The sound of drumming filtered through the trees and called the people from their cars.
Toting folding chairs and slathered in bug spray, they came from the parking lot — some young, some old; some in pairs, some alone; many in Tevas, a few barefoot. Without speaking, they set their chairs in a circle in a leafy clearing in Turkey Run Park in McLean, Virgina. They grabbed drums laid out on a patterned blanket, gripped the instruments between their knees and joined in the pounding.
"Your hands know what to do," intoned professional drum circle facilitator Katy Gaughan. "Just drum! There is no right way and no wrong way."
On a hot and muggy Sunday, Church of the Wild was about to begin.
The church, which meets once a month in parks across the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia, draws around 50 congregants. Services, presided over by the Rev. Sarah Anders, typically run an hour and a half. Worshipers drum, sing and listen to recitations of poetry in an effort to connect with nature and fulfill the church's stated goal: honoring "the mutual indwelling of the Divine with the Earth and all of its beings."
Anders doesn't deliver a sermon — instead, attendees wander through their surroundings in total silence for about half an hour.
"We don't say the G-o-d word a lot," Anders said. "The emphasis is on God as a universal force. . . . Our mission is to help people come more into their spirits and their hearts."
Anders established the church in partnership with Beth Norcross, founding director of the Center for Spirituality in Nature and an adjunct faculty member at the Wesley Theological Seminary in the District. Church of the Wild met for the first time in April.
Anders describes her congregation as a nondenominational Christian church, but says she draws on aspects of "all religions" — for example, services sometimes include readings from Jewish texts.
She and Norcross welcome agnostics. They say they hope the nontraditional atmosphere will allow them to better explore their faith and perhaps discover God.
Anders was ordained in the United Church of Christ, a liberal mainline Protestant denomination, and preached for a time at Rockville United Church in Maryland. She quit that job last year. Church of the Wild doesn't pay her (or anyone) a salary, so she earns a living by giving guest sermons and leading religious workshops.
Anders said she left Rockville United because she couldn't bear "tripping over" typical church language one minute longer. "God as a 'He,' people as 'sinners' - I couldn't sit and hear it anymore," Anders said. She also wanted to spend her Sundays outdoors; sitting in a sanctuary felt confining.
On Sunday, all anyone could hear for several minutes was banging. Then Gaughan stepped in to organize her charges, leading the group in a rhythm meant to imitate the beating of a heart.
"Heart — beat — space, heart — beat — space," Gaugahn instructed them. "Here we are, one heart beating together."
One woman nodded and removed her shoes, still drumming. Another closed her eyes.
Gaughan led the drummers to a crescendo — "We're in the woods, you can be loud!" — before quieting them and ceding the circle to Anders.
"Our theme this month is spiritual listening with nature — not to nature, with nature, and with the other beings in nature," Anders said. "We find that as we honor the divine in the Earth and all its beings, we become more compassionate."
Sweating together at the Virginia park, congregants listened by practicing deep breathing. They listened by meditating for several minutes, guided into the subconsciousness by Anders. They listened as someone played a Native American instrument.
They listened even when they stood, grasped hands and repeatedly sang the chorus to the Alicia Keys song "We Are Here." Anders said Keys's lyrics — particularly the line, "We are here for all of us" — perfectly expresses the ideology of Church of the Wild. Congregants worship outdoors on behalf of "all of us," including neighbors human and nonhuman.
It's an idea that appears to be picking up support across the continent. There's now a Wild Church Network that connects 15 outdoor churches from Texas to California to Canada. "It's really a phenomenon," Norcross said. "We're one of many."
In Virginia, Sunday's sermon time kicked off when Anders bid the group to "open your eyes and begin your wandering." She invited them to "lean up" against vines and trunks — though "not that one," given its wrapping of poison ivy.
Worshipers rose and dispersed in different directions. Some marched purposefully along forest paths; others walked slowly and deliberately toward nothing in particular.
For the next 20 minutes, no one spoke or made a sound beyond the occasional snapping of a twig. One woman took off her sandals and trod barefoot through the grass. A man in a red bandanna stood face-to-face with a tree and locked eyes with its trunk. Another man climbed a nearby picnic table, lay down on his back and stared up into the green canopy, unblinking.
A woman in a pink shirt approached a small tree, leaned her forehead against its trunk and closed her eyes. She remained there for several minutes, snapping her chewing gum.
After the service, congregants chatted and snacked on ice pops and crackers doled out from a portable cooler. Milling among the others, 50-year-old Smithsonian employee Kelly Richmond said she's never been very into organized religion, but Church of the Wild provides a way to see and appreciate the magic of nature while avoiding all that talk about a male God and the "power of the patriarchy." Asked whether she believes in God, Richmond said she needs more information.
Kristina Byrne, a freelance writer who lives in Silver Spring and does consider herself religious, said she has come to every Church of the Wild service since its launch in April. Cradling her 2-year-old son Adisa on her hip, Byrne, 34, said that she has been worshiping by walking around the woods long before Church of the Wild began.
"To me, it's like the woods and God are the same thing," she said. "So it's nice to see groups of people doing what I've always done."