gathered under the apple trees with limbs already heavy with green apples. We noticed the hospitality of the property and its many spaces for “outdoor classrooms.” But perhaps the clearest message we heard the land saying that afternoon was, “I want to bear fruit.”

Their discernment, ultimately, led them to hover around Scripture, prayerfully read together, with a critical eye on the context of the land, both spatial (the fertile Willamette Valley, for thousands of years home to the Kalapuya tribe, as well as many plant and animal species) & historic (climate catastrophe). Not surprisingly, Jubilee shimmered:

As Jubilee is one of our central values at Wilderness Way, we cannot help but look at the land through this theological lens. Ancient Israel understood that wealth tends to accumulate, that debts are crippling, and that land is the base of production. Thus, the institution of Jubilee was important to reset the social scale and ensure that both land and people could continue to be fruitful in a sustainable way.

We recognize that Jubilee has as much to do with our historical moment today as it did in Ancient Israel, in a situation where the wealthy were adding “house to house and field to field” (Is. 5:8). We worry that unless we change our urbanite habits from toxic consumption to regenerative local production, we, like the recipients of Isaiah’s ire, might find the earth withered and our city in ruins (Is. 24: 4-12).

Further, if Jubilee is about balancing the scales of historical indebtedness (or injustices) that lead to poverty, Jubilee must also have something to say about how we relate to those currently suffering in poverty – the “hidden poor” of the suburbs – including and in addition to the descendants of the people who inhabited this land long before us…

Wilderness Way harnessed a prophetic imagination and creatively proposed some powerfully redemptive ways to utilize the land owned by the Lutheran Synod:

What if we followed the lead of the generative capacity of the land seen already in the loaded apple trees, bountiful blackberries, and fecund currants and grapes, and tended the land to be even more fertile?

What if the contours of the landscape were planted with perennially-producing trees in an Edenic forest garden, sequestering carbon?

What if community garden spaces increased the local resilience of communities in the face of rising food prices?

What if a CSA leased part of the land, increasing local food production and connecting with the community, as well as generating income for ministry and practicing Jubilee by giving back to the Kalapuyan people?

What if children, teens and young adults could go there to learn about permaculture and be theologically, ecologically and vocationally mentored on this land?

Finally, what if this fruitful land became the home of a Watershed Discipleship Center? What if such a center had multiple layers of connection to the surrounding community as well as the church, addressing this ecological watershed moment in history by recognizing the need to equip churches to be good disciples within their watershed?

This Watershed Discipleship Center could model sustainable practices such as using regenerative energy (wind, solar), water wise practices (rainwater harvesting, grey water use, and slowing, sinking, and spreading water on the landscape instead of rushing it off the landscape into the river where it adds pollution and contributes to flood events), and local food production. This Center could be used by Lutherans and other churches as a retreat center, an educational center, a vocational center, a “seminary in the soil.”

Ultimately, the Wilderness Way concluded:

How could six acres of undeveloped land in the fertile Willamette Valley bear actual fruit as well as theological, vocational, spiritual and financial fruit, not just once (as in selling the land) but for generations to come?

On behalf of radical disciples all over North America, we extend prayers for the Wilderness Way Community in their journey of critical & compassionate engagement with the Land in Portland. May this creative experiment in watershed discipleship bear fruit for generations to come.

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