Pastor leads summer devotions on the water

By Madeline Pillow

  Gary Heaton prepares to preach at the river.

(Click here to view "Downriver Devotion" by conference videographer Nick Ruxton)

“There’s a lot of grace out here,” the Rev. Gary Heaton says as he paddles his canoe on the Roanoke River to what’s known as “Downriver Devotion.” Heaton, over the last four years, has paddled this same course and knows where the rocks are as well as the sandbars. Having seen the river at high and low water, he is in active relationship as he paddles.

Every Wednesday during the summer, Heaton has paddled to the sycamore tree at the Greenway mile post 22.7 at noon.

Under this sycamore, “Downriver Devotion” is an opportunity for any and all off the Greenway, the jogging path in Roanoke. While Heaton’s church, Greene Memorial UMC, Roanoke District, has a mid-week service each week, the summer devotions are an active attempt to get the church outside of its traditional walls. The service is usually around 10 minutes complete with music, Scripture and a message. On this particular Wednesday that we traveled with Heaton, he led music with his harmonica.

“It is an opportunity to be in creation, to develop a relationship with creation,” said Heaton. “I have to tell you over the four years that I’ve been doing this, I’ve become very intimate with this river and you really get a sense of creation as a being with which you can have a relationship. There’s something very life-giving about that.”

While on the river, Heaton shares his love of nature and how it influences his ministry. He uses words like rhythm, applying it as easily to his ministry as to the river we are floating upon.

“Paddling is part of the rhythm of my spirituality and the rhythm of my worship week,” Heaton shared.

It’s important to Heaton, he says, that both he and his church don’t highly publicize the weekly devotions; rather, he enjoys that people in the community stumble upon it.

“We don’t advertise this, we don’t put a big spread in the paper, we let people discover it kind of like that flea market feeling that when people find something they think is really neat they have that thrill of finding it,” said Heaton. “I think that’s part of why we let this be a hidden gem in this beautiful spot and the people who discover it find it brings them life and energy.”

How it started

Heaton shared that one of the neatest things about the devotion is that the idea came from a community member. Heaton was paddling with a Recreation Department staff person when he shared with Heaton that a weekly service should be done on the water.

While Heaton acknowledges that people might say an outdoor ministry is simply recreation for him, he takes it a step further.

“It’s also evangelistic. It’s taking the Gospel into a setting where people can happen by it. My congregations have over time willingly and enthusiastically become a part of that and wanted to be associated with that,” Heaton said.

He shared that he has conducted two river baptisms for young adults and that it had been embraced by his church because they have now become familiar being in an outdoor setting and making it a part of their worship.

Getting outside the church walls
Heaton notes that getting out into nature not only satisfies an environmental justice standpoint but also a biblical one.

“We live in an urban setting. People spend a lot of time under fluorescent lights, inside buildings and under roofs. And yet we are a biblical people and our Scriptures were written by people who spent most of their time in the out of doors,” said Heaton. “I think a good way to be a biblical Christian is to be at least familiar with the context of the setting of where our Scriptures were written. To be comfortable in the out of doors, I’m going to say is an essential part of being a good biblical scholar.”

From an environmental standpoint, Heaton said, knowing a simple thing as if the city of Roanoke’s water is clean or dirty is an important part of being a citizen. As the church, Heaton said, its prompting to get outside their walls can help arouse interest in the community’s world around them and start an engagement with the environment.

For Heaton, the devotions are not about the numbers, he said. Rain or shine, he makes the paddle down to mile post 22.7. He shared that even in the heat or rain, there have always been individuals there. In his quest to be a non-anxious leader, Heaton said he sees how the church places a lot of anxiety on leaders if performance does not produce a large number of people.

“A big part of spirituality is not driven by the number of people who show up its more about that mystical connection between you and your Creator that other people are drawn to. The success of the “Downriver Devotion,” I would say, has been the people who have discovered in their own spirituality a desire to be in touch with creation,” said Heaton.

-Madeline Pillow is the editor of the Virginia Advocate.


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