I watched the last episode of Ken Burns’ documentary on the National Parks. It brought back memories of my time in the Parks. This was back in the ‘70’s, when I was attending St. John’s Seminary in Boston, MA. I heard of this interdenominational Christian group called “A Christian Ministry in the National Parks.” It recruits seminarians, theology school and college students to go out into the National Parks to provide worship services for visitors and employees. I would spend a summer and a full year in the program.
My first summer, I was assigned to Yellowstone National Park. I took a train out to the Park, which was definitely an adventure. I arrived in the Park during early June, with a suitcase full of summer clothing, only to see snow on the ground and the temperature close to freezing. I definitely was entering another world. The beauty of the Park took my breath away. To earn my keep, I had a job as a dishwasher at the restaurant of Lake Yellowstone Hotel. During the week I would be working, sightseeing on my days off. On weekends, especially Sundays, I would either be assisting a priest who would come to celebrate Mass, or lead a Liturgy of the Word for Catholic park visitors. Sometimes, I would be assigned to lead a worship service for other Christians. It was a challenge to write sermons that would be meaningful to the people attending the service. I got mostly positive feedback.
The Lake Yellowstone Area, home of the largest alpine lake in the world, was beautiful. And if you were not careful, you could turn a corner and come face to face with a moose. I took tour buses around the park, saw Old Faithful, the Mammoth Hot Springs, the mud pots, and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. All this beauty, and it really made me thankful for the love of the Creator, that He would give us such a great gift.
It was also an experience living and working with people, young and old, from all different parts of the country, with very different backgrounds. As someone who had lived a pretty sheltered life, I was to have some very “interesting” adventures. It helped me to appreciate the differences in people, to accept them as they are, as they did me.
After my third year of theology studies, I decided to take a year’s leave of absence. It may not have been the best decision I have ever made, but I decided to spend the year with the ACMNP. For the summer, I was sent back to Yellowstone, this time to the Old Faithful Area. I was again a dishwasher, but I did not mind. To be able to daily walk amongst the geyser fields, to look into the hot springs, and to lead a worship service with Old Faithful in the background; Oh boy!! Again, I was working with a great crew of people, both on the job and the ministry staff.
My fondest memory was of the time I did an overnight hike to a nearby field. The next morning, I woke up, got out my tent, and saw that my campsite was surrounded by bison!
My next assignment was to spend the fall, winter and spring seasons at Big Bend National Park, which is located on the Rio Grande in Texas. My job was as night watchman at a motel located in Chisos Mountain Basin. It was quite a difference, coming from the mountains and forest of Wyoming and Montana, to the desert of Texas. My co-workers had a blend of southern and Mexican accents; they were forever amused by my “Yankee” accent. And I was coming from a very large ministry staff, to a staff of two. I found myself doing four worship services each weekend, at various campsites throughout the park. I was beginning to feel like a modern version of a circuit rider. It was at Big Bend that I bought my first used car. God must have been looking over me, because that car was to last me a couple of years, and take me all around the country.
I did a lot of hiking and discovered the beauty of the desert; I could see why it attracts prophets and mystics. And from the park mountains, the view took your breath away. On my travels, I would run into deer, coyote, roadrunners, and javelina (wild pigs). I would take a dunk in the Rio Grande, and visit a small Mexican village.
The time I spent in the National Parks, serving God and His people, and being rewarded with such sights and memories, will always make the Parks very precious to me.