If you traveled back in time and told EFCA pastor Michael Martin that he'd one day become an ecology pastor, he probably would have laughed at you.
After seminary, he moved to Los Angeles, planted a predominantly African-American church with his family and remained a pastor there for years. Surrounded by asphalt, concrete and mortar, his mind was on reaching the community with the gospel with the resources he had available; trees and good soil were in limited supply.
Amid this urban environment, Michael challenged his congregation to be good stewards of what they’ve been given by the Lord. In 2017, when he moved to Baltimore to become the pastor of Stillmeadow Community Church (EFCA), he carried that heart for stewardship with him. He had no idea how God would move his new congregation toward reaching people with the gospel through environmental stewardship.
A forest in the city
Stand on the stoop of Stillmeadow Community Fellowship and you might not believe you were in Baltimore city limits. Perched against 10 acres of various trees and brush, the church was unaware of what might be inside the lush forest. When Michael arrived for the first time, the elders and leaders gave him a tour of the church building, but that’s where things ended. When he first saw the trees nearby, he thought, “Oh, that’s a lot of trees,” but didn’t think much else of it.
Near the end of the response, an official from the city approached Michael about a partnership to make Stillmeadow a resilience hub, a facility to support residents and coordinate resource distribution when a natural disaster strikes.
Michael heard stories about the wooded area, though. Someone said to him, “I think there might be a stream in there, pastor.” Others said kids in the neighborhood nearby sometimes used it as a shortcut, or spread myriad legends about the dense forest. But Michael was more concerned about the church on the inside than the outside.
At the time, Stillmeadow needed help. They didn’t have a pastor and were floundering. Back then, the EFCA district superintendents contacted Michael to see if he’d be interested in leading the church. He agreed, made the move and started working on revitalizing the church. He didn’t expect God to turn his attention to the one place he chose to ignore.
The flash flood in 2018 changed everything. In just two hours, eight inches of rain covered streets, damaged buildings and swept cars away. The flood displaced people from their homes, leaving them with nowhere else to turn. By God’s grace, Stillmeadow remained untouched by the flood, and Michael and the congregation were compelled to act.
To help people affected by the flood, Stillmeadow opened its doors, providing food, water and shelter. The gesture attracted the attention of local news, government organizations and non-profits. They became the community base to the response. Near the end of the response, an official from the city approached Michael about a partnership to make Stillmeadow a resilience hub, a facility to support residents and coordinate resource distribution when a natural disaster strikes. Through that partnership, they connected with leaders and experts on how to better steward their land.
After the flood, Michael and church leadership saw the church grounds with fresh eyes and asked new questions about how they could better steward the ten acres of forest in the city. Unbeknownst to them, ten acres of forest in their neighborhood was sizable.
[T]hey found the beauty of the park was already there, they simply needed to clean it and maintain it to reveal what was hidden behind weeds and dirt.
“I’m interacting with people in the city, non-government organizations, and I would casually mention 10 acres and some would look at me like, what?” he said. “That taught me that 10 acres was a big deal. I remember somebody telling me, ‘I have never worked with more than four acres in the city.’”
When he walked through the forest, he learned many of the rumors were true—there was a stream, there was a pond, there was a fox family and sometimes deer would walk through it. He decided that the same spirit of stewardship he preached in L.A. was needed at Stillmeadow. He just didn’t know what that would look like yet. So, they spent time studying, thinking and praying about it.
Through this, they discovered the idea of creating a peace park. The peace park would follow the mandate to take dominion over nature (Gen 1:28) and also provide opportunities to hear the gospel by offering them a place to contemplate God’s creation and allow them to restore mental well-being.
“What happens inside should be brought outside and what happens outside should be brought inside. This necessary but artificial separation between nature and worshipping God inside, maybe we can do something about,” Michael said.
In a way, the flood helped to accelerate their plans to transform the area into a peace park. The relationships Michael built with government agencies, like the USDA Forest Service, helped them better understand the environment, the types of trees and the invasive species affecting them. With this new knowledge, they determined the projects they wanted to accomplish.
The first job proved the most difficult. They had twenty-six different kinds of trees, including the ash tree. They needed to remove the bad trees and the invasive weeds and vines that had overwhelmed the area and plant new trees in its place. To do the job right, they needed volunteers.
Fortunately, they had become competent in establishing and building relationships in the community. They learned how to attract people to partner with them and how to manage projects. Over the course of three years, 2,300 people volunteered a total of 20,000 hours to develop and build their peace park.
“We’ve had as many as 500 people at a time show up to work,” Michael said.
The garden of the human heart
There is more to building a park than ripping out and planting trees. To tame the chaos, they needed to do some landscaping. One of their tasks was to create paths with mulch across the 10 acres of forest. They first created narrow paths but widened them so two people could walk shoulder to shoulder.
As they worked, they found the beauty of the park was already there, they simply needed to clean it and maintain it to reveal what was hidden behind weeds and dirt. It was the amount of maintenance that didn’t fully register in Michael's mind until they started. He saw an equivalence with his relationship with God.
“Nothing stays static. It’s so close to your relationship with God. It doesn’t matter how good I was last week. It doesn’t matter how close I was to Him last week. I have to do the same kinds of things this week,” Michael said.
Bring in the bees
As they developed the peace park and became self-sustaining as a resiliency hub, God opened their eyes to other parts of their land that they could cultivate and use for His glory. They realized their front lawn wasn't an ecosystem for pollinators, so they transformed it into a pollinator garden.
"Watching that transformation was unique."
In addition, they invited a community beekeeper to help them establish a beehive. Now they harvest raw honey, sell it and give it away. The beehive also created an opportunity for the church to teach kids at their summer camps. They equipped church members and children with bee suits and the beekeeper would teach them about bees.
One of the ladies in the church approached Michael and said, “Pastor, do you think these kids are going to become professional beekeepers?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “But they’ll learn how important it is to be good at something. There’s confidence building in that."
Cast your nets to catch the birds
A researcher named Eric with a fellowship from John Hopkins University studies birds at the peace park. A few summers back, he came to the church, walked toward a bluff and put up a net. Michael was there with some young students, ages eight to fifteen. The students were all on their phones, not paying attention. Then, Eric caught a bird in the net, and they put their phones away.
“You could hear a pin drop,” Michael said. “They’re asking questions. ‘Mr. Eric, can I touch him? Can I hold him?’ Watching that transformation was unique.”
When they finished looking at the birds, Eric and Michael told the students that the birds have always been there, they only need look up.
“It just made me more aware of how creative we can be when sharing our faith,” Michael said. “You can just share it by being available. Again, using stewardship and using what you got. You may not be able to rope everybody or give everybody the four spiritual laws, which is really good, but some of it is a whole other level of relationship and finding commonality.”
From Michael’s perspective, the peace park helps the church to have gospel conversations with people in the community. As they invite people around the community to volunteer, they’re able to build relationships that open gospel opportunities.
“We’re in genuine fellowship together,” Michael said. “In First Peter, it talks about being ready to give an answer to anyone who asks about the reason for the hope you have. So you get to be normal and winsome and then answer when people ask, and the only reason you’re in close proximity for them to ask is the peace park.”
Stillmeadow Community Church continues to extend gospel ministries through their peace park, hosting nature walks and night walks to find owls and other wildlife, hosting experts to teach the community about various elements of the environment and inviting volunteers to help make the peace park better to the glory of God.
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