Church outdoors: An interview with Holy Hikes
Church outdoors: An interview with Holy Hikes

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Key Resource’s Chris Hamby recently interviewed Fr. Justin Cannon, the founder of Holy Hikes

Chris Hamby: Tell us how you first started Holy Hikes, and why.

Justin Cannon: For much of my life I felt something I used to describe as a sort of “spiritual schizophrenia.” Basically, I struggled for years with finding some way to connect my longing for a lifestyle rooted in the Earth with my sense of call to serve within society and the church.

Often when I am in the woods, I find myself enveloped in a shroud of deep peace, embraced by a comforting silence or drawn into the orchestra of the cicadas, and just rooted in the beauty of the night or the warmth of the day. I feel very much at home in the woods, and especially in the mountains. In untrammeled wilderness there is a sense of simplicity and interconnectedness for which I long in my daily life.

I have felt for years that I need to choose between my calling to serve in the church (so often confined between walls and cut off from the rest of creation) and my longing to live a life deeply rooted in nature, as if the two were for some reason diametrically opposed.

I have found it odd that we cut down trees, make lumber, and build boxes (i.e., buildings) that separate us from creation within which we worship the Creator. During the summer of 2008, I received a grant from the Fund for Theological Education to explore this dilemma in my faith. I journeyed to Holden Village, a Lutheran eco-village in Washington State, and spent time there working as a gardener.

After that adventure and as part of the same exploration I went to Albuquerque to visit a ministry, which at the time was called Worship in the Wilderness, led by Episcopal priest the Rev. Jon R. Anderson. I discovered a model that brought together my two great passions: being in the outdoors and serving in the church.

Worship in the Wilderness was the inspiration for Holy Hikes, which has taken on a life of its own. Holy Hikes has been in existence since July 2010. We hold monthly liturgical hikes. Here’s a map showing all the different locations in the San Francisco Bay Area where we have been.

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CH: What kind of experiences have you had personally, and what have you seen during Holy Hikes?

JC: Walking along the bluffs of Lands End, descending from the stone labyrinth to the beach where we would conclude the Eucharist, I found myself hiking alongside eight-year-old Gabrielle.

She said with an inquiring tone, “I didn’t know we could do church outside …” I talked about God’s presence being everywhere and how I was inspired to start up Holy Hikes and she exclaimed, “I think God meant for us to do church outdoors!” My heart leapt with joy—she got it!

Throughout our hikes I have had many experiences like this where the idea of worshiping our Creator in the midst of creation just really clicks as fundamentally and deeply right. At every Holy Hikes outing, instead of having a sermon, we allow 10–20 minutes of silence to allow God’s Spirit who is “above all, through all, and in all” to speak to us through the beauty of our surroundings.

After this “sermon” time of holy listening, we gather back in a circle and invite people to share how thus far they have experienced God on the hike—in the readings, the other people, the beauty of the nature, or anything.

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This is one of the most profound times of the hike where everyone—including the youngest of children—speaks of encountering God in the wind, the waves, the smallest flower, a nature imagine in the readings that came alive in a new way because we were outdoors.

Each hike is unique and brings its own surprises and experiences like Gabrielle’s “aha” moment or profound encounters with creatures and the natural world.

CH: Do participants come back for Hikes, or is this more of a one-time retreat? Basically, has a “congregation” developed from the hikes?

JC: Holy Hikes rotates each month throughout the diocese to accommodate people who live in different regions and to visit a diversity of natural environments. Each time, we have regulars and a few new people. We have two families—each with three children—who are faithful congregants of this ministry who attend almost every hike.

We have an email list of almost 200 people who get our regular invitations and announcements and over 250 Facebook followers. A congregation has emerged, but one with no walls. They easily welcomes (and expect) newcomers at every hike.

Our ministry team organically emerged from members of the “congregation” and a discernment of their gifts over time. For example, the Rev. Sylvia Miller Mutia is a priest in the diocese who was attending regularly with her family. As a priest, I invited her to concelebrate with me one day and we’ve kept up that tradition quite frequently ever since, which led us to recognize her as an associate priest of the ministry.

Matthew Lanier also comes regularly with his family and just began helping with the music, and after a few months I asked if he would like to join the ministry team as the associate music minister, which he accepted. He helps lead call-and-response music for the sung liturgical portions and also helps pick hymns.

So many gifts and passions have emerged over the years: David Romain, now our associate geographer, has taught us about the land during hikes, and Wesley Capps, our associate lay minister recently produced a micro-documentary on Holy Hikes.

A real community has emerged that lifts up and supports people’s gifts and passions for this ministry. Most “Holy Hikers” have come more than once, and many come as often as they can.

CH: How do you ensure “non-churchy” people are welcomed into what might be a focused spiritual experience? Eucharist?

