On the Wednesday of our high school mission week in mid-July, we loaded up our two vans and drove north. We were headed to see Line 3 – the construction site of the controversial oil pipeline near Palisade, Minnesota. We had already spent a lot of time learning about the pipeline. We learned about how Enbridge, the company in charge, believed that the project would create jobs for Minnesotans and help bolster local economies. We learned about how some nearby indigenous communities believed that the construction project was a violation of treaty rights. They believed that it threatened Minnesota ecosystems. We learned about how complicated it is to view situations like this through the lens of our Christian faith. We talked a lot in our devotions and small group times about how God calls us to care for the earth and to advocate for the flourishing of human communities. It was a rich first two days of learning and serving around Minneapolis, but when Matt Lewellyn-Otten and I planned the trip in the spring, we knew that we couldn’t just learn about something so important happening, practically in our backyard – we had to actually go and see.
So, we packed up the vans with our backpacks and lunches and headed north. Before I tell you what it was like to arrive at the campsite of our indigenous community hosts near Palisade, I have to tell you what our other van rides were like throughout the week. Matt and I sometimes had little tricks up our sleeves because it’s good to keep things interesting and keep one another on our toes. So throughout the week we’d planned two different mystery activities – activities where the youth didn’t know where we were going or what we were doing. We’d tell them what they needed to bring and then we’d pile into the vans and start driving. Once we got within a few minutes’ drive of our destination, we’d have everyone except the driver close their eyes so that it was a total surprise when we arrived where we were headed. This was super fun when we arrived at a quirky art gallery in the Cedar Riverside neighborhood, which had enormous sculptures of reclaimed artworks outside it. The element of surprise and whimsy brought a lot of fun to the week!
But our trip up north was a bit different. The closer we got to our destination near Palisade, the quieter the van ride got. Even with a van full of friends, it’s hard not to find yourself in awed silence when you see such beautiful scenery. Rich farmlands, ripe with the summer crops. Beautiful flowing creeks, nourished by recent rain. Lovely wildlife – birds and bunnies and deer and flowers and trees. And then as we approached the campsite, we began seeing signs that we were entering a space committed to preserving those beautiful lands. We saw road signs that said “protect our water” and “protect the great lakes.” We saw hand-painted tapestries propped up near the entrance to the campsite that said “welcome water protectors,” and flags with indigenous community symbols hanging from the trees. And one of our favorites was a sign that we saw as we parked the vans and walked into the campsite, which had an arrow on it and said “check your ego here.”
The scenery prepared us well for what was ahead. Our hosts for this day trip were a group of water protectors. These are folks who are committed to preserving the native lands around the site of the oil pipeline construction. Thanks to the faithful support of our friend Johannah from Minnesota Interfaith Power and Light, we arrived and were warmly welcomed. Our first order of business was to receive some instructions from one of our hosts, a water protector named Mariana. Mariana invited us to join her in a circle around a fire pit. She told us that she had some ground rules to discuss with us as we arrived at the water protectors’ campsite.
Mariana spoke to us with warmth and a quiet seriousness. She asked if any of us were from indigenous communities or came from families with indigenous roots. None of us raised our hands. We were quiet – it was clear that we were in the midst of a holy space. The moments that followed have remained in my memory as some of the most important from our entire mission week. Mariana took a moment to give thanks for the land on which we stood. And she said to us, “Remember that you are very welcome here, but this land is not yours. You are simply a welcomed guest.”
She instructed us to tread lightly on the land around their campsite, remembering that the plants and animals and humans who occupy it are sacred gifts. She reminded us that it’s ok to have fun and enjoy one another, but the caretaking of the earth is serious business. “Remember that you are very welcome here, but this land is not yours.” The rest of our time in Palisade bore witness to this revelation, that the land does not belong to us. As our group hiked to the river to sing and pray together, we remembered Mariana’s words – you are very welcome here, but this land is not yours. We were still ourselves, talking and laughing like usual, but we had a deeper awareness that the mud and grass underfoot were not just mud and grass – they were parts of the earth that doesn’t belong to us. We are simply welcomed guests.
Mariana’s instruction to us was deep and broad in what it might have meant to us as a youth group that week. From the standpoint of indigenous communities, it’s a reminder that the United States has not always done a good job of honoring native treaty rights; that the government and its people have often valued profit over the wellbeing of the earth; that folks in power have forgotten the legacy of colonialism deeply embedded in our country’s histories. For us as a Christian community, it’s a reminder that the land does not belong to us because it belongs to God. The land where we stood that morning in Palisade – the beautiful banks of the river, rich forest ferns, wild berries, swarming mosquitoes, flowing waters – this land is not ours. It belongs to God.
We spent much of the remainder of high school mission week talking through what it means for us to claim that the earth belongs to God. We prayed, sang, talked, debated, and held space for one another. And don’t worry, we still had time to observe all the time-honored mission trip activities of late-night games, Senior Night, Laura Lee Grilled Cheese, Katrina Nachos, and loud van ride singalongs. But in the midst of those traditions, we kept returning to this theme that the earth really doesn’t belong to us. We are part of God’s wide creation, charged with loving it as we love ourselves and one another.
