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Friday, 24 July 2015 09:57

Theology, ecology intertwine at Good Earth Church

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It’s fitting that Good Earth Church of the Divine meets in a barn at the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute. The Rev. Simone Nathan, above, describes the church as a 21st century religion that recognizes a connected web of life. It’s fitting that Good Earth Church of the Divine meets in a barn at the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute. The Rev. Simone Nathan, above, describes the church as a 21st century religion that recognizes a connected web of life. Terry Mayer

WALWORTH COUNTY SUNDAY -- On any given Sunday, the Rev. Simone Nathan, pastor of the Good Earth Church of the Divine, might be found blessing the waters at the shorelines of Lauderdale Lakes, offering prayers for a fruitful harvest in a neighborhood orchard or giving a sermon at a weekly worship service in the sunlit upper level of an upscale barn at Michael Fields Agricultural Institute in East Troy.

The combination of theology and ecology that forms the Good Earth Church, an ecumenical interfaith community, is what Nathan calls planting a bit of heaven on earth.

“A lot of religious history has been dedicated to the afterlife, but this is the home we know and we’re not taking very good care of our home,” Nathan said. “I read recently that there was a call for an occasional ‘green’ Sunday in churches. Every Sunday here is a green Sunday.”

Nathan describes her church as a 21st-century religion recognizing a highly connected web of life.

“It’s a center for soul care and earth care, and it’s a very inclusive and gentle community,” she said.

The 2-year-old Good Earth Church offers a 10 a.m. Sunday worship service at Michael Fields, Bible study groups, special events ranging from art exhibits to “Divine Dessert” fundraisers, and attention to what Nathan describes as repair work to both the earth and social situations like poverty and disease. Those efforts have included clothing drives for Native Americans in need, a food collection for the East Troy Food Pantry and donations to Nothing But Nets, a global grassroots campaign that distributes mosquito netting to Africans to help prevent malaria.

About twice a year, Good Earth donates its weekly contributions to Camino Seguro, or “Safe Passage,” a nonprofit organization started by an American teacher who, when visiting Guatemala, discovered whole families living off of a city garbage dump. The organization provides education for children and job training for adults to give them a lift out of poverty.

“We chose Camino Seguro because garbage dumps are such a perfect symbol of our disposable society,” Nathan said. “We can even waste people -- let them live on the dump.”

Nathan also is concerned about poverty’s impact closer to home. 

“Sixty percent of Walworth County -- beautiful, calendar-picture perfect Walworth County -- is food insecure,” she said. “That cannot stand. That’s not right.”

So she dreams of one day building a space-saving, temperature-controlled glass silo on the grounds of Michael Fields as a way to let more residents grow their own vegetables. It’s a vision she said Michael Fields founder Christopher Mann has as well.

For Nathan, who declined to give her age, the path to becoming an environmentally conscious minister was a winding one. Born in Dayton, Ohio, and educated at Mount Mary University in Milwaukee, she is a former Roman Catholic nun who taught art and English as a second language in a north side Chicago neighborhood.

An artist herself, she also has a background in public relations for nonprofits and corporations in education, health care and the arts, and had her own PR firm for 20 years. Currently she’s the part-time director of client relations at Perrone-Ambrose Associates, a coaching and mentoring organization near Chicago. She commutes from East Troy, where she and her husband live in Fields Neighborhood, a green housing development. 

But Nathan felt a calling for something more, so she enrolled in the Chicago Theological Seminary in 2006, graduating in 2010 and becoming an ordained minister of the Universal Life Church.

The original services for Good Earth Church were celebrated in the homes of members. When the church recognized Michael Fields for its environmental work with an award ceremony, Nathan learned that the upper floor of the barn was available for rent, and moved services there in 2013.

The congregation has grown to about 30, with 10 full-fledged members, Nathan said.

Once a month, the Sunday service is replaced with an educational program, with topics ranging from diversity and forgiveness to the environment.

Good Earth Church member Mary Bub helps coordinate the educational programs. Bub, the owner of MoonStar Farm, a sustainable organic farm in the town of LaFayette, first met Nathan at the farmers market in Elkhorn.

“Part of the church’s mission is to create a sustainable environmental practice, which fits where we’re at at MoonStar Farm,” Bub said. “I think what attracts me is that the church is open to everyone, and I see people coming together to live out their ideals and their faith.”

“We’re here to support people on their spiritual journeys,” Nathan said. “The people who come here find a collegial community of support for the efforts they’re making to do earth-healing work.”

Good Earth member Linda Higdon, social activist and founder of Global Heart Journeys -- an organization that makes international connections between U.S. individuals and those in developing countries -- said church members recently rallied on a crowdfunding project of hers to help a rural school in Africa.

“Pastor Simone doesn’t create boundaries, she breaks boundaries down,” Higdon said. “She said we are the church, it’s whatever is happening in our own hearts and lives. We teach each other and learn from each other.”

“We really ask members to do something to build some spiritual muscle because life hurts. It hurts everyone,” Nathan said. “And where do you go when someone you love is dying? When there’s difficulty in a birth or a marriage? How do you manage anger or learn to forgive? You need spiritual muscle for that. It doesn’t seem to be terribly instinctive.

“You can use the support of other loving people who are on a similar journey.”

Nathan said Good Earth Church is an outgrowth of the United Church of Christ, a mainline Protestant denomination, but she said it draws those who may be looking for something other than organized religion in their lives.

“The Pew Research Center and other reputable research bodies say that about a quarter of our population no longer wants any religious affiliation per se,” Nathan said. “And part of the reason for that is they feel so much of the church is hypocritical. If God is love, how come you don’t love me? So we’re here for those folks.

“The World Christian Encyclopedia calculates there are over 10,000 distinct religions. Christianity alone counts 33,820 different denominations. And I’ll tell you as a Catholic when I learned about the Protestant Reformation, I had in my mind this enormous fist smashing through a stained glass window. And I felt so sad because I thought all those pieces will never come back together again. But as I have grown in years, I have thought every one of those pieces is like a kaleidoscope -- there are so many ways to see the beauty of the holy. It’s gorgeous. It’s not scary. It’s phenomenally beautiful.”

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