Topeka, Kansas to Baltimore, Maryland — Firesouls from around the country may physically be miles apart, but the work that they do, the spirit of serving as Firesouls and inclusion in the Firesoul Network keeps them connected.
Last month, we kicked off one of our newest affinity groups, Interfaith Firesouls. This affinity group is intended to connect Firesouls whose sites include a spiritual aspect to them. Whether the site is located at a place of worship, or is part of a non-denominational community, all Firesouls, regardless of religious or spiritual affiliation, are welcome to join. This affinity group is intended to help folks learn about what others are doing and share ideas and inspiration.
At this first gathering, we heard from three Firesouls, Phebe McPherson from Epiphany Chapel, Jenn Allen from Bethany House and Garden and Denise McHugh from University of Maryland’s Garden of Reflection and Remembrance. Like each of our Firesouls, Phebe, Jenn and Denise are passionate about stewarding their Sacred Places while incorporating relevant and meaningful spiritual programming for their communities.
Over 2 decades of watching what the garden can do: Epiphany Chapel and Firesoul Phebe McPherson
When Phebe came to Epiphany Chapel, the small Episcopal church community was a mere shadow of what it is today. With less than one hundred members and dwindling, when Phebe embraced the community, she promised to reignite the spark in the community.
Epiphany Chapel is an historic chapel in Odenton, MD, just outside of Fort Meade, with a notable historical tie to World War I and the military chaplains who used the chapel to support soldiers in training during the war. The chapel was built in 1918, with the intention of being a ‘home away from home’ for all people, especially those training to fight on the front lines. In fact, Epiphany Chapel is the only known World War I chapel in the county, and even in the Jim Crow era, welcomed visitors and chaplains from all backgrounds and ethnicities — this remains a point of pride for Phebe and her community.
In 2003, the cemetery garden — the Sacred Place at Epiphany Chapel was expanded and renovated, a bronze inscription of each Chaplains name was installed to memorialize those who served as healing pillars for a once disconnected and war-anxious congregation.
Phebe remembers the dedication ceremony to the 2,929 chaplains whose names are memorialized in the garden. “the sun came in, the names started to emerge. It was breathtaking, these names had never been together in the same place” Still today, these bronze inscriptions continue to bring people together,
“For 20 years, I’ve watched people read these names, people come to discuss their loved ones.”
Phebe was surprised to learn that among those 2,929 names, are the names of 24 Rabbis and 108 African American chaplains who served at the Chapel.
“History was being retold. And it all emanated from this garden.”
Today, thanks to Phebe and her initiative to revive the congregation, Epiphany Chapel is a thriving and diverse congregation that continues to appreciate the history and embrace the intercultural and interfaith legacy that the first clergymen established over 100 years ago.
In the beginning months of the COVID-19 pandemic, with the help of a Nature Sacred Design Advisor and inspiration
from a fellow Firesoul, Phebe oversaw the installation of a labyrinth at this Sacred Place. With support from a Firesoul Network Enhancement Grant this new feature offers a safe haven to all people, from all walks of life, looking to heal, strengthen and come together in times of need.
Although Phebe has retired from her position as Head Pastor at Epiphany Chapel, her passion and Firesoul spark are still burning bright.
Deep listening and championing engagement: Jenn Allen and Bethany House and Garden
The main part of what makes our Affinity Group Meetings so meaningful are the connections that Firesouls make organically, with each other. Phebe and Bethany House Firesoul Jenn Allen connected to share liturgies and prayers — what a fantastic way to bring two very different congregations together.
Bethany House and Garden is a three-acre campus in Topeka, KS. Situated between the two imposing edifices of the Episcopal Cathedral and Topeka High School within a community that has faced disinvestment, Jenn identified the need for a place of connection and healing in nature – a Sacred Place.
Some Sacred Places are passive, small pockets of nature meant for quiet reflection. The Sacred Place at Bethany House maintains these important aspects of a Sacred Place, and offers so much more. With an intentional, community led design (read more about Jenn’s design vision here), Bethany House and Garden is primed to engage the community in deep, meaningful, nature-filled ways. A culinary garden, winding pathway, mediation garden and Monarch butterfly hydration station are just a portion of the creative and engaging features of this site.
Jenn spent two and half years working with her community to help foster an inclusive, educational and rich setting for all residents. These sessions yielded clear consensus that community members were in need of a green space where they could spend time in nature without being chased off. As such their first order of business was to take down hedges and fences that created an unwelcoming landscape.
“It was amazingly simple!”
Regardless of denomination or church affiliation. Jenn works closely with the local schools, and often welcomes students onto the church campus if they need a break during the school day (Shhhh — She won’t tell on those students playing hooky!)
A plan to include murals by artist Michael Young, the artist who created the Brown vs. Board of Education murals on display in Kansas City is in the works. Local school kids will be included in this project.
Another notable feature on the Bethany House Campus, the Outdoor Chapel and Mediation Garden memorializing St.Simon Episcopal Church, which was closed during desegregation efforts. Design and artistic features in this section of the Sacred Place were chosen by former members of that congregation, who were left feeling uprooted and often unwelcome when St. Simon merged with Grace Cathedral.
“The outdoor chapel is intended to honor the vitality of those congregations. The pain that resonated with the community is a large part of why we’re doing this”
Alongside these exciting initiatives, student culinary programs and monarch butterfly ecology study are just some of the ways that Bethany House continues to engage students this year. Jenn has plans to include a Nature Sacred Time Capsule at the student butterfly release event this spring.
Jenn shared that she is preparing for the grand opening of this Sacred Place later this month. The grand opening celebration will feature four singing groups, group blessings of each space on campus, and a chance for the community to come together and discover their new Sacred Place. Nature Sacred Programs Manager Hannah will be attending the grand opening event at Bethany House later this month.
Resilience and reconciliation: Denise McHugh from the Memorial Chapel Garden of Reflection and Remembrance at the University of Maryland
Nature Sacred’s Firesoul Network Affinity Groups connect Firesous from all types of professional backgrounds. While Phebe and Jenn are both ordained pastors of church communities, these are not the only types of Firesouls whom we welcome into our Interfaith Affintiy Group.
For eleven years, Denise McHugh has worked hard to creatively engage students of all faiths and backgrounds in programming at the Sacred Place and Memorial Chapel on University of Maryland’s College Park campus. The Sacred Place at UMD features a labyrinth, which is often the main draw for passersby — that and the breathtaking landscape. With activites such as Light the Labyrinth events, Jewish, Hindu, Christian and Muslim religious ceremonies, memorials, weddings and protests, The Garden of Reflection and Remembrance has truly seen it all.
In the Spring of 2016, after the heartbreaking murder of an individual on campus, the Garden of Reflection and Remembrance was the place that the UMD community gravitated to. In the wake of this campus trauma, the community found solace in gathering at the Labyrinth. Six years later, the Labyrinth remains a place of gathering on the anniversary of that tragic day.
The Memorial Garden continues to a safe space for students and faculty alike — and the sheer number of visitors to this site is reflected in the volume of journal entries this site sees; Denise let usknow that they go through a new journal about every six weeks.
Denise is a passionate Firesoul, and invaluable resource for thestudents and faculty at UMD. While she is not a traditional religious leader, she is championing interfaith programming for her diverse community — and is a fantastic resource for other Firesouls looking to engage their communities in similar ways.
We will be holding more Interfaith Affinity Group meetings where we welcome any and all Firesouls who are interested. We look forward to further engaging with this group, fostering connections, and supporting their stewardship of their Sacred Places and communities.