Mennonites aren’t usually described as an army. In fact if they can help it, they prefer not to be mentioned in the same sentence as the word.
But that’s exactly the word Harold Miller, long-term Mennonite worker in Africa, used to describe his dream for the future of the Mennonite church.
The army Miller dreams of is an army of “Mennonite tree-planters, willing to go anywhere in the world to plant the appropriate species of trees in solidarity with local indigenous people,” he told Steve Thomas in an email in 2018. It is an army Thomas, as National Director for Mennonite Men, is uniquely positioned to recruit.
Steve Thomas is passionate about trees.
As the co-founder and land manager for Pathways Retreat in Goshen, Indiana, Thomas spends many spring days planting seedlings and digging up garlic mustard in the center’s 14 acres of classified forest. An ordained pastor, Thomas is currently working toward a masters degree in natural resources and urban forestry from Oregon State University.
Thomas is equally passionate about empowering and mobilizing the men of the Mennonite Church.
Mennonite Men is a joint project of Mennonite Church USA and Mennonite Church Canada. Its mission, as stated on its website, is to “engage men to grow, give, and serve as followers of Jesus.”
On April 25, Thomas successfully passed a proposal to get Mennonite Men planting trees.
“Those who know Mennonite Men,” Thomas said, “primarily know the organization as raising money to make grants to new churches to get their first buildings. That’s a good thing, but even more important with climate change is protecting the earth.”
That is why this January, Thomas made a proposal to the Mennonite Men board to make creation care a big part of the organization’s mission. He proposed that Mennonite Men plant one million trees and protect five thousand acres of existing forest in the next decade.
Who are the members of Mennonite Men? Thomas chuckles. “That’s a good question. All men that are part of the Mennonite church in the US and Canada are members of Mennonite Men, but (many) don’t know it yet.”
Thomas’ project coincides with another tree-planting initiative, this one proposed by the Tree Board of Goshen and approved by the City in January of this year. Under the oversight of Aaron Kingsley, city forester and director of the Environmental Resilience Department, the city of Goshen is working toward the goal of doubling its tree canopy in the next 25 years.
The campaign to increase Goshen’s urban canopy from 22 percent to 45 percent by the year 2045 — dubbed “45 by ‘45” — is an ambitious undertaking. Kingsley knows success will depend on the efforts of the entire community.
Goshen’s high concentration of Mennonite churches, and the fact that it already has an established tree-planting goal, makes the city an ideal launching site for Thomas’ efforts with Mennonite Men.
The Mennonite Men board approved Thomas’ proposal on April 25. Thomas plans to begin work in Goshen.
“I want to begin here and try to put us on the map for what the Mennonite Church can do,” he said. “What I propose to do is to work with area churches to mobilize volunteer groups to serve the city goal.”
Kingsley knows that getting churches on board with the city’s canopy goal is crucial for multiple reasons. “Churches typically are places where there is space for greater canopy,” he explained. “And, if we’re talking about spirituality, there are few symbols as powerful or appropriate for the kind of divine generosity that a church claims besides a tree.”
Therefore, Kingsley said, “it makes sense for churches to be planting and caring for trees, even if they’re not paying attention to the ecological reasons for planting them.”
For Berkey Avenue Mennonite Church, planting trees is one part of an initiative to become carbon-neutral by the end of the year.
James Yoder, a member of the church’s creation care committee and leader of the property development committee, is making plans to plant a memorial forest on the church’s property. He explained that the new trees will share the church grounds with a set of newly-installed solar panels as well as a community garden.
Yoder hopes that the changes taking place at Birkey Avenue are part of a larger shift in the priorities of the Mennonite Church.
“As a whole, (the church) has invested a lot of money into producing Sunday morning services,” Yoder said. “I would like to see our investment dispersed a little more widely. Environmental causes are one thing I wish we would invest more of our resources in.”
College Mennonite Church doesn’t have much land of its own on which to plant trees, but that doesn’t stop it from investing in the city’s tree campaign.
“CMC members have played an active role in promoting trees in Goshen for many years,” said Stan King, a member of the church’s outreach committee.
Members from the congregation have served on the city’s Tree Board for many of the past 25 years, including two serving right now. And volunteers from CMC make up a large part of the crew that waters and mulches newly-planted trees around the city.
Last year, CMC raised over two thousand dollars for tree education with the help of a matching grant from the Outreach Commission. It plans to do the same this year, and will put the money toward producing a calendar promoting the “45 by ‘45” goal.
King believes the calendars, which will feature “tree art” by students from local elementary schools, will “bring a lot of interest and information into homes about trees and the essential role trees play in maintaining a healthy, sustainable, resilient, and beautiful environment.”
