VALERIE LUNA SERRELS, MA, Founder/Guide. Shenandoah Valley Church of the Wild gathers together with the wild others in the George Washington National Forest in the North River and Shenandoah River watershed, a church without walls on the edges of wilderness and civilization. Our teachers are the Black Oak and the Eastern Cottonwood, the Cardinals and Finches, the ancient lichen and the black stone, and one another. Recognizing the sacred in all of creation, and ourselves as part of nature, we listen in to the sacred conversation within ourselves, under our feet, and within and between all beings, as a pathway to personal wholeness and cultural transformation.
Valerie Serrels is the leader of Shenandoah Valley Church of the Wild. Her Irish/Scottish ancestry led her to research and lean deeply into the Celtic stream of spirituality. Her gatherings reflect the nature-based practices and orientation of her ancestors. Enjoy Valerie's interview:
CONTACT VALERIESHENANDOAH VALLEY CHURCH OF THE WILD WEBSITE
HOW OFTEN DO YOU USUALLY GATHER? We meet monthly in the forest, but we've also started meeting closer to town at a park for potlucks and casual conversation once a month as well, as a way of building more intentional community.
AFFILIATION WITH A DENOMINATION? None. My own spiritual background is varied, beginning with an evangelical/pentecostal church in my 20's, through years of engagement with Lutheran, Episcopal, Mennonite and community-based churches. I've integrated the best of these traditions, especially the social justice lens of the Mennonites. However, I couldn't contain what was rising in me within the walls, both literally and conceptually, of what I consider the domesticated institutional church. I locate myself now within the Celtic stream of consciousness within both pre-Christian and post-Christian landscapes.
WHAT DOES YOUR HUMAN CONGREGATION LOOK LIKE? Between 12 and 25 of usually gather. We've never had kids attend, but many are college students, some are older, and a few elderly. Most would identify as "SBNR" (Spiritual but not Religious), some identify with Buddhism, others as Christian.
WHERE DO YOU GENERALLY MEET? We meet in Hone Quarry Campground, a public campground in a national forest. Hone Quarry Run provides year-round water flowing through the campground and recreation area, with mixed hardwood trees including eastern pine, red oak, sycamore, and poplar. The area is home to deer, squirrel, raccoon, rabbits, white-breasted nuthatch, pileated woodpecker, different species of fish, snakes, and salamander.
WHAT IS YOUR CLIMATE LIKE: We have four seasons - hot in the summer, some thunderstorms, rains in the spring and summer and some snow and cold weather in the winter.
WHO ARE THE INDIGENOUS PEOPLES WHO CARED FOR THE LAND WHERE YOU LIVE: The word Shenandoah is of unknown Native American origin, but some research suggests this was the ancestral home of the Senentoa people, an agricultural burial-mound people, who were slaughtered sometime in the late 16th century. During the time of European settlement there were various inter-tribal conflicts, as well as colonial-tribal conflicts. The land we gather on is the ancestral land of the Monacan Nation. These lands was stolen by European colonists on behalf of King George, and sold or given as parcels to settlers during 17th and 18th century. My ancestors were among the first settlers in the Shenandoah Valley. For many years they were involved in various conflicts with Native People, being killed by them and killing them. It’s important that we read an acknowledgment of territory at the beginning of each gathering, honoring those who inhabited and loved this land for centuries before we called this home. We open ourselves to healing a kindred relationship with the spirits of the place, and coming to terms with our violent history.
Q&A: What led you to start your Wild Church? I started CoW as a personal response to my changing relationship with traditional church and from my shifting perspective around what leads to social change in a time of destruction from global climate change and cultural dismantling. I would go home from church feeling depressed and far away from any experience of God, or Mystery. I remember thinking that church did a pretty good job of creating community for most people. But it does not include the full community of beings.
For me, “church” should be about transformation. At the same time, I’d had an inside look at the climate movement, and had come to the realization that the level of change needed to create a world that doesn’t rely on extraction and destruction was not going to happen solely through direct action, as important as that also is.
I was led to start this after walking with my sister as she started the first Church of the Wild in Ojai, CA in 2015, after spending years doing genealogy and ancestral engagement with my Celtic heritage. Social change happens when people change. Laws can change and direct people's behavior. But if the guiding worldview and orientation of people is unchanged, new symptoms will arise in society reflecting the underlying roots. Behavior can change when worldview shifts. When we understand how deeply interconnected we are with everything and everyone else. If we have a relationship with a tree or flower or piece of a forest, we will understand that the well-being of that being is our own well-being... sacred reciprocity. Likewise, when we encounter the numinous in an experiential way, we become a participant in a sacred conversation that changes us. When we slow down enough and notice the sounds and sights and feelings and energy of other beings around us, and to the quiet stillness within, we can awaken to the divine union that exists already, waiting for us.
Church of the Wild is a space to remember our primary belonging - to our own soul and the Divine within, with the natural world and the Divine Intelligence around us, and within one another. I can’t think of any more important work to be doing right now in a time of enormous change, unmooring and heightened anxiety in the world. We are in the midst of a crucial paradigm shift and this work is grounding in the best and most literal way possible.
HOW DO YOU PRACTICE "EXTERNAL TRANSFORMATION" (Caring for the land, etc) I see restoring relationship to the land and creatures as climate advocacy work. It is through direct experience of reconnection that we will live into a new paradigm that understands what we do to the ground beneath our feet, the waters that surround our towns, the trees that provide oxygen, we do to ourselves. Last year we supported the 1000 flags project in Virginia that helped raise awareness of the resistance to proposed gas pipelines that threaten forests and waterways in our region. One of our gatherings focused on water and our rivers, and we gathered in the creek with a nylon flag we had all decorated and blessed it in the waters of Hone Quarry Run, to extend blessing to those creeks and rivers in harm’s way.
WHAT DOES 'FROM THE CHRIST TRADITION' MEAN TO YOU? This describes our community, but perhaps not in the traditional way. If by Christ Tradition we mean in the tradition of understanding that all of life is an incarnation of God, then yes. I stand in the long tradition of the Celtic mothers and fathers who understood the natural world as the original revelation of God. I also stand in the line of the mystics and the Cosmic Christ, the incarnational God that is the universe, who holds all things together. This revelation can be profoundly experienced in our relationship with Mother Earth, with one another, and within.
Valerie's LITURGIES AND Resources
Wild Church members can download and adapt any of Valerie's beautiful and poignant resources, including:
Invocation of the Watershed
Order of Service for Honoring St Brigid
Order of Service for a Celtic Samhain Ceremony
Order of Service for Holy Saturday - Tending Sacred Grief
Join the Network