How some Christians find God in Bryce Canyon and other national parks

Bryce Canyon National Park — The short, black cross is almost an afterthought, wheeled out of a supply closet moments before introductions begin. Its arrival wraps up 20 minutes of guitar practice and nervous chatter, all part of prepping for a weekly worship service.

“You have to sing loud and help me out,” says Gabrielle Sheeley, a 20-year-old college student from upstate New York, to the three young people sitting near her on the edge of a wooden stage.

The cross sits in a supply closet six days a week, out of sight during astronomy presentations and other meetings in the Lodge at Bryce Canyon’s auditorium. But on Sunday mornings at 8 a.m., it takes center stage as Sheeley and her three teammates lead a Christian service for those visiting or working at the park.

“Please open your hearts and minds and prepare for worship,” says 20-year-old Meleeza Hall to the 12 people assembled on red, cushioned chairs.

Sheeley, Hall, 22-year-old Eric Meeks and 20-year-old Amy Auble are still getting used to their new summer work and each other. Today, June 11, is only their second Sunday in the park. They’re learning hymn lyrics and practicing leading prayers.

The program that sent these four young people to Bryce Canyon, A Christian Ministry in the National Parks, doesn’t expect perfection. Sheeley can miss a few chords and Hall can stumble over her introduction, as long as the team is present and ready to greet tourists and lodge employees.

From Memorial Day to Labor Day each summer, Christians affiliated with the program live and work in more than 25 national and state parks across the country. They apply for permits to host worship services and pick up shifts at park restaurants and shops.

The goal is to be there for people who may come to the park for fun but experience a spiritual awakening of sorts, said Amy Kennedy, director of placement and park relations for A Christian Ministry in the National Parks.

"The national parks and their beauty attract people from all over the world for excitement and adventure, but also people who are searching for something,” she said. With the help of ministry teams, they may find God.

Filling a gap

On the Lodge at Bryce Canyon’s bulletin board, next to an announcement about burning debris and a safety chart for lightning storms, visitors can browse some of their worship options.

Local members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints gather every Sunday afternoon in the upstairs conference room of nearby Ruby’s Inn. Bryce Canyon Bible Church is a few miles away, just north of the town of Tropic.

National parks are often located in remote areas. Visitors have many hotels and restaurants to choose from, but specialized religious services, like a Catholic Mass, are harder to come by.

Part of the mission of A Christian Ministry in the National Parks is to serve believers who are far from their spiritual homes and who might be open to an interdenominational Christian service if it’s convenient and inviting.

“We saw the sign outside,” said Nancy Wildt, who attended the 8 a.m. service with her husband, Ken. “We couldn’t find a Catholic Church, so we decided to check this out.”

The ministry also addresses the needs of park staff, many of whom are seasonal workers who only stay in the area for a few months.

“So much of the ministry is to the people you're working with. A lot of them don't really have a community outside of the park they're working in," said Alyssa Sherman, 29. She’s serving in Mount Rainier National Park this year after two summers in Bryce Canyon and a winter at a national park in the Virgin Islands.

These workers may have left organized religion in the past or been raised in a nonreligious family. Rather than scold them for not attending church, Sherman and others involved with A Christian Ministry in the National Parks offer friendship.

"We're getting to know people's stories. We're communicating the love of Jesus by showing up for people and being available for people who don't look like you or sound like you or have a similar story as you,” said 26-year-old Shelby Cook, who spent two summers in Denali National Park and is now hiking the Appalachian Trail.

This relational ministry occurs in a variety of ways outside of worship services, depending on work schedules and other factors.

"It could happen through hosting Bible studies, leading nature hikes or repeatedly getting coffee with someone," Cook said.

Morgan Green, who worked in Yellowstone and Acadia national parks before joining the ministry’s national staff, said the goal is to pay attention to the needs of the park community and then respond to them.

"At Yellowstone, there are lots of international workers," she said. "We had a Bible study where we taught people English by reading scripture."

