Members of Community Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Tempe will be given glass bottles next spring with instructions to take them on trips to “places of renewal” during the following four months and fill them with what they believe is “life-giving water.”
At the same time, their pastor, the Rev. Doug Bland, will be on his own odyssey across Ireland and Scotland, then his native Idaho and finally the Hopi and Navajo reservations of Arizona, gathering stories about “living water” and “the gifts of water.” Next fall, pastor and congregation will reunite, waters in hand, to share their rich stories about the sacredness of water and how it has refreshed, healed and spirited them in their faith journeys.
Bland was recently named one of three Arizona pastors and 123 nationally to receive a grant of up to $45,000 in the 2007 National Clergy Renewal Program, sponsored by the Lilly Endowment. On the theme “What will make your heart sing?,” the annual program is targeted to pastors to realize creative and unfulfilled dreams that would benefit both them and their congregations.
“The responsibilities are continual, and the pace and demands of parish life can be relentless, often leaving even the most dedicated pastors recognizing the need to replenish their own spiritual reservoirs to regain energy and strength for their ministry,” the Lilly Endowment stresses in its materials. The Rev. John Geske of Scottsdale, pastor of rapidly growing Resurrection Lutheran Church in Phoenix, got a $43,759 renewal grant to travel to Germany, Greece and Italy to study the roots of Lutheranism to enrich his ministry to a widely diverse 21st-century church.
The “Holy Waters” project was a natural for Bland, a veteran storyteller, environmental advocate and chairman of the Earth Care Commission for Arizona Ecumenical Council. His project is based on John 4:13-30, in which Jesus talks to a Samaritan woman at a well about “living water,” with the words “whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become, in him, a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
Bland, pastor of the Tempe church since August 1994, said he was aware of the Clergy Renewal Program since it began in 2000 and had talked to a Scottsdale United Church of Christ pastor, the Rev. Eric Elnes, who went to Ethiopia on a renewal project. Bland believes his application for the $37,867 grant was approved because “we did a good job making sure that it was not just for the pastor getting away, but it was going to be a renewal experience for the whole congregation.” Furthermore, Community Christian has the reputation as the “Storytelling Church,” because it has hosted many storytelling events centered around such themes as food, winter’s light and creation.
Under the renewal plan, everyone at the May 13, 2007, worship service will be given an empty bottle to collect samples of water “from significant places of renewal” before Sept. 16. That’s when all will come together in a service to symbolically answer the Samaritan woman’s question: “Where can you get this living water?” Later, the church will erect a permanent water feature in front of the sanctuary, 1701 S. College Ave., as “tangible reminder of our sabbatical.”
During the last part of May, Bland will steep himself in Celtic spirituality and folklore through reading and research, as well as seeking information on Hopi and Navajo spirituality and stories about water.
About June 1, he will start off in Ireland taking classes in Irish storytelling from Liz Warren, whose work is tied into an international education program through Mesa Community College. During the next six weeks, he will travel throughout Ireland, visiting many of some 3,000 wells identified as holy and places of healing and renewal. He will taste and collect water, gather Celtic folklore and visit cathedrals and a country fair. He will move on to Scotland for six weeks, beginning July 7, including a stay on the sacred island of Iona, an early center of Celtic Christianity.
Then he will spend two weeks visiting family in his native Idaho, backpacking with a brother and drinking from icecold mountain streams that, he said, refreshed him when he was as a boy.
Through August and into September, he will turn his attention to Indian lands of Arizona, including a week backpacking with his two sons in Havasupai Canyon in northern Arizona, including researching uranium mining that is threatening Indians’ water supply. Bland will participate in the Paastuwaqatsi (“Water for Life”) Run at Hope, First Mesa, in which runners go from one spring to another “to celebrate the gifts of water.” Before that run, he will join Sierra Club volunteers in repairing the trails along the route.
Water has emerged as an international issue, Bland said. “Water is going to be more and more a critical issue, and they say wars won’t be fought over oil in the future but over water.”
In Arizona, he said, commercial operations are pulling water from aquifers on Indian reservations for such uses as slurrying coal, while “Navajo and Hopi people are living in huts without water and without adequate supplies of electricity and housing.”
Community Christian’s moderator, Lila White, said Bland emphasizes that members should be not only “hearers of the Word,” but “doers of the Word.” She said they have benefited greatly from Bland’s rich storytelling to grasp the seriousness of issues. The church, for example, it deeply committed to Humane Borders, a volunteer group that transports water weekly to tanks in the Sonoran Desert where the water may be the difference between life and death for migrants crossing the desert.
During his treks, Bland will write a blog for church members to follow his adventure and read his reflections.
Bland will incorporate his experiences for two storytelling concerts in October and November.
The pastor makes no secret of what he is especially going in quest of. “Personally, I am looking for good stories to tell,” he said. “A great story gives meaning, purpose and energy to my life and my ministry.”