Finding Church in a desert

burning man Kronman

Photo by Anna Lisa Kronman

In August 2013, a desire to be purposeful in loving, coupled with some fresh thinking about church, brought a group of people who cherish Christian Science to an unusual venue: Black Rock City, Nevada, where the annual Burning Man art festival is held. There are many distinctive elements about this city and event. It is a global community of about 60,000 people who gather for one week in a temporary city created in the middle of stark desert. Everyone who comes is expected to give something. We came to wash feet.

We prayed thoughtfully and earnestly for ourselves and all those who would be coming, but we arrived with few outlined outcomes. We planned to gently embrace this city of lively seekers by seeing their spiritual worthiness as we washed dust from their feet. What a surprise that in doing so, we discovered we were in the middle of church! Being in this very unique environment led me to some new thinking on what constitutes Church. Here are a few ideas that came to me in that windswept space about Church pared down to its core essence.

Walls are entirely optional (but principles are essential). Our camp set-up consisted of a large white dome tent, a generous and lovely shade structure sheltering some chairs on a rug, and an improvised open-air kitchen set up between two vans.  Our camp’s real “structure”, though, that which gave foundation and shape to our days, came from the definition of Church found in Science and Health where Mary Baker Eddy defines it as “the structure of Truth and Love” (p. 583).  

About half way through the week, we noticed some passages from the Bible Lesson supplied a perfect set of “Bylaws” that gave specific guidance in our actions, starting with this simple instruction:

“A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another.”  (John 13:34)

When we were firmly committed to loving neighbors, we began to love each other more, even though we had widely differing styles. We began the week not knowing one another, being of different ages, having had different life-experiences, and bringing widely differing approaches to sharing our love of God and man. We did have opportunities to exercise patience and forgiveness! Yet, we came to love, appreciate, and trust one another. Practicing unconditional love bound us together.

There was room in this church for whatever gift people had to offer. We found there was not just one right way of washing feet. There was more than one opening question one might ask. There were many ways of meeting needs and nourishing hungry hearts. Each washer had a gift to give, and each gift was as unique as her own smile. The essence of our little community’s offering was a tangible sense of nonjudgmental, unconditional love, and everyone in our camp, regardless of where they were in their study and practice of Christian Science, was included in both the giving and receiving.

We shifted our focus from counting feet to counting blessings. At first, we wanted to know how many people we were serving, so we invited them to write their names on a sign. As our visitors began writing their thanks instead, we changed from trying to keep track of numbers to just letting the gratitude flow.

By the end of our week in the desert, we found we had all the elements of a full-service church.  We had gathered for a Wednesday testimony meeting and held a lively open-air Sunday church service, with interested visitors at both. One day when we read the Bible Lesson out loud, we had a Sunday School-like discussion, including in our circle one of the teens who first joined us. Two short well-received Christian Science lectures and a simple “Reading Room” introduced many to Christian Science for the first time. We washed feet, offered comfort, hope, joy, purity, and Christian Science treatment when requested, as well as food and drink, even provided some Christian Science nursing care. Around fifty or so seekers took copies of Science and Health home with them from the desert, inspired by its astonishing message and promise.

I continue to watch and listen for Truth’s knocking and leading, pondering how I may apply more in my life what I saw in that unconventional church setting in the dusty desert. My directions thus far: love more, judge less. Include. Simplify. Wash feet. Feed. Keep thinking and listening. Heal. Love.

  1. Church can be - and is - anywhere, isn't it! Thanks Anna Lisa.

  2. Thanks. I just joined the 2014 camp (CS at Burning Man). I am sure it will be a blessing for all. Loren

  3. This is so simple and so profound. You seem to have offered and experienced what many of the first Christians did. Thank you for this humble example of pure love.

  4. I love that you approached this event this way.... "We planned to gently embrace this city of lively seekers by seeing their spiritual worthiness as we washed dust from their feet. What a surprise that in doing so, we discovered we were in the middle of church!" That's the spirit of church! Thanks for writing all this down. It's very valuable.

  5. Wow! This is so cool! In a sense, your desert church can come full circle and return to cities and suburbs with the richness of your ideas and experiences. Beautifully written. I love it!

  6. This is beautiful!

  7. I love your comment the "Walls are entirely optional, (but principles are essential)". Thank you Anna Lisa for sharing your wonderful experience in the desert.

