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The almighty alfresco: Commune with nature at outdoor services

Worshiping in the great outdoors is something Cathy Linden Leathers loves about summer. Her parish — St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in South Buffalo — conducts mass out on the church lawn when weather permits.

This shows we are alive and also serves as an outreach. You never know when that one soul who has been searching just might cross your path, and our parish waits with an open hand,” Leathers said. “The priest we had many years ago said, ‘What better place to hold church than in God’s cathedral?’”

Offering thanks and praise surrounded by nature is a welcome part of the summer season for several places of worship in Western New York, regardless of denomination.

Rabbi Jonathan Freirich of Buffalo’s Temple Beth Zion believes in the value of services in the natural versus built environment.

“One place of real need in contemporary society is a deeper connection between nature and sacred places,” he says. “All religions offer the opportunity for pause, and one of the most holy places to make that connection is in natural beauty.”

Rabbi Freirich hosts his own outdoor services, sometimes incorporating yoga (“Jewish content with movement,” he says) to broaden and deepen spiritual experience.

The weekly outdoor mass at Sacred Heart of Jesus in Bowmansville is a parish tradition, says Father Robert W. Zilliox, chuckling that some parishioners keep lawn chairs in the trunk of their cars just for this purpose. Despite the informal setting, the music and liturgy are still solemn, but Father Zilliox said that outdoor mass tends to be more family-oriented. “Parishioners look forward to mass outside,” said Father Zilliox. “You see the clouds and hear the birds. It reminds us that God is the creator of all things. Church isn’t the building, it’s the people, no matter where we celebrate.”

In East Aurora, it’s a sure sign of summer when the banner stretches across the Main Street bridge, announcing that the East Aurora Wesleyan Church will resume its outdoor services in Hamlin Park. Also in East Aurora, Pathways Christian Fellowship plans an outdoor service once each summer.

“For me this reinforces the idea that the church isn’t a building. It’s a gathering of people,” said Pathways Pastor Frank Cerny. Church members work together to develop a theme and plan out the details of an enhanced worship experience.

“A couple years ago our theme was recreating the 1800s picnic atmosphere. This draws people together differently and helps build community,” said Pastor Cerny. The final result is a BYOS (bring your own seating) service with a cappella music, and lots of families and children who often romp about during worship. In short, says Pastor Cerny, it’s relaxed, a good thing to be once in awhile.

Amen to that.

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