This year, for the first time in decades, an otter was spotted in the Cuyahoga River in Northeast Ohio. After a history of pollution and neglect made famous by the 1969 fire that in many ways resulted in the environmental movement, enough fish had returned to a stretch of the river that otters could again see in this region a viable place to live and thrive.
Similarly, in New York Harbor a resurgence of oysters is showing that decades of environmental stewardship is actually making a difference. Though that’s more a case of activists dumping oysters into the harbor, the point is that they’re surviving and even contributing again to the improving ecosystem: they’re not quite ready to be served as hors d’oeuvres yet but an adult oyster can still filter water at a rate of about 50 gallons a day.
But back to the otters. That kind of good news is rare and hard-won, and speaks of something hopeful on the other side of years of hard work. It suggests that sometimes renewal and growth only happen when the system is finally ready for it to happen… but that readiness can neither be manufactured nor rushed.
Consider all the ways that will not get those otters back: one cannot market to an otter. One cannot take an otter out for coffee to explain why they should come back, or that they were wrong to leave in the first place. One can, I suppose, hire an otter wrangler, and perhaps even import some otters, but if the water isn’t clean enough and the fish aren’t there, then the otters you force into your ecosystem won’t stay.
Many of our churches are like that river, and we long to get the otters back. There’s not many quick fixes. But if our focus is the faithfulness and vitality of the community, it will take some work (and some time) but one day we may well begin to see some new life return.
It’s hard to predict because the Holy Spirit moves on her own good time: in a previous church I remember how much we wanted fast results, yet it was a good handful of years at least before we saw many “otters” swimming our way. But the point is that after way more years then we’d hoped, they did start showing up. Folks who didn’t know our history and didn’t know us through the usual channels. Folks beyond the immediate core group & their friends, who for some reason had begun to recognize our church as place where they and their families could thrive, whose presence showed us that something positive was moving beneath the surface.
When it happened, it was a little like stumbling upon an otter in the river where one hadn’t been for a while: joyful, unexpected, grace-filled, but also the fruit of of years of intentional and creative work.