By Susie Henderson
We have been out of our buildings for some time now, much longer than we first expected. Many of us are growing into the experience of meeting virtually with online opportunities for worship. Northlea United Church, in Toronto’s north Leaside neighbourhood is meeting online and they are experimenting with meeting their community in a previously unexplored place – their own front yard. In the beautiful stand of pine trees that grace their property, this creative community has found a sacred gathering spot to which they can continue to invite their neighbours.
In the fall of last year, Lee-Ann Ahlstrom, the minister at Northlea, became curious about how to connect with the neighbourhood without the use of the building. Situated in a residential community and blessed with a lovely grove of pine trees, the church property benefits from a constant flow of people walking by. Lee-Ann started to invite folks to linger amongst the trees by posting some poetry and reflective words, adding some ribbons that could be used for prayers. People were invited to respond to questions posed alongside the poems, or a question like “what makes you strong and beautiful?” Lee-Ann shared the invitation in a neighbourhood group on Facebook and the Reflection in the Pines installation had begun.
Once the seed was planted, the congregation formed a small team to feed the project. Over the past seven months, they have refreshed the installation with seasonal themes and interactive opportunities. When the property manager told her a tree needed to come down at the back of the church, Lee-Ann was excited. “Can we have some stumps to add seating to our pine gallery?” Now the old tree has been repurposed to create a place for someone to sit and reflect, or to serve as a mini-altar for someone’s creative offering.
The little outdoor wooded sanctuary has served as a place of presence throughout the seasons. In Advent, a Wisdom in Light and Darkness installation included the opportunity for kids (and kids at heart) to make shadow puppets with their hands. During the Christmas season, they added music and an opportunity to reflect on the words of traditional carols or to bring your family along for a picture with the nativity scene. During Lent, they explored the theme of wilderness, bringing the reflection together in offerings for a wild altar. In Holy Week, people picked out palm crosses that were tucked into netting to carry home with them and there was a reflection on the seven words from the cross.
Presently the gallery in the pines is based on the children’s book “Something from Nothing,” an Easter season installation that celebrates our ability to turn something old, discarded or otherwise useless into something new. Lee-Ann explains, “it’s a way of accessing our innate ability to re-imagine and recreate.” If you were to visit the gallery you’d find some little woodland houses made of sticks, a wind chime crafted from old cutlery, messages of hope and inspiration on painted rocks, a gameboard, repurposed planters, and lots of crafty creatures.
The pine gallery is a place of connection. Part of the vitality of this space is the intergenerational approach. In these cooped-up times, there is no doubt that it represents a life-giving gesture to folks at home with young families. In the construction of a fairy house or a whimsical creature, we are invited to explore the sense of wonder in all of us. In connecting the gallery to the community spaces on Facebook, the space is available to people beyond those who will just encounter it by walking past.
Lee-Ann has received some meaningful messages from folks who would not likely have come to indoor Holy Week services, but who found their way to the message in the trees. In a community Facebook group, she’s also been able to invite someone making upcycled blankets from plastic bags and ask them to add one to the “Something from Nothing” space. The invitation to come among the healing space of the trees is an opportunity to build relationships in the community. Where the pandemic has led us to be inward focussed, Lee-Ann experiences this initiative as an opportunity to shift our gaze to the community where there are so many examples of the Living Christ and Spirit.
In pandemic days, many of us will resonate with the theme of creating something from nothing. This is a teaching that I find myself returning to again and again in these times of uncertainty and change. While we are exiled from our traditional understandings of sacred space, we have an opportunity to create new sites of meaning in online spaces and to remember the ancient ones, including in our homes and in creation. More than ever we need places to rest, to breath, to reflect, to create, to play – and to meet each other with both safety and sacredness.
What is the future of this installation? Will they continue to furnish their outdoor gathering space? How will their outdoor sanctuary connect to the indoor one once the worshipping community is able to return? True to the creative spirit, Lee-Ann knows they will continue to figure it out as they go along. “This is a truly organic effort and it’s up to us to figure out where to go next without knowing what the end result will be.”
With thanks to Lee-Ann Ahlstrom for the interview and Jo Dullard for the photos.