BRYCE CANYON NATIONAL PARK, Utah (Deseret News) The short, black cross is almost an afterthought, wheeled out of a supply closet moments before introductions begin. Its arrival wraps up 20 minutes of guitar practice and nervous chatter, all part of prepping for a weekly worship service.
“You have to sing loud and help me out,” says Gabrielle Sheeley, a 20-year-old college student from upstate New York, to the three young people sitting near her on the edge of a wooden stage.
The cross sits in a supply closet six days a week, out of sight during astronomy presentations and other meetings in the Lodge at Bryce Canyon’s auditorium. But on Sunday mornings at 8 a.m., it takes center stage as Sheeley and her three teammates lead a Christian service for those visiting or working at the park.
“Please open your hearts and minds and prepare for worship,” says 20-year-old Meleeza Hall to the 12 people assembled on red, cushioned chairs.
Sheeley, Hall, 22-year-old Eric Meeks and 20-year-old Amy Auble are still getting used to their new summer work and each other. Today, June 11, is only their second Sunday in the park. They’re learning hymn lyrics and practicing leading prayers.
The program that sent these four young people to Bryce Canyon, A Christian Ministry in the National Parks, doesn’t expect perfection. Sheeley can miss a few chords and Hall can stumble over her introduction, as long as the team is present and ready to greet tourists and lodge employees.
From Memorial Day to Labor Day each summer, Christians affiliated with the program live and work in more than 25 national and state parks across the country. They apply for permits to host worship services and pick up shifts at park restaurants and shops.
The goal is to be there for people who may come to the park for fun but experience a spiritual awakening of sorts, said Amy Kennedy, director of placement and park relations for A Christian Ministry in the National Parks.
"The national parks and their beauty attract people from all over the world for excitement and adventure, but also people who are searching for something,” she said.
Filling a gap
On the Lodge at Bryce Canyon’s bulletin board, next to an announcement about burning debris and a safety chart for lightning storms, visitors can browse some of their worship options.
Local members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints gather every Sunday afternoon in the upstairs conference room of nearby Ruby’s Inn. Bryce Canyon Bible Church is a few miles away, just north of the town of Tropic.[ad number=“2”]
National parks are often in remote areas. Visitors have many hotels and restaurants to choose from, but specialized religious services, such as a Catholic Mass, are harder to come by.
Part of the mission of A Christian Ministry in the National Parks is to serve believers who are far from their spiritual homes and who might be open to an interdenominational Christian service if it’s convenient and inviting.
“We saw the sign outside,” said Nancy Wildt, who attended the 8 a.m. service with her husband, Ken. “We couldn’t find a Catholic church, so we decided to check this out.”
The ministry also addresses the needs of park staff, many of whom are seasonal workers who only stay in the area for a few months.
"We're getting to know people's stories. We're communicating the love of Jesus by showing up for people and being available for people who don't look like you or sound like you or have a similar story as you,” said 26-year-old Shelby Cook, who spent two summers in Denali National Park and is now hiking the Appalachian Trail.
When she arrived in Utah in mid-May, Marcum was shocked to learn that most of her co-workers in the gift shop were 80-year-old women, not people her age. She was grateful for the arrival of Hall, Sheeley and Auble in her dorm and plans to worship with them regularly for the next few months.
“I’ll go every week,” she said, noting that she attends a Christian ministry on her campus during the school year.
These stories of new friendships and bilingual Bible studies fit well with the founding vision of A Christian Ministry in the National Parks. The program got its start in 1951 when Warren Ost, then a student at Princeton Theological Seminary, hosted a casual worship service in a Yellowstone bar in response to the religious needs of his co-workers and park guests.
Ost went on to lead the ministry for 45 years, registering it as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit in 1971. The program has grown and evolved since then, expanding to include short-term mission trips and other service opportunities.
Although it's been around for decades, A Christian Ministry in the National Parks has to regularly apply for permits at each park where it sends workers. Local park offices must approve worship services, weddings, private tours, protests and other events before they can happen, said Cynthia Morris, who is in charge of resource management and visitor protection at Bryce Canyon.[ad number=“3”]
"Anybody, including any religious group, can apply for a special-use permit to have services in the park," she said, adding that she's only seen applications from A Christian Ministry in the National Parks and the Jehovah's Witnesses over the past few years.
The young ministry members at Bryce Canyon represent four of the nearly 300 working with A Christian Ministry in the National Parks this summer. Most members are between 18 and 30 years old, but a few are much older.
"We have some married, retired couples," Kennedy said.
They come from a variety of Christian denominations. The unifying statement of faith is the Apostles' Creed, which professes belief in God the Father, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.
Applicants are asked to explain their religious background, as well as how their relationship with God impacts their life. They list the three parks they're most interested in serving at and describe what's drawing them to the ministry.
The people who stand out are those who seem flexible and ready to deal with unexpected challenges, such as someone dying in the park, said the Rev. Spencer Lundgaard, the program's executive director.
"They need to have a risk-taking approach to life. They should be willing to go for things and be willing to fail, learn from failure and then try again," he said.
"People who come into this program with a set of expectations are usually the ones who end up disappointed," said Kennedy. "The park will be nothing like they imagined."
Enjoying God's creation
As a college freshman in 2006, Kennedy saw a summer in Olympic National Park in Washington as a welcome escape from her real life. She remembers sitting by a river in the park during a rainstorm, feeling more connected with her faith than she had in months.
"I had no cell signal and no connection to the outside world," Kennedy said. "For the first time, I was real with God and I cried out to God. I dealt with things I had been avoiding for a long time."
Many ministry participants have similar stories. Hall, who grew up and goes to college in Georgia, said she wanted to serve in Bryce Canyon because of how powerful she found the park when she visited in 2015.
"That vacation was a spiritual experience for me," she said.
People of faith have been speaking and writing about the religious value of nature for centuries. Advocates for the establishment of the national park system argued in religious terms, asserting the importance of caring for God's creation, said Mark Stoll, author of "Inherit the Holy Mountain: Religion and the Rise of American Environmentalism."
They'd say things like, "We have to protect the Grand Canyon. The Creator only made one," he said.
Participants of A Christian Ministry in the National Parks aren't necessarily environmental activists, but teams do care for the land they enjoy throughout the summer, Lundgaard said.
"They figure out how to steward this creation," he said, noting that projects include picking up litter along trails and at campgrounds.
A summer spent with A Christian Ministry in the National Parks is not all hikes and Bible lessons.
Ministry team members are generally spread out across several positions, including at the front desk, in a restaurant kitchen or with the housekeeping crew, Kennedy said.
They will work around 40 hours a week for minimum wage. It's a somewhat unusual set-up for team members in their 20s, whose friends and classmates might be on study-abroad trips or working in career-oriented internships.
"My friends and family are incredibly surprised," said Alyssa Sherman, 29, who is serving in Mount Rainier National Park this year after two summers in Bryce Canyon and a winter at a national park in the Virgin Islands. "They're proud and they love me but this doesn't look like the career they expected."
During a break between worship services, Hall, Meeks and Auble relax in a patch of sunlight as Sheeley, who also plays mandolin, reads through guitar chords. They chat about bad dreams and blackout curtains, remembering how popular the song “Jesus, Take the Wheel” was when it was first released.
“That was everyone’s favorite song in the fourth grade,” Hall said.
Soon, they’ll be talking with tourists and stumbling through songs sung off-key. But for now, they’re just young people, amazed at their luck to spend the summer surrounded by tall pine trees and kind co-workers.
(Kelsey Dallas is the faith writer for Deseret News. Follow her at @kelsey_dallas)