When Thomas wrote his proposal for the Mennonite Men board, he included a quote from a note he received from Kay Bontrager-Singer, a pastor at Faith Mennonite Church in Goshen. In the note, she wrote:
“It only seems appropriate and right for Mennonite Men to be about tree planting. Many of our Mennonite forbearers cut down huge tracts of forests to create farmland in the communities in which many of us now live. Not only is there restitution to be made to the Native Americans that lived on this land, but also to the natural world that was harmed as the land was domesticated.”
Jerrell Ross Richer, a professor of economics at Goshen College and a Mennonite Mission Network worker in Ecuador, agrees with Bontrager-Singer that Mennonites owe the planet some serious redress.
Richer, who has spent half of each of the last six years living and working among the indigenous peoples of the Ecuadorian rainforest, has seen first-hand the consequences of Westerners’ appetite for oil.
By driving cars and going about their daily lives, Richer said, “the Mennonite men are without even knowing it, helping to contribute to the destruction of the rainforest.”
“Mennonites care a lot about justice,” Richer explained, “but often we’ve articulated that just in the realm of people–social justice. That’s great, but in order to be just with people, we need to protect the land that people depend on.”
That’s where Mennonite Men comes in.
Richer and Thomas are talking about making the Ecuadorian rainforest the target of the second part of Thomas’ goal: protecting five thousand acres of existing forest.
“While I get it that it’s fun to be involved in planting trees,” Richer said, “I would say it’s just as beneficial, or even more beneficial, to protect the forest that you already have.”
The Ecuadorian Amazon isn’t just any forest. In an article published by National Geographic in 2013, author Scott Wallace called the region “one of the world’s wildest places.” It is a converging point for peak biodiversity in four main forms of life: plants, mammals, amphibians and birds.
A more recent National Geographic article published in August of 2019 likened the Amazon rainforest to a “giant air conditioner that cools the planet” by pulling carbon dioxide out of the air.
“One way to do justice for the land,” Richer said, “is to come and be exposed to what’s happening in the jungles of South America.” Another way is to support indigenous communities like the Cofan financially by being guests in their ecotourism project.
Thomas and Richer, along with Loren Hostetter, a Mennonite and long-term world-traveler currently living in Ecuador, are planning a trip that will allow Mennonite men to do both.
Neil Amstutz, Head Pastor of Waterford Mennonite Church in Goshen, was one of ten men who participated in the first Mennonite Men trip in 2018, a wilderness adventure in Taos, New Mexico.
During the trip, which focused on the question “How Then Shall We Live?”, Amstutz spent a night alone in the wilderness, became acquainted with the Taos Initiative for Life Together, and met “people who are actually making the go of living more simply with their life and having much less impact on the environment.” He described the trip as “an inspiring time” and encourages other men to take advantage of future Mennonite Men trips.
In reference to Mennonite Men’s new environmental focus, Amstutz said, “The organization is branching out–sorry for the pun.”
Thomas hopes the change will help the organization branch out in another way too: appealing to younger men who care more about environmental issues than brick-and-mortar projects.
“Organizationally,” he said, “this will help us be more relevant to the next generation.”
One Sunday morning last spring, Kingsley stood outside of his church, Assembly Mennonite, along with the rest of the congregation. The Sunday school hour that day had been repurposed for the planting of over 30 new trees on the church’s property on New York Street in Goshen.
Church members, both young and old, gathered with shovels in hand, eager to get their hands dirty and bring green life to their newly-remodeled church property.
“It was a really cool experience,” Kingsley said, “and a great way to get a large amount of trees planted.”
Afterward, volunteers from the congregation committed to tend to the trees over the longer-term, watering them with hoses and buckets as they weather their first couple of growing seasons.
Tree planting, Kingsley believes, “is a way to tap into the intuitive and caring side of men that far too often I think is neglected.”
Loren Hostetter is in charge of planning the last part of the trip to Ecuador: a visit to Sumak Kawsay In Situ, a reforestation project turning farmland back to forest to be used for ecotourism.
After visiting the forests that serve the planet, meeting the Cofan people attempting to protect it, and enjoying some fun outdoor adventures, the participants will finally get a chance to get their hands dirty.
The scene: a group of Mennonite men sweating in the hot Equatorial sun as they dig holes and gently pat dirt around newly-planted seedlings. An army of “Mennonite tree-planters, willing to go anywhere in the world to plant the appropriate species of trees in solidarity with local indigenous people.”
An army armed with shovels and watering cans.