Deer in Headlights: A Model for Redemption
(The following piece was submitted by Rev. Duncan Martin, pastor at Antioch-Oak Grove UMC in King, NC. Duncan is a former Rural Ministry Fellow at Duke Divinity School.)
Anyone who has spent more than a few hours in rural North Carolina is well aware of the war that is waged on unlit back roads after dark. At dusk, veiled behind vines of kudzu, the deer patiently perch, ready to unleash their attack on hapless drivers and their high beam headlights. The NC Department of Transportation estimates that approximately 15,000 deer-related automobile accidents occur annually in North Carolina. Sadly, this life-and-death game of chicken between deer and driver will not end until we find a way to peacefully coexist with our beastly brethren.
We do not stand alone in this struggle. In Alaska, 300-400 moose are killed annually on roadways. In response, the State of Alaska has developed a “moose recovery program” through which the state partners with churches and community organizations to salvage moose meat from automobile accidents and distribute it to the poor. I learned of this program through Rev. Michael Yost, a friend who is a Minister in the Church of the Nazarene in Eagle River, Alaska, and whose church participates in the program. Here is how it works. When a moose is struck on a roadway, the local authorities immediately call one of many organizations on a list (often at 2:00 or 3:00 am) who in turn salvage undamaged meat within an hour, process it into ground meat, and freeze it so that it may be distributed to those in need.
I must admit that my first response to this program was one of suspicion. Having seen and smelled the bloated corpses of deer on our own roadways, I was hesitant to imagine anyone eating this meat. However, I was quickly reminded that subzero temperatures make it much more practical to harvest the meat from the roadside.
For churches, this feeding and recovery program is not only an opportunity to feed the poor. It represents much more. As Michael Pollan argues in “The Botany of Desire”, this ministry takes seriously the fact that human beings are not only observers of nature but that our actions and habits form and are formed by the plants and animals that are members of our communities. We are not just passive observers of God’s creation. Rather, when God graced the first humans with dominion over all of creation, we became integral participants in the constant cycle of re-creation which God put into place.
Unfortunately, as in the case of our deer and moose, we often fail at such a grand task. The reality is that our cities and rural communities have expanded to the point where many plants and animals have nowhere to go. We have forgotten that our communities include all of God’s creation.
This is why ministries like the moose recovery program are so vital for our churches to participate in and create. These are ways for us to begin to imagine redemption in the midst of the death and destruction that we find ourselves in. Rev. Yost says that “it is unfortunate that these animals have to die, but at the same time the death of the animal may mean life for someone else.” Ministries like these take seriously our failures and sins, while at the same time allowing God’s grace to work in spite of and in the midst of them.
Unfortunately, we do we do not have moose in North Carolina. However, all of our communities are touched by tragedy, hunger, and sickness. As a church, we are called to have resurrection-imaginations. We are called to dream of how our hope in the resurrection can be embodied in ways that can only happen with the grace of God.
How often do we stand like deer in headlights in the face of often overwhelming pain and suffering? How might we begin to evaluate our communities and imagine ways that the church can embody the redemption offered to us on the cross and in the resurrection?