The Bryce Canyon ministry team was still getting settled in early June, so they hadn’t yet branched out beyond the two Sunday morning services.

However, they’d already made a difference for Mazzy Marcum, a 19-year-old Indiana University student who accepted a summer job at the park because it seemed like a fun adventure.

When she arrived in Utah in mid-May, Marcum was shocked to learn that most of her co-workers in the gift shop were 80-year-old women, not people her age. She was grateful for the arrival of Hall, Sheeley and Auble in her dorm and plans to worship with them regularly for the next few months.

“I’ll go every week,” she said, noting that she attends a Christian ministry on her campus during the school year.

Program overview

These stories of new friendships and bilingual Bible studies fit well with the founding vision of A Christian Ministry in the National Parks. The program got its start in 1951 when William Ost, then a student at Princeton Theological Seminary, hosted a casual worship service in a Yellowstone bar in response to the religious needs of his co-workers and park guests.

Ost went on to lead the ministry for 45 years, registering it as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit in 1971. The program has grown and evolved since then, expanding to include short-term mission trips and other service opportunities.

Although it's been around for decades, A Christian Ministry in the National Parks has to regularly apply for permits at each park where it sends workers. Local park offices must approve worship services, weddings, private tours, protests and other events before they can happen, said Cynthia Morris, who is in charge of resource management and visitor protection at Bryce Canyon.

"Anybody, including any religious group, can apply for a special-use permit to have services in the park," she said, adding that she's only seen applications from A Christian Ministry in the National Parks and the Jehovah's Witnesses over the past few years.

The young ministry members at Bryce Canyon represent four of the nearly 300 working with A Christian Ministry in the National Parks this summer. Most participants are between 18 and 30 years old, but a few are much older.

"We have some married, retired couples," Kennedy said.

Participants come from a variety of Christian denominations. The unifying statement of faith is the Apostle's Creed, which professes belief in God the Father, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.

Applicants are asked to explain their religious background, as well as how their relationship with God impacts their life. They list the three parks they're most interested in serving at and describe what's drawing them to the ministry.

The people who stand out are those who seem flexible and ready to deal with unexpected challenges, said the Rev. Spencer Lundgaard, the program's executive director.

"They need to have a risk-taking approach to life. They should be willing to go for things and be willing to fail, learn from failure and then try again," he said.

Ministry teams, generally comprised of at least four people, will mostly be on their own to plan worship and respond to events that affect their community, such as a death in the park. Participants take turns delivering sermons and leading prayers.

"You have to be willing to get in front of people and lead worship. That takes some guts," the Rev. Lundgaard said.

Some teams have a ministry support committee made up of nearby faith leaders and fans of the program, while others may only receive a short visit from someone at the national office, which is in Denver, at some point in the summer.

It's up to each participant to be flexible and roll with the punches, Kennedy said.

"People who come into this program with a set of expectations are usually the ones who end up disappointed," she said. "The park will be nothing like they imagined."

Enjoying God's creation

Kennedy has worked at the national office for six years, helping to maintain the program's relationship with individual park leaders. Before that, she was a student minister like the young adults she supervises.

As a college freshman in 2006, she saw a summer in Olympic National Park in Washington as a welcome escape from her real life. She remembers sitting by a river in the park during a rainstorm, feeling more connected with her faith than she had in months.

"I had no cell signal and no connection to the outside world," Kennedy said. "For the first time, I was real with God and I cried out to God. I dealt with things I had been avoiding for a long time."

Many ministry participants have similar stories. Hall, who grew up and goes to college in Georgia, said she wanted to serve in Bryce Canyon because of how powerful she found the park when she visited in 2015.

"That vacation was a spiritual experience for me," she said.

People of faith have been speaking and writing about the religious value of nature for centuries. Advocates for the establishment of the national park system argued in religious terms, asserting the importance of caring for God's creation, said Mark Stoll, author of "Inherit the Holy Mountain: Religion and the Rise of American Environmentalism."

