Empire Cracking: An Interview with Wilderness Way

wildernessThis interview was taken by Lydia Wylie-Kellermann as part of a writing project for Geez Magazine entitled “She is Breathing: Listening for Another World and an End to Empire.” It was published in the Winter Issue.

Lydia Wylie-Kellermann: Biefly, what is Wilderness Way’s story? How did it come to be? What was it in response to? What was it a calling away from and a calling to something different?

Solveig Nilsen-Goodin: Wilderness Way began with a friend of mine coming over one day in 2006 saying he was feeling led to start an alternative church at the margins of Christianity, and something inside of me immediately responded, YES!  We spent the next six months listening for what “at the margins of Christianity” meant to us, and gathering others to join us, and soon the name, Wilderness Way Community, emerged.  The name signifies the particular place we are planting ourselves.  Biblically, the wilderness is the place outside the walls of empire, the place where prophets are called and fed, the place where manna is given and enoughness is taught, the place where John the Baptist initiated those who were defectors from and dehumanized by empire; the place where Jesus was tested and prepared for his prophetic, spiritual leadership.  Wilderness also signifies the wild spaces that emerge and exist without human control.  Within the context of Western civilization (particularly urban contexts) most of us are profoundly cut off from the “natural” world – a disconnection that is having devastating consequences for the planet, the poor, and our very souls.  The values we seek to bring forward are, in fact, values found deep in the wilderness of both scripture and nature: the values of Sabbath, jubilee and shalom. When manifested, these values look a lot like what Jesus called the Kingdom of God, and that’s the new (old) world that is emerging.

(Oh, and some institutional details that might be helpful are that I have been an ordained pastor in the Lutheran Church, ELCA since 1996.  I started WW while I was “on leave from call” while having children.  So from 2006 – 2013, the first seven years, we were forming with no institutional affiliation.  Then in 2013 Wilderness Way became a “synodically authorized worshipping community” in the Oregon Synod of the ELCA, and the synod council called me 1/4 time to be their pastor/mission developer.)

LWK: What is the work that Wilderness Way is doing that is so different from what our culture asks of us?

SNG: The only way empires, and all the oppressive systems within them, can function is by taming or domesticating (or in the extreme, enslaving) people in order to serve the interests of empire/system of domination.  Churches within empires most often – wittingly or unwittingly – participate in this taming process.  Wilderness Way is about un-taming and un-domesticating – rewilding! – both ourselves and our Christian tradition, so that we might actually experience the freedom of the gospel!  And in that freedom, become “wild Christian disciples and fearless spiritual leaders:” joyful and grounded people who can boldly lead and heal through the profound transitions and crises we are facing as humanity, and who are doing so by ushering in the reality of Sabbath, jubilee and shalom, what Jesus called the Kingdom of God.

LWK: How does the work of rewilding fit into another world happening?  What is a story you hold onto as something new happening?

SNG: The existence of Wilderness Way at all is a testament to something new happening! 🙂

Small snapshots:

One year ago, the entire Wilderness Way Community (mostly in their 20’s and 30’s, many queer) leading a gathering of 120 Christians in a service/rally just before the People’s Climate March in Portland, then with bucket drums and chants and songs, leading that group to join the 5,000 others, bringing power and joy, focus and energy to the entire march.

My son Stig playing at home and breaking into a song we just learned at Wilderness Way: “Mother, Father God, there’s a healing goin’ on!”

Queer women who did not grow up in the church asking me to read them Bible stories because of the Christianity they have encountered at Wilderness Way.

Several Wilderness Way members marching in the Second Annual Transgender Pride Parade in Portland, Oregon with our partner ministry, QueeringSacredSpaces (led by a queer identified Wilderness Way member & Mission Developer within the ELCA).  Seeing tensions rise around a group shouting hateful things as the marchers passed, they moved toward the group, then turned around, and facing the oncoming marchers with the Queering Sacred Spaces banner, began singing, “Welcome, Sacred Ones!  We have been waiting for you!  We are so glad to see you!”  The power of their song showered the marchers with love and drowned out the hate being shouted behind them.  Shortly, the group spouting hateful rhetoric left.  The Wilderness Way members had the courage, the trusting relationships and the SONG ready to transform that situation and bring forth another world!  And by acting boldly and creatively in that situation, they were truly living out the mission of Wilderness Way: “to ground and cultivate wild Christian disciples and fearless spiritual leaders.”

LWK: Do you believe that this is a new moment? What makes you believe or not believe that?

SNG: It’s a little daunting to make a statement about whether we’re in a new moment or not.  Civilizations and institutions are collapsing and new visions and communities are emerging all the time, really, so in that way this moment is not much different than any other since humans have been forming civilizations and institutions.  The boundaries of empire’s reach have never been as global as they are today, but the dynamics of collapse/emergence are still the same.  The good news about that is that the prophets, peasants and poor people of the Bible have a lot to teach us about how to live today!  There is profound wisdom to draw from.  We do not have to figure everything out by ourselves, as if our situation were so unique that no other wisdom applies.

At the same time, we are very near or at the peak of every exponential growth curve you can possibly imagine.  The planet simply cannot sustain the combination of stressors we are creating.  So, I can’t imagine a time before now when we literally needed people all over the entire planet to participate in the empire-deconstruction, transition and transformation process.  Some of us in Wilderness Way are also leaders in EcoFaith Recovery’s Beyond Fossil Fuels initiative.  There we are working collaboratively with 350.org to mobilize people to participate in fossil fuel resistance actions.  350.org is one of the most accessible ways I know to see first hand how people all over the world, literally, are taking action and forcing the transition away from fossil fuels to renewable forms of energy, while also making it clear that this is our opportunity to manifest social, environmental and economic justice on global scales.  It’s pretty amazing!

The enormity and gravity of our situation can, however, send even the most grounded of us into despair.  But again, empire is designed specifically to make people feel like they are weak and it is all powerful.  But we are not weak, and it is not all powerful!  Empires and systems of domination ALWAYS fail and fall eventually because they are trying to tame the untamable, to control the uncontrollable.  The power of life, of God, can never ever be fully domesticated or extinguished!  Never!  Is that not the heart of the resurrection story?  It’s also the heart of rewilding.  We are not small people trying to resist massive empire, small empires are violently resisting the massive power of the God of Life! And life in this God of the universe will never cease unfolding no matter what!  To the extent that we align ourselves with the power of this wild God of Life, we can stand together and fearlessly and joyfully go about our work of dismantling empires and systems of domination, while creating new (and very old) ways of being in life-giving community with one another and all of creation.


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