Saint Stephen's Starts a New Ministry: Holy Hikes, Birmingham

At St. Stephen’s we seem to already know God can be found and experienced in nature.  I think it’s because we worship in a sanctuary where stained glass windows have been traded out for clear views of treetops, moss, and other Alabama flora. Stained glass windows are standard in most churches partly because they tell illustrated stories from the Bible. In our treehouse sanctuary, I’ve seen other stories unfolding.  I’ve watched a rainstorm roll in and stared in wonder as the rain streaked across the windows and brought nearby streams to life all while singing hymns about Jesus. I’ve seen the sun’s rays brighten no less than two dozen shades of green, and heard a choir of birds compete with our own choir in the spring.  At St. Stephen’s, we only have to look over the communion cup to be reminded that God’s reach extends far beyond the church and into His creation.

It was this unique quality of our church that made us an ideal place to start a new ministry called Holy Hikes Birmingham.  A Holy Hike will be conducted once a month in trails all across the Birmingham area. The hikes will stretch from March until October with a break in July for the holiday and Alabama heat.  Each holy hike will be three to five miles in length and will either be easy or moderate in difficulty. The first hike was at Red Mountain Park in February and next month we’ll be ascending the King’s Chair trail in Oak Mountain.  In May we’ll hike to the Cahaba River.  The hikes will begin with a meditation and will occasionally include a Eucharist too. Most of our hikes will start at 9:00 a.m. on the first Saturday of the month except for May because of the Gumbo Gala.

Hikers in any part of the country try to abide by the simple philosophy to appreciate the wonder of nature without leaving a trace.  Hikers are expected to take nothing except memories and leave only footprints.  Long before this hiking philosophy existed, Paul told us in Romans: “Ever since God created the world, God’s everlasting power and divinity, however invisible, has been there for the mind to see in the things that God has made.”  Holy Hikes is about enjoying the things God has made and raising awareness for us to follow God’s orders in Genesis to “be responsible for every living thing on this Earth.”  Holy Hikes is about purposefully engaging nature in the communion and fellowship of others. 

During moments of our first holy hike at Red Mountain, I was sprinting to keep up with the energy of my daughter and a handful of other children who moved in bursts from mud puddles to hanging vines to whatever else captured their interest. At other times, I hiked at a different pace with senior members of our parish who stopped to look closer at ferns and appreciate rock formations.  Over twenty people joined us for our first holy hike and I’m pretty confident I spent a few minutes with each one of them.  I may have had more one-on-one conversations with different members of my parish on the hike than I have on any Sunday morning this year.  

I appreciated our hike more because we were greeted by Monica Romano, Red Mountain Park’s Director of Philanthropy and parishioner at Trinity Commons. Monica gave us a history lesson of the land and described the intricate twisted knots of mining tunnels that existed beneath us.  She told us the stories of how this land sustained families and gave economic life to entire city.  Monica shared one story about how white and black miners were able to rise above the racial tensions of the era because of the danger of their work and the need for working in unity.  In the red clay of Alabama, miners discovered the value of human life over human race. 

Sometimes life moves so fast, the natural world fades to the background. When this happens, we rob ourselves of one of the most intimate ways to connect with God.  God’s existence in nature means we don’t have to depend solely on the refuge of our Sunday pews.  We only need to step outside and open ourselves to God’s creation.  God is present with us in the way sky changes colors at the end of the day when we call our kids in for dinner.  He’s there in the early mornings when the dew is still fresh and the Alabama heat is slowly rising as we’re rushing to work.  He’s there in the evenings as the cicadas start their symphony.  We only need to go outside to be with Him. I hope you will join us outside to enjoy God’s creation on a Holy Hike this year.  

Allen Howell

Stasi Bara