“Healing River,” by Mey Hasbrook

Message given at Durham Friends Meeting, December 11, 2022

While not a usual story for this time of year – Advent, and what we observe as Christmas – today’s message I believe shares in its heart or essence.  I offer a query for today’s expectant waiting worship, as lifted by our opening song, “Healing River”:

Who is the Healing River?  How do we welcome the river? And how does healing arise?

As we gently carry this query, let’s visit a river this morning found in Yellowstone National Park, what’s popularly lauded as the first national park of the United States.  The land base is linked with 27 tribal nations.

Wolves now are abundant because of being returned to the land in 1995, after being killed off in the 1930s.  Yellowstone’s web site explains “the presence of wolves triggered a still-unfolding cascade effect among animals and plants–one that will take decades of research to understand.” 

A brief video documents and narrates the recovery of the land in Yellowstone, since humans returned the wolves.  Taller trees invite songbirds.  Forests regenerate, giving beavers willow to create habitats for more species.  And the river’s course becomes more steady with stronger banks, since elk seek refuge in wooded areas. 

This ecological process is called a trophic cascade, beginning with “the top of the food chain” and continuing “all the way down to the bottom.”  We are bearing witness to a kind of modern miracle described  “when an ecosystem becomes whole again”, and all because of welcoming wolves back to the land.

I wish to honor the healing that is taking place there especially with the river.  The river as Living Waters, establishing healthier spaces for an increasing range of plants and animals.  This possibility only arose through restoring balance.  The presence of wolves spread out the elks, ending overuse of banks; human efforts did not accomplish this aim in prior decades.

Again, our query: Who is the Healing River?  How do we welcome the river? And how does healing arise?

Twenty-seven tribal nations are linked with the land called Yellowstone National Park.  The park’s historical accounts of itself erased the Original Peoples’ own stories and even their existence.  This year is the 150th anniversary of Yellowstone, and a new Tribal Heritage Center was opened. One of the center’s aims is to bring “Native American artists, scholars and others to speak directly with visitors about Indigenous cultures.”

I pray that this small change – of bringing in some Indigenous persons with firsthand stories of Original Peoples – will become like the trophic cascade credited to wolves.  As Doug Smith, a wildlife biologist in charge of the Yellowstone Wolf Project, describes:  “like kicking a pebble down a mountain slope where conditions were just right that a falling pebble could trigger an avalanche of change.”

Yes, certain changes despite being small can contribute to the restoration of life and land for Original Peoples and for All.  Justice too is miraculous and brings healing, or wholeness.  How will we embrace the movement of Spirit? 

What is our leading from the shared space of what we call Durham Friends Meeting – this gathering in a Meeting House near the Androscoggin River, alongside a forest under our care, sitting on the lands of Wabanaki Peoples?  How does God call us as a faith community – and as persons of Quaker faith –  to welcome the healing river to our neighbors, to every kind of neighbor?

In closing today’s message, I’ll read a Bible passage of great importance to me over decades.  While it does not name a river, the scripture does speak about the Living Waters, healing, and change.  I believe it’s a bridge to the kind of change that we seek at this time of year.  From Isaiah 58 verses 6 to 12 (NRSVUE):

6 Is not this the fast that I choose:

to loose the bonds of injustice,

to undo the straps of the yoke,

to let the oppressed go free,

and to break every yoke?

7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry

and bring the homeless poor into your house;

when you see the naked, to cover them

and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

8 Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,

and your healing shall spring up quickly;

your vindicator [a] shall go before you;

the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.

9 Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;

you shall cry for help, and he will say, “Here I am.”

If you remove the yoke from among you,

the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,

10 if you offer your food to the hungry

and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,

then your light shall rise in the darkness

and your gloom be like the noonday.

11 The Lord will guide you continually

and satisfy your needs in parched places

and make your bones strong,,

and you shall be like a watered garden,

like a spring of water whose waters never fail.

12 Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;

you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;

you shall be called the repairer of the breach,

the restorer of streets to live in.

~~~~~~~~~~ | ~~~~~~~~~~ | ~~~~~~~~~~ | ~~~~~~~~~~

About the hymn “Healing River”.
American “Fran” Minkoff wrote the lyrics, and the song released the same year, 1964, that Pete Seeger spent the Mississippi Freedom Summer working for racial justice.  Singing to an audience upon learning of the murder of three young civil rights workers, the musician describes the audience’s response  not “shouting for revenge” but, instead,“an intense determination to continue this work of love.” Attributed to his memoir, as described here –  https://singout.org/folksingers-field-report-august-5-1964/ .

About the Yellowstone Wolf Project.
Video and article titled, “Wolf Reintroduction Changes Ecosystem in Yellowstone” (2021), found here – https://www.yellowstonepark.com/things-to-do/wildlife/wolf-reintroduction-changes-ecosystem/ .

About the Tribal Heritage Center at Yellowstone.
Article titled, “Yellowstone showcases the area’s Indigenous peoples for 150th anniversary” (2022), found here –  https://thepointsguy.com/news/yellowstone-showcases-indigenous-peoples/ .

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