God’s land is in good hands at Washington Prairie

Environmental stewardship is integral to a life of faith

by Marcia Hahn

Members of Washington Prairie Lutheran Church have always appreciated the pastoral setting near Decorah where the stone church building has stood since 1872. When the congregation recently learned that a portion of the Washington Prairie land is a rare oak savanna—a borderline area where eastern woodlands meet western tall grass prairie—the congregation committed to preserving that piece of history and turning a bare pasture into an orchard for the future.

The savanna discovery was made last year when Washington Prairie participated in a “Greening Churches Internship” project sponsored by Luther College to help congregations learn how they can be more energy efficient and environmentally friendly. A meeting with Luther representatives found that a four-acre plot near the Washington Prairie parsonage had burr oak trees and soil typography typical of an oak savanna. Taking on the task to restore and manage the savanna area was a natural fit for the Washington Prairie congregation, whose early leaders have passed on a legacy of conservation and stewardship of the land.

“Back in the day, pastors were farmers too,” says Washington Prairie Pastor Mark Kvale. “Pastor Oscar Engebretson was very mindful about conservation practices with terraces in fields to prevent water runoff and erosion. Another family, the Bruvolds, was innovative in conservation practices in Winneshiek County, and so there has been a mindset in this congregation of being good stewards of the ground.”

Luther faculty members conducted environmental studies to verify that the land is a remnant of a savanna, and Pheasants Forever donated most of the seeds for native forbs and grasses. Congregation members brought their own equipment and skills to clean up brush piles and weeds along fence lines, remove invasive locust trees, and mow the land to prepare for a spring burn and planting of seeds. The project has been an opportunity for the youth and adult members to learn about their connection to the land and the rich history of their church. U. V. Koren, who is considered the “patriarch of Norwegian American Lutherans,” was the first called pastor to serve the Little Iowa Congregation, which later became Washington Prairie.

In addition to protecting the land, congregational leaders set a goal for the savanna to serve as a witness to the wonder of God’s creation by “creating a beautiful, quiet, sacred space for spiritual reverence and reflection.” To foster understanding about the project and the importance of being God’s stewards of the land, Kvale pointed the congregation to Genesis 1:11-12, Genesis 2:15, and Psalm 16:5-6: “The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup; you hold my lot. The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; I have a goodly heritage.”

“We are here at Washington Prairie at this place geographically and at this particular time, so what is it about this reality that presents an opportunity for us for ministry?” It seemed to make sense to a lot of people,” Kvale says.

The savanna project inspired a second look at how Washington Prairie’s 60 some acres of land are being used. Forty-two acres are leased for crops, 15 acres are woods, and four acres are now designated for the savanna, so a group decided to turn an unused two-acre pasture into an orchard. In the spring of 2013, congregation members planted 50 fruit trees—apple, pear, cherry, plum and peach—and some varieties of grape vines. They also build cages around the young fruit trees to protect them from deer. People were invited to donate $100 for a tree, and placards stating who each tree is in memory or in honor of are displayed throughout the orchard.

It may take three to five years, but Kvale says that congregation members are looking forward to eating fresh fruit from the trees someday at the congregation’s annual fall fest and pie auction. People are also planning to use the fruit to help local food pantries.

“If the crop really takes off, we could sell fruit at the farmers market in Decorah and donate the proceeds for a food growing project,” Kvale says. “Our hope is that this will be an ongoing project for the whole congregation.”

Both projects offer ample opportunities to educate youth and adult members and foster a sense of connection to the land. The savanna is an ideal place for weddings, and both the savanna and orchard offer opportunities for Sunday school classes, science classes, and college students to enjoy and learn more about God’s creation.

The Washington Prairie congregation continues to explore additional ways to be better stewards and conservers of energy. The congregation has been in consultation with the Mission Investment Fund and Winneshiek Energy District to raise money and secure matching grants to install high efficiency furnaces, insulation and other alternatives for energy production. 

“This is a very historic church, but we’re not just looking to the past,” Kvale says. “We’re a vital congregation with a lot of young families. We are looking at how to be good stewards, and if that impacts the bottom line, that’s even better.” 

The congregation of Washington Prairie, Decorah, is restoring and managing a burr oak savanna located near the parsonage.

Pastor Mark Kvale

The congregation of the historic Washington Prairie Lutheran Church, Decorah, practices land stewardship by preserving an maintaining an oak savanna and planting of a two-acre orchard.

The stone building of Washington Prairie Lutheran Church has stood in this pastoral landscape near Decorah since 1872.