JC: Holy Hikes is quite clearly a religious group, as indicated by the name and the nature of our gatherings. Most of the people who attend are Episcopalians or Catholics who have their own churches they attend on Sundays. We hold the hikes, in fact, on Saturday mornings, so as to not conflict with people’s Sunday churchgoing.

The original hope was for Holy Hikes to be a place where “non-churchy” people could go to begin exploring the idea of church again in a safe, non-threatening environment.

That was not the case, but from time to time other people at the parks will stop and ask about our group, take videos of us singing, or stop and listen to a reading. These hikes incorporate a celebration of the Holy Eucharist, but hikers are not required to participate, and sometimes we have someone who might identify as ‘agnostic’ attend because of the uniqueness of the experience or just to get outdoors with a safe and welcoming group.

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I think Holy Hikes are providing a needed place for people who feel close to God in the beauty of the outdoors and long to connect their faith in God the Creator to a regard for the interconnectedness we have with the rest of Creation.

CH: How does Holy Hikes impact faith formation for those who take a hike?

JC: Holy Hikes are distinct and unique from any other liturgy and celebration of the Holy Eucharist because during these liturgies you meet new people, sustain conversation, are exposed to the beauty of creation, learn about the geological features, and encounter animals and extreme weather (our hikes are rain or shine). We believe the formation from these liturgical hikes is deep and profound because it is experiential and not theoretical at all.

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When we sing hymns like “All Creatures of Our God and King” or “All Things Bright and Beautiful” or “For the Beauty of the Earth,” these hymns are manifest right before our eyes. The readings also take on new meaning and deeper significance, since so often Jesus teaches using natural imagery—birds, lilies, seeds, fields, etc. Our approach to faith formation is very experiential, you could say.

CH: This reminds me of camp, when the camp would hike to the top of the mountain and do a small service. Does Holy Hikes have a different focus compared to a camp experience? If so, what is that focus and programming? 

 JC: The experience you describe of a small service in the mountains sounds very much like the Holy Hikes model. The idea of Holy Hikes is simple—celebrating the Holy Eucharist during a hike in the beauty of the outdoors.

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We believe that these two experiences are inherently deeply rejuvenating and, in fact, spiritually healing: spending time in nature and gathering for the Holy Eucharist.

Our hikes are not rigorous, and our liturgy is not innovative and wild. Rather we allow for the simplicity of the experience to speak for itself and minister to people in that deeply profound way that only a liturgical hike can do. We have also considered an annual retreat as well as different workshops throughout the year and are exploring those possibilities.

CH: What occurs after a Holy Hike? What kind of follow up?

 JC: Most Holy Hikes involve a liturgical hike with a stational Eucharist. We aim to keep the hikes between two and four miles, fairly level, and not too rigorous—so we can accommodate and welcome children and elders. We usually have three stops during the hike.

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We begin the hike with the Collect for Purity, Gloria, and Collect of the Day and then begin hiking. At the first station we have the Liturgy of the Word and the “sermon,” then sharing time. At the second station, we have the Prayers of the People and the Peace. At the third station, we have the Liturgy of the Table, and that’s where we conclude.

People then either picnic and hike out at their own pace or sometimes keep hiking longer on their own. Because there is hiking time between the stations, this becomes a time for fellowship, for welcoming newcomers, for suggesting future hike locations, or for just delighting in the beauty of the nature around us.

In terms of follow-up, there is no formal process for debriefing the hike, but people are invited to email in feedback. Often folks will approach leadership with ideas, suggestions, and affirmations.

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CH: If others would like to start a similar ministry in their own diocese, what should they do and what advice would you give?

 JC: While we do not have a formal “Mission Statement” per se, the mission of Holy Hikes has always been working towards restoring communion with all of creation. Holy Hikes started in 2010 in the Episcopal Diocese of California. However, we know this is not the only place where people either are worshiping or longing to worship God alongside the rest of creation in its constant and unending hymn to the Creator.

As such, we would love to see official Holy Hikes chapters and affiliate eco-ministries planted and networked together across the nation and perhaps even around the world. We are currently seeking people who would be interested in that opportunity.

Since 2010, and having held dozens of outdoor liturgical hikes, we have learned a great deal of best practices in the areas of:

  • promotion/marketing
  • inclusivity of children and elders
  • preparing and offering liturgies outdoors
  • insurance, finances, etc.
  • vessels and vestments
  • picking locations
  • everyday minutia

In planting local Holy Hikes chapters, we would be able to authorize these chapters to use our trademarked Holy Hikes™ name to promote the group, like “Holy Hikes-Tucson” or “Holy Hikes-London.” We would provide chapters with counseling on best practices and would offer ongoing personal support.

More information about Holy Hikes can also be found on Twitter and Facebook

Chris Hamby (@chris_hamby) is the digital producer in the Center for the Ministry of Teaching and an M.Div. student at Virginia Theological Seminary.

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