  8. Well done! A gathering with a similar inclusive purpose takes place every year at the Wild Goose Festival in NC. Hopefully there will some day be a Christian Science presence there, too. At these festivals, many are exploring what church can be and are very receptive to anything that has a direct relationship with Jesus' original teachings. Love the last paragraph of your post, Anna Lisa. That says it all!!

  9. Love how you brought the spirit of church to Burning Man. A quilter mentioned years ago I would love the creativity and since saved articles, yet this would be great to include in the Burning Man documentaries.
    Thank you all for making this such a heartfelt embrace inspired by MBEddy's "church of Truth and Love!"

  10. Supporting your church in the dessert, the cups of cold water, and washing of feet! Very apparent part of our "practice" as stated in the lesson this week. Would live to join you, will be there in Spirit!

  11. Sounds like you rediscovered the essence of church.

  12. " My directions thus far: love more, judge less. Include. Simplify. Wash feet. Feed. Keep thinking and listening. Heal. Love."

    How very lovely your directives very much you embodied church instead of going to or from it! Blessings for your precious practice of primitive Christianity!

  13. Thank you, Anna Lisa, and all CSers who participated in Church at Burning Man Festival! I know many were touched deeply by your Love and your sharing of Christian Science! I just shared C.S. with some friends at Green Bay up here in N. Idaho and one woman ran to write down "the name of that book" (Science and Health) and "how do you spell 'Eddy'?" Truly don't need walls to share C.S. and Church! Love it!!

  14. Cynthia - 7/9/2014
    II''d heard that this adventure was planned so it's wonderful to read your description of all that occurred, Anna Lisa. Congratulations to you and the rest of the group for pursuing such a destination for sharing CS!

  15. What a wonderful way to bring Christian Science to people. The verse from Isaiah came to me - Isaiah 53:7 "How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings, that publisheth peace; that bringeth good tidings of good, that publisheth salvation; that saith unto Zion, They God reigneth!"

  16. This is truly a wonderful experience and so good to report to the listener (us). I had never heard of the city in the desert - The Burning Man Festival. I am a new resident of the Southwest (Sedona, AZ), formerly from the Midwest. I love this humble, generous, loving, and rewarding experience you've shared with us.

  17. SO grateful for your sharing this experience and for CS participation. I know about Burning Man from family who have attended and was delighted to hear about CS presence last year and this.

  18. thank you sister for what you shared. I love your inspiration and insight into this deeply moving sense of church. others have shared their thoughts from the experience with me and reading what u have shared just adds to the richness of the experience. Much love to you.

  19. Never in my wildest imagination would I have though about this type of outreach. It prods us all to actively be "in" the daily practice of Christian Science, anywhere!!!!

  20. This is wonderful. Some years ago I had visualized something like this at Burning Man but dismissed it as too far out. Wow. thanks.

  21. You have really stirred us to open our thought to the infinite expressions of the "structure of Truth and Love" that we can participate in. How perfect - to do as Jesus bade his disciples/all his followers to do - to wash one another's feet - to love one another. And what a natural place to do that, literally and spiritually, in the desert! And the fruits! 50 SH shared! Oh how I rejoice with you! What is really lovely is when you said that "everyone was included in both the giving and the receiving." What blessings for all! Thank you so much for doing and reporting such goodness - and to TMC for giving us these forums for sharing such joy.

  22. Anna Lisa, your group's loving efforts epitomise these two Bible citations to me, "And how shall they preach, except they be sent? as it is written, How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace, and bring glad tidings!" Romans 10
    "Now there are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit.
    And there are diversities of operations, but it is the same God which worketh all in all.
    But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to every man to profit withal...
    But all these worketh that one and the selfsame Spirit, dividing to every man severally as he will."
    1Cor 12
    Well done!

  23. I love this so much! Especially, I love that you "even provided some Christian Science nursing care". This reminds me of this year's focus at the Annual Meeting of the Mother Church, and the discussion of each church member's connection to the Church Manual by-law for Chrisian Science nursing: to "have a demonstrable knowledge of Christian Science practice" comes as the first "principle". You are certainly following this at Burning Man and I applaud all of you and support your expression of the church without walls.

  24. Thank you all for all your comments and support of this bold idea. The washing of feet and clear seeing of man there in the desert will be happening again quite soon, August 22- September 1, and the group of Christian Scientists going there welcome your prayerful participation!