‘Wild Church’ in Northern Michigan invites spiritual seekers into the woods

By Egan Millard
Posted Aug 30, 2021

UP Wild Church meets at various locations around Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Photo: Lanni Lantto

[Episcopal News Service] UP Wild Church, a ministry of the Diocese of Northern Michigan, brings people of all ages and backgrounds into the woods of the Upper Peninsula, or UP, for spiritual experiences. As it enters its third year, it is attracting a growing number of people who are drawn to its mix of outdoor adventures, community, quiet reflection and environmentalism.

Unlike other “wilderness churches,” it isn’t a Eucharist service in the woods. UP Wild Church, a collaboration with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s Northern Great Lakes Synod, holds nondenominational nature prayer services and wilderness walks in the area’s abundant natural settings: protected pine forests, inland lakes and the shores of Lake Superior.

But in addition to providing a natural refuge from the chaos of modern life, UP Wild Church also engages with the environmental crises that threaten those places, educating people about past and present industrial destruction.

Lanni Lantto plants trees during an UP Wild Church outing. Photo: Chauncey Moran

“We’ve grown [because of] this need in the community to pray in certain spaces for our own healing and for the healing of the land,” said Lanni Lantto, the lay leader of UP Wild Church.

The idea originated during a gathering of Lutherans and Episcopalians in a park, when the conversation turned to the decreasing numbers of young adults in churches.

“What if we created an alternative?” Lantto remembers someone asking.

For Lantto, 41, appreciation and care for creation have always been central to her faith life.

“One of our vocations that God gave us is to not just tend the garden, but get to know the garden. And when you start to fall in love with what God created, you’re compelled to protect it,” she told Episcopal News Service.

After 10 years of working as a “fashion re-designer” – repurposing old materials into new garments to avoid waste – Lantto was hired as the mission developer for the Lutheran-Episcopal collaboration that became UP Wild Church. She began meeting with young adults in the Marquette area and asking them about the kinds of experiences they valued and wanted more of. Three themes emerged: nature, connection and healing from previous bad church experiences.

With the help of grants from the Episcopal and Lutheran churches, UP Wild Church has been meeting since July 2019, when it started with a nature prayer service at a park in Marquette. Lantto and her collaborators developed the format, which involves reading and reflecting on texts about Christian spirituality – including, but not limited to, Scripture – and creation care, a poem or two, collective prayer, some quiet time for individual reflection, a group discussion and tea.

The nature prayer services in the park have continued once a month, but UP Wild Church expanded beyond that, offering more services and hikes that bring people out to the Upper Peninsula’s forests and lakes. There are “Holy Hikes” for the more adventurous, as well as easier and more accessible trail walks. There are events for kids, like a foraging outing where they can learn to identify plants. For the fall, Lantto and her volunteer team have planned outings to view the autumn foliage and the migration of monarch butterflies.

UP Wild Church meets year-round and has never canceled due to weather, according to curator Lanni Lantto. Photo: Lanni Lantto

For Lantto and UP Wild Church, appreciating the beauty of creation also means protecting it from pollution, extractive industries and climate change – and reminding people of their own complicity in those processes, which have done lasting damage to the Upper Peninsula. UP Wild Church has visited the remains of an old logging camp to reflect on forest stewardship, and in September it will plant trees and go to an abandoned mining village and pray at the mouth of a cave where the miners descended. Participants also have done a “prayer sit-in” on the shore of Lake Superior to draw attention to the effects of industrial pollution on the world’s largest freshwater lake, she said.

Though it was created to meet the needs of young adults, participants have ranged from 3 months to 98 years old, with an average of about 10 people attending each event, Lantto said. They come from a variety of Christian denominations.

“During the pandemic and within this climate of so many unknowns – including climate change – we are steady, and we are growing,” she told ENS, saying that her goal is to make the ministry sustainable. UP Wild Church received a $30,000 “growth grant” from Executive Council in February as a growing ministry, and Lantto is working on a fundraising appeal that can keep the ministry going without relying solely on grants or donations from attendees. (Lantto will pass around an offering plate at services, but she views attendees as “the people we’re serving,” not necessarily a source of funding.)

“We’re pretty excited about the future,” she said. “We’ve really got something where people can find healing. And we all really need to focus on that right now and to get off of our screens for a while and to go to the woods, and to have a community of people doing that together is really important.”

– Egan Millard is an assistant editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at emillard@episcopalchurch.org.