They'd say things like, "We have to protect the Grand Canyon. The Creator only made one," he said.

Participants of A Christian Ministry in the National Parks aren't necessarily environmental activists, but teams do care for the land they enjoy throughout the summer, the Rev. Lundgaard said.

"They figure out how to steward this creation," he said, noting that projects include picking up litter along trails and at campgrounds.

Ministry teams draw on their surroundings for inspiration throughout the summer, Cook said.

"The national parks do provide an awesome step into a conversation about God. They're good sermon material," she said.

During the second Bryce Canyon service of the day, which starts at 9:30 a.m. at the North Campground amphitheater, three deer ran by just as worship began.

"Thank you, Jesus," shouted Karen Hayes, who brought 15 of her family members along with her to praise God among the trees.

Developing leaders

A summer spent with A Christian Ministry in the National Parks is not all hikes and Bible lessons. Once people are accepted into the ministry and assigned a park, they must apply for a job at their location. They aren't paid by the program.

Ministry team members are generally spread out across several positions, including at the front desk, in a restaurant kitchen or with the housekeeping crew, Kennedy said.

Participants will work around 40 hours a week for minimum wage. It's a somewhat unusual set-up for team members in their 20s, whose friends and classmates might be on study abroad trips or working in career-oriented internships.

"My friends and family are incredibly surprised," Sherman said. "They're proud and they love me but this doesn't look like the career they expected."

Sherman was a student at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary when she first led services in a national park. She graduated in May 2016, but has continued to work at restaurants and lead worship services in the wild, rather than pursue ordination or a job in a church.

"I don't know that it would fit my personality very well to go down the expected track. Living in a dorm, working in a restaurant — I love it," she said.

Seminary students are the "primary heartbeat" of A Christian Ministry in the National Parks, although they represent only 20 to 30 of this year's 270 full team members, Kennedy said. The program aims to boost their future church work by developing their leadership skills.

These pastors-in-training will learn to navigate interfaith conflict, a valuable skill in a religiously diverse world, she added.

"There could be a Catholic, a Presbyterian, a Nazarene and a Methodist together. There's always interdenominational tension that could exist," Kennedy said.

Susan Olson, assistant dean of students for community life and career services at Yale Divinity School, said that there's value in getting seminary students out of the bubble of their church and school community.

"The ability to interact with people who are not already part of the church world is an important skill for any pastor to have," she said.

Grateful praise

Before the Bryce Canyon team’s second worship service, they have time to collect their thoughts, to change a hymn and strategize about staying warm in the outdoor venue.

Hall, Meeks and Auble relax in a patch of sunlight as Sheeley, who also plays mandolin, reads through guitar chords. Removed from the pressure of leading worship, they chat about bad dreams and blackout curtains, remembering how popular the song “Jesus, Take the Wheel” was when it was first released.

“That was everyone’s favorite song in the fourth grade,” Hall said.

Soon, they’ll be talking with tourists and stumbling through songs sung off-key. But for now, they’re just young people, amazed at their luck to spend the summer surrounded by tall pine trees and kind co-workers.

Initially, applicants may be interested in A Christian Ministry in the National Parks for selfish reasons, such as avoiding drab office buildings or having an excuse to hike multiple times a week for three months.

However, it’s the unique work, the outdoor worship services and casual chats about God, that brings them back year after year and helps them endure patchy phone service and slow Wi-Fi.

“I fell in love with park people and park life last year,” said Sheeley, who spent the summer of 2016 in Oregon at Crater Lake National Park.

Wrapping up the final worship of the weekend, she and her teammates, along with the more than 20 campers seated on the amphitheater’s wooden benches, praise God and nature, singing “For the Beauty of the Earth.”

“Lord of all, to thee we raise, this our hymn of grateful praise,” they sing, as birds chirp and insects screech.