Earth Ministers Hidden in Plain Sight
By Jessica Stonecypher
The creation partners with God in ministry, will we notice and join in?
My fascination with horses began as a child when my parents enrolled me in horseback riding lessons for my birthday. From day one, I was hooked. Their soft noses, graceful movement, curiosity, gentleness, and spunk connected with my little heart in ways nothing else could. With their help, I could soar.
As can be expected, with my enthusiasm came a desire to have a horse of my own. One year in particular, I begged and pleaded with Santa Claus, my parents, and with God. All I wanted for Christmas was a horse. I hadn’t thought of all the responsibilities involved in horse ownership like boarding, farrier fees, feed costs, and vet bills. Not to mention, I was busy with dance lessons, horseback riding lessons, nightly homework, and playdates with my friends. While it wasn’t the right time, my dream never died.
After graduate school, my family moved to a home next to my parents’ farm. It didn’t take me long to realize that the time had finally come to get my horse. After a great deal of searching, I found a beautiful bay quarter horse mare, whom I named Grace. Over the course of five years, Gracie walked alongside me as my inner horsewoman slowly reemerged. I am blessed that she continues to love my family generously.
A few years later, Ryder joined our family. He is a feisty chestnut Tennessee Walker gelding, always eager to greet me at the gate with a whinny. Ryder has challenged me to center myself and has helped me know when I am not fully present. Ryder is my mirror, reflecting the parts of myself I have trouble seeing clearly.
For all these years, horses have embodied the Holy Spirit in my life. They offered their friendship through my many ups and downs. They carried me to new heights and realizations of whom God made me to be. This grounding, along with my general love for animals, wove the mystic and life-giving thread of the creation into the tapestry of my soul. My horses gave me the motivation and stamina to remain centered in my life’s work and passion around environmental justice.
This calling sprouted in college, but some seeds had been planted by my experiences with horses as a child. Horses helped me see that humankind and the creation could embrace something other than a dominion-based relationship with one another. They showed me we could develop friendships and partnerships with beings outside of our species. Their ministry with God awoke a love for animals and the earth that inspires me all these years later.
In my professional life, I serve as a middle school and high school agriculture teacher at my alma mater, Zanesville City Schools. During my first year of teaching, I quickly learned that my students were tremendously diverse in their backgrounds and gifts. They fill my life with joy and challenge. Like my horses, they are expressions of God’s love and care for the world. Most of my students have very little or no experience with farming aside from the agricultural products they rely on each day for food, clothing, and other daily living needs.
What they lack in experience, they make up for in enthusiasm and curiosity. God uses them in amazing ways to bring about change in our school district and in our community. One of my favorite memories with my students took place two years ago during my first year of teaching.
Our biggest initiative that year was our food-waste diversion program, where we collected leftover fruits and veggies at lunch and donated them to a local homesteader who used our food scraps to feed her pigs. Over the course of the year, my students diverted over 3,000 pounds of food waste from the landfill.
Like most first-year teachers, I was exhausted by spring. I had worked harder than ever to get our new agriculture program off the ground and convince middle school kids that our dirty work of collecting food scraps mattered. It was an uphill battle.
To my surprise, one day at the end of the school year, one of my first-semester students stopped me in the hall to ask how my class was going. Standing next to him was one of my trusty student aides. As the intrigued student asked his questions, my aide enthusiastically answered each one. I simply stood there nodding in agreement and adding a quick comment here and there as I peeled an orange. I felt so proud of my students for growing into passionate earth-keepers. As our conversation ended and we parted ways, I threw my orange peel in a trash can on my way out the door. From behind me one of them shouted after me, “should have composted that!”
My students had done their own work and partnered with the creation, namely food scraps and pigs, to make a difference. At the end of the year, they were the ones holding me accountable, not the other way around. These urban agriculture students were making their mark in the world. Now it was my turn to step back and follow their lead!
God’s love for the world and creative action within it is inspiring. God uses simple acts of faithfulness like the one described above to bring about tremendous change. More specifically, God partners with all members of creation to make a difference. For example, the trees minister to us by cleaning the air and putting oxygen back into our environment. Without them, breathing would be a lot harder. Bees pollinate plants all around us, so we have delicious fruits and vegetables to eat. Microorganisms in the soil work to make nutrients available to plant roots so animals, humans included, have access to nutrient-dense foods. The creation’s partnership with God elicits in me a deep sense of gratitude for the living and nonliving members of the earth.
A few years ago, I was introduced to the concept of therapeutic horseback riding. In this setting, horses work alongside trained therapeutic instructors to support people with disabilities, mental health diagnoses, and other life challenges. Recently, I’ve experienced this work firsthand. My son started taking therapeutic riding lessons last year to improve his confidence and coordination. The horses he has encountered during these lessons are patient with him and work hard to make a difference in his life. Even our own horse, Ryder, intuitively understands he has a role in our son’s wellness. Ryder follows Isaac around our pasture like a puppy, gently lowering his head to show Isaac he is safe and ready to be a listening ear. God’s partnership with these equines changes lives in big ways.
Humans, particularly the most privileged of the western world, have done a stellar job making life fast and convenient at the expense of most everyone and everything else. We take the path of least resistance regardless of the harm we create and perpetuate. What we have gained in the name of convenience, we have lost in dignity. The most vulnerable of creation, from the fish in the sea to the homeless humans living in our communities, have been brushed aside and forced to bear the brunt of our violence for the sake of our comfort. Yet these vulnerable members of creation are working with God to change the world. Thankfully humankind is waking up and acknowledging the ministry of creation and our harm to these faithful servants. I thank God for these earth ministers and for their faithfulness. I am doing my best to heed their invitation to participate in their healing work. Will you join us?
Question: Where have you witnessed the creation partnering with God to make a difference?
Jessica Stonecypher is a United Methodist Deacon serving as an agriculture instructor at Zanesville City Schools. She received a Master of Arts in Practical Theology with a specialization in Ecology & Justice from Methodist Theological School in Ohio. Jessica is the author of Embracing Wholeness: An Earth Perspective for Covenantal Living, (United Methodist Women, 2018). Jessica enjoys spending time with her family, including her husband, son, horses, chickens, dogs, bees, barn cat, and rabbits.
To purchase the book from which this essay comes, see Partnering with God: Exploring Collaboration in Open and Relational Theology.