Considering Trees, Mycorrhiza and Safe Church Ministry: A Holistic Culture of Thriving Connections

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My electric utility provider is about to “trim” the big maple tree in front of our home. Normally that entails decimating all the branches remotely close to the electrical lines. The roots of this old tree are also lifting the sidewalk under it, which often catches the foot of my two-year-old causing him to fall right on his face, tears and loud cries follow shortly after. The leaves and seeds of this old tree are eager to fill the gutters of my house, requiring me to clear them out several times per year. 

I love trees, but they are not always the easiest to deal with. I rarely appreciate trees and forests for the unique way they were created—and I realized recently there is so much I don’t know about trees, especially the thriving connections within the soil around the root systems.

Several years ago I first learned that trees actually communicate, collaborate, and sustain one another through their root systems. More recently, my colleague shared this short TED talk from Suzanne Simmard, titled: How Trees Talk to Each Other.

In short, Dr. Simmard shared how early in her career she used carbon isotope tracing to show how trees of all types of species are connected through a sprawling network of mycorrhiza (which literally means “fungus-root”). Mycorrhiza is a mutual symbiotic association between fungus and the roots of plants. This sprawling system of fungus and roots allows one tree, especially the oldest and biggest, to pass on nutrients, sugars, minerals, immune responses to disease, and defense mechanisms, among many other items, to the trees around it.

Take for instance acacia trees, which are incredibly drought resistant and a key source of nutrition for giraffes. Studies have shown that when a giraffe begins to feed with their long tongue, grabbing leaves around massive thorns, the acacia tree emits vast amounts of tannins into their leaves which giraffes cannot bear. So, the giraffe moves on without killing that particular tree.

In addition, the tree sends a message to all the Acacias in the area so that they all commence the emission of tannins in a coordinated defensive operation. The herd of giraffes moves on continuing to feed and the acacias live another day to continue providing shade, a home for ants, and future food for giraffes.

The piece of artwork below was created by Lorraine Roy (shared with permission). It is called "Being Imagined #23." Her artwork consists of fabric, which she notes evokes connections with the natural world. She has also spent time in British Columbia researching with Dr. Simmard which has continued to inspire her ongoing artwork:

Trees survive through sharing nutrients and communication with one another. In an age of big technology, digital connections through the wide web of our world, never-ending data collection and analysis, conspiring over theories and superstitions, perhaps it is time to pause and reflect on a tree in the forest and the vital connections formed by the mycorrhiza. 

What if the “mycorrhizal” system that connects humans to each other, to creation, and to God is in need of great repair? What if the good “fungi and roots” that connect human beings could be utilized much more between image bearers of God, to sustain, care for or warn one another?

Certainly there is a lot to consider as to how humans can create trusting relationships, share language, and enter into deeply interdependent relationships that are characterized by faith, hope and love (1 Cor. 13). This is all exponentially more difficult amid a pandemic.

Nevertheless, I believe that cultures of trusted relationships, respect, and responsibility will lead to restoration within our churches, and in our entire society. Perhaps our lives together, integrated with the Holy Spirit, powered by Jesus and his ever-flowing grace, will lead to a renewal of the land, and healing of the nations. 

This year the theme for Abuse Awareness Sunday is Safe Church Ministry: Not just a Policy, a Way of Being the Church. We hope that together, in partnership with congregations and leaders, we can create thriving relationships and resources to help steward cultures of renewal, health, healing and wholeness.

We often think of abuse prevention in negative ways, perhaps similar to the way we think of a tree’s branch knocking down a power line, filling our gutters, or tripping us with their roots. Or perhaps we think negatively of abuse prevention like we think about fungus or decomposition. However, there are pivotal positive functions always happening between fungi and roots. The items below are practical shifts of moving from viewing Safe Church primarily as a policy, toward cultivating a holistic culture that stewards power in a way that empowers all to flourish. 

From

 

To

One or two people holding up the cause of abuse prevention

All of us upholding “safe church” as a core part of the good news of Jesus.

A regular required training in policy 

All the body of Christ sharing language to acknowledge and respond to abuse which affects us all through: 

  • regularly preaching and praying against abuse in worship services  

  • creating spaces in our church life for survivors to share their stories,

  • teaching children about their "circle of grace

  • nurturing a greater attentiveness and commitment within our communities to abuse prevention and response

Being primarily concerned about legal requirements

All of us learning about:

  • the dynamics of power and control within the church community

  • how abuse has been enabled by institutional patterns that often seek to protect the reputation of a leader and the church, rather than the person harmed when allegations are raised.

Rushing toward the pursuit of forgiveness and reconciliation 

  • Listening, caring and believing

  • Recognizing harm when it occurs

  • Participating in processes that may lead to the person who caused the harm to: 

    • acknowledge it 

    • take responsibility 

    • make right where harm has occurred. 

Conflicts dividing us through ongoing arguments or disengagement.

Seeking to be a restorative congregation, using “restorative practices” where:

  • the truth of what happened may be spoken

  • those who have caused harm take responsibility

  • restoration is a goal for our life together as a church and as a society.

The lone tree in front of my house has much more happening than meets the eye. Within the topsoil, clay, and sand—amid the natural gas pipelines, water supply lines, and sewage drains—is a thriving nutritive network which allows the tree to communicate and send energy. This solitary tree is not alone at all. It is likely giving life to the middle-aged maple across the road, that was struck by lightning several years ago.

In fact, I have noticed that this old tree’s leaves turn to bright yellow nearly a whole month earlier than the rest of the younger maple trees on our street. Most likely our tree is sending nutrients to all of these younger trees so they can keep on growing and thriving; it knows its days are numbered, but this is a prime time to give back while it can, as part of its role in this thriving community.

Resources about trees:

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Let's Discuss…

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As a SCM coordinator for Classis Muskegon, I should probably be most moved by the targets you hold up for Safe Church.  But I have to admit I'm really touched by Roy's fabric sculpture and respond emotionally to the fertile and exciting underpinnings below what we see.  It's like the iceberg below the surface that we can't see:  massive and solid.  Great symbolism here, Eric, using the tree mycorrhiza concept.  Thank you for bringing these points of reference together in one writing!  Let's keep expanding how our base of safe church ministry to go deep and wide throughout our church communities.  May your SCM work and your trees thrive!  

  

Participant

Amen sister and brother in Christ!

Guide

Amen, sister!

Guide

Thanks Jane! I have appreciated partnering with you as you minister in so many vital ways in Classis Muskegon. I look forward to our work together. :) 

Participant

Eric, this brought tears to my eyes. Yes! Yes! Yes! This comparative graphic is so on point, and as I read through it, I kept wondering if you were reading my thoughts and knew my experience. Sadly, I realize this graphic is necessary because my experience isn’t the anomaly. Thank you for this year’s theme and resources! I will pray for open hearts and minds and that families are blessed beyond measure by the increased knowledge and awareness of abuse. Imagine survivors seeing church as a safe port in the storm. Wow! Thank you! 

Guide

Kim, thanks so much for your encouraging comment! Thank you for your prayers for continued increase in awareness of abuse in the church. Yes, your experience is definitely not an anomaly, you are not alone. I also am continuing to pray that the spirit leads us in truth and grace as we become churches that bearing each other’s burdens and foster a culture of being a "Safe" church.