The beautiful, long scripture passage we heard this morning comes from the book of Psalms, the hymnbook of the Ancient Israelite people. The psalms cover the breadth and depth of the human experience, bearing witness to the best and worst parts of who we are as the people of God. In the midst of all the psalms about humanity and our joy and pain, there are psalms like this one, Psalm 104, that simply give thanks for the wild whimsy of creation.
I wonder what you heard when you listened to Sara read that text. Did you hear just how much wildlife the psalm writer mentions? Waters, mountains, valleys, springs, birds, wild animals, grass, lions, oceans. The list is long, and the listener gets the sense that all of these things – plant and animal and human life alike – are intimately connected to God. God is their creator; they look to God for life and abundance. Any beauty and harmony in the life of the earth is from God. The earth is not ours; we are simply welcomed guests.
In one of our evening devotions during mission week, I shared a music video from my favorite musical artist, a pop/soul band called Lake Street Dive. (Named after Lake Street here in Minneapolis!) In the past couple years, the band and its members have become more outspoken about pressing social issues. They wrote a song called “Being a Woman,” a sort of twenty-first century feminist anthem – the chorus says “being a woman is a full-time job.” And the first single from their most recent album is a brilliant song about the climate crisis, called “Making Do.” The song speaks directly to the generation of young folks who will be left to clean up the environmental messes of those of us who come before them. The lyrics end from the perspective of a parent: “What do I say to my baby girl, leaving her with half a world? She can’t blame anyone, because it’s no one’s fault when you’re making do with what you’ve got…to the next generation, merry Christmas. You’re working harder than ever now.”
When I decided to show that music video to our youth, I figured we’d talk about how hard it is not to sink into apathy when it comes to big issues like the climate crisis. I assumed we’d end up discussing how to move from overwhelm and apathy into actually doing something about it. But I assumed wrong. Westminster’s youth know something that the psalm writer knows: the earth belongs to God, and God calls us to care for it. It’s as simple as that. Throughout our mission week, we didn’t really need to talk about apathy or overwhelm or how to make incremental changes even when it feels like they don’t always make a real difference. We talked about how our youth are already engaged in the work of loving the earth God created, and how we can work together as a faith community to commit even further. We talked about how much we learned throughout our mission week, from indigenous neighbors, environmental advocates, justice organizations, artists, and one another. We talked about how beautiful the landscape was in Palisade, and how diverse the ecosystems of Minnesota are, and how we have a holy charge to help take care of them. We talked about how the drive for money and profit can make things really messy, and we talked about what it means for us to use our resources in a way that speaks to our values. As usual, the adults in the room did a lot of listening and learning from our youth.
The simple truth of the psalm we heard this morning, that the earth belongs to God, is not all that simple to live into. We can enjoy the beauty of the lakes and prairies around us, and we can give thanks to God for them, but when it comes to our wallets or our lifestyles, the choices become less clear. Our case study for the week was the construction of an oil pipeline, about 1100 miles in the midst of the 2.6 MILLION miles of oil pipelines in this country. But that one issue was complicated enough to occupy us for much of the week. There are almost always competing interests at play when it comes to caring for the earth and its inhabitants. But we can’t go wrong when we take a page out of our teenagers’ book and resist apathy. The earth belongs to God, and we’re called to love and care for it. It’s really that simple.
Of course, the ways that we love and care for the earth are as diverse the earth itself. If you’re looking for an idea of how to deepen your own commitments, find one of our high school youth and ask them! One of our youth elders heard about how some financial institutions support efforts that fail to protect the earth. That youth elder has decided to find out more about how Westminster can be faithful in our financial resources and how we use them. That’s one way that this elder has chosen to respond to all that we learned this summer. Matt Lewellyn-Otten and I are thinking about how our youth group can keep partnering with our new friends from Minnesota Interfaith Power and Light, because they are doing such good work in the community. Another one of our youth group members is thinking about how she can commit even more to mutual aid efforts in her neighborhood. Westminster has an amazing eco-justice ministry team that’s always looking for new folks to plug in and help our community and neighborhood work for environmental justice. There are so many ways to love and care for the earth.
As often happens, my mind returned throughout the mission week to a favorite line from a hymn. This one is from the hymn we will sing during Communion, “For the Fruit of All Creation.” Just as we’ve encountered pieces of visual art throughout this worship service, I hope you’ll take space in particular to encounter this hymn. See what you notice, and see where the Spirit is at work in text and tune, moving us to remember that the earth belongs to God, and we are welcomed guests here. Let us pray, using the words of Fred Pratt Green: “For the harvests of the Spirit, thanks be to God. For the good we all inherit, thanks be to God. For the wonders that astound us, for the truths that still confound us; most of all, that love has found us, thanks be to God.” Amen.