Victoria Loorz started Church of the Wild and co-founded the Wild Church Network, an affiliation of congregations across North America that meet exclusively outdoors in order to experience the divine in the natural world. With our planetary ecosystems in crisis, Loorz believes it’s critical for people of all faiths to repair our spiritual relationship with the Earth. She’s written about her experience in her new book, Church of the Wild: How Nature Invites Us into the Sacred, out in October. Loorz lives in Bellingham, Wash. She spoke to Josiah Neufeld.
Josiah Neufeld: What led you to become an activist?
Victoria Loorz: I had been a pastor for several years, and I’d been growing more and more frustrated. I was looking for transformation. And part of that was being connected with the natural world. But there’s this separation between nature and spirituality in the church.
When my son, Alec, was 12 years old, he watched Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. He was transfixed. He created his own PowerPoint presentation to show his friends at school. I ended up leaving the church and leaving my job, and we started a nonprofit that was focused on youth empowerment in the climate movement. We started travelling. He was speaking to larger and larger audiences. We were on the road half of every month throughout his middle school and high school years.
But I found the same disconnection that I’d experienced in the church. We both burned out. Activism was focused on identifying an enemy and coming up with a campaign and a call to action. What was missing was a direct and intimate connection with the natural world.
JN: Where did you find that connection?
VL: I was working as an associate pastor, and one evening I was leading a Wednesday night book group. I remember sitting there and looking around this cavernous room where the only windows were this really cheap, fake stained glass. And it just hit me that the way churches are built sends the message that what’s holy is inside, and that everything outside is not holy. So, impulsively, I said, “Let’s stop and go outside and just look at the stars for 15 minutes and then quietly go home.” Later people said that was the first time they’d taken the time to just look at the stars.
And so my shift began. I started to notice that in the Old Testament and the New Testament, every character, at a pivotal point in their leadership development, is sent into the wilderness. I’d preached about the wilderness as a metaphor for a tough time. But I started to see that these people are sent into forests and deserts and prairies and mountains. There’s something about the wilderness that helps us connect with our own soul, with our spirit, the Christ within. There’s something that we’re missing by being so disconnected from nature.
So I went on a five-day wilderness workshop with the Animas Valley Institute. There, I experienced the kind of transformation I’d been longing for. I realized this is what I had imagined church could be.
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JN: How did the Church of the Wild come about?
VL: I wanted to imagine a different way of doing church. A group of people started meeting and talking about it. We began with a four-week experiment. We met outside the town underneath an oak tree in Ojai, Calif. We would all go out alone for 20 minutes and be with the divine and nature and listen, and then come back and share.
That opened up people in ways that I’d never seen inside the church. Within a few months, I started to meet other pastors who had left buildings and started meeting outdoors. We’ve got about 60 or 70 churches in North America now.
JN: It’s common to speak about loving the Earth. In your book, you write about learning that the Earth also loves you back.
VL: I fell in love with a particular deer, who visited me at my house. I would often give her an apple, and she would come regularly. I knew her and her yearling daughter. One day, my son asked me: “Do you think she’s coming not just to get an apple, but to visit you?” And I realized that she must, in some way—in a deer way—love me back.
Robin Wall Kimmerer writes about this in her book Braiding Sweetgrass. She talked about it with her students. It had never occurred to them that the land could love them back. She calls it sacred reciprocity. This is a relationship that goes both ways.
JN: What rituals or communal practices can help people experience sacred reciprocity?
VL: The core practice of Church of the Wild is a reverent beholding of others as inherently sacred. I encourage people to wander. As you set out, cross a threshold. Maybe it’s your doorway or some trees that look like an archway. Before you cross that threshold, just stop for a moment and breathe. Close your eyes and make it intentional. You’re stepping into the world as it actually is, which is interconnected, which is sacred. Wander slowly. Open up all of your senses. Listen to birds. Listen to the wind. Listen to human sounds. Look at the layers: how are the different beings interconnected with one another? Take deep breaths. How do the smells change?
As you slow down, you’ll feel yourself drawn to a particular place or a particular being. Ask permission to be there. Then settle down. The ancients used to call nature the “first book of God.” It’s a practice of listening deeply and responding and engaging in an actual conversation. You might want to do that with your journal or a poem or by creating a nature mandala with pine cones and leaves. Always end with gratitude. When you head back home, cross over that same threshold with gratitude.
JN: There’s a cycle between contemplation and action. Did your turn to a spiritual relationship with nature eventually lead you back to more public action?
VL: I’m so grateful for the people who do activism. We’ve got to shut down those coal mines. Then there are people creating new infrastructure, community gardens or energy systems. And then there’s a third level, which is changing people’s mindsets. That’s the work that I feel called to do. I direct a seminary called Seminary of the Wild that offers a year-long eco-ministry program.
“I encourage people to wander. As you set out, cross a threshold. Maybe it’s your doorway or some trees that look like an archway. Before you cross that threshold, just stop for a moment and breathe.”
We need everybody to integrate their love of this planet and their love of the sacred and their love of humans into everything that they do. Do it with your whole heart, without judging the others that they’re not doing enough, and without feeling guilt that you’re not doing enough.
JN: What’s your hope for the church in the midst of this ecological emergency?
VL: I’d like to imagine that the church can stop being a barrier to loving this planet and start being a place where you can go to learn practices to fall in love with this place.
Worst-case scenario, humans bring about the destruction of the planet. Well, then let’s love her, let’s love one another, even in these final moments.
Best-case scenario, the church re-connects people with place as part of the beloved community. We bring her back to life. How can we be a place where people learn these practices of restoring the sacred? The sacred is already here among us. We’ve just forgotten it.
Josiah Neufeld is a journalist and fiction writer in Winnipeg.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity. It first appeared in Broadview’s October/November 2021 issue with the title “Wild and Sacred.”
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