Some residents of the Jackson Neighborhood in Fresno, Calif., have never traveled beyond the agricultural farmland of California’s Central Valley. One day in February, 50 neighbors travel east from the city as far as the eye can see as part of Neighborhood Church’s once-monthly Wilderness Program.
As participants leave the smog of the city behind, the desert landscape begins to change. Irrigated fields turn into foothills. Flora and fauna appear. Black Oak trees wrapped in mistletoe raise their branches heavenward. Higher still, monoliths protrude along corridors carved as rivers of ice churned across the terrain years before, bringing with them granite from the High Sierras.
At 5,000 feet, the dry valley is but a memory. Grass blankets the ground, and 1,000 acres of forest, including cedar and pine, bring new and unfamiliar scents and sights.
Just 50 minutes from the valley, participants reach the gates of Sequoia National Park, greeted by a tree so large it would take 25 people, arm to arm, to circle its base. The Sierra National Forest is nestled in the rugged and snow-capped Sierra Nevada mountains—landscapes Neighborhood Church (NC) lead pastor Joe White says some Jackson residents have seen only on a postcard.
On this day, the Wilderness Program’s destination is the privately-owned Hume Lake Christian Camps situated at one of the highest points of the park. Here, participants will spend the day sledding, hiking, shooting bows, canoeing on the lake, eating and learning alongside their neighbors.
Through the Wilderness Program, NC seeks to help its neighbors experience the beauty of God’s creation, build relationships and gain a broader imagination for what the Jackson Neighborhood could look like.
“What the Wilderness Program does is it takes families who might have never been out of Fresno, and certainly have never been into wild places, and it brings them into an environment that awakens their soul, and it gives us the opportunity to point to Jesus,” White says.
Jesus, people and place
NC is located in the Jackson Neighborhood, an 8-by-12-block section of concrete the size of a square mile southeast of downtown Fresno. The neighborhood is home to some 3,300 residents, many of whom are undocumented immigrants. The average annual income in Jackson is $26,000, and 71 percent of residents do not have a high school education. The neighborhood holds some of the highest rates of teen pregnancy in the U.S.
“It’s historically neglected,” White says. “(It) was ravished by economic depression and also racial segregation entrenched into law.”
White sees the Jackson Neighborhood as the church’s area of spiritual responsibility and describes NC’s presence as “gentrification with justice,” with a focus on caring for the most vulnerable and ensuring they have a part in the renewal of the neighborhood.
NC, which marked its fifth anniversary in January, focuses its activity on three core values: Jesus, people and place. Through more than 30 ministry initiatives, NC is dedicated to making lifelong followers of Jesus, serving practical needs and creating a neighborhood where people can flourish.
In addition to a weekly livestream gathering—meeting in person is paused because of COVID-19—NC operates a small business that employs its neighbors and oversees a family of nonprofit organizations meeting needs in the neighborhood.
The Wilderness Program, a ministry initiative of NC’s nonprofit organization, the Jackson Community Development Corporation, focuses on the core values of people and place, White says.
Creation declares God’s glory
Once a month, White and other volunteers from NC travel with their neighbors to the wilderness, places like Hume Lake Christian Camps in the Sierra Nevada mountains, Sequoia National Park, Yosemite, Kings Canyon or the local foothills.
Urban environments tend to point toward human achievement—with concrete instead of grass and lamp poles instead of trees—and are disconnected from creation, White says. The Wilderness Program provides an educational and explorative experience for people who may have never left the city.
“Most people don’t leave this square mile, so they feel like the big fish in the small pond,” White says. “When you go out to wild places, we are humbled by the fact that we are part of an entire ecosystem that God has given us to steward.”
Although three national parks lie within an hour and a half’s drive from Fresno, the wilderness is not readily accessible for White’s neighbors as a result of barriers pertaining to cost, transportation, fear of wild animals.
“My neighbors have not grown up with the mentality that those mountains, they’re public land,” White says, adding that in some respects, the wilderness levels the field for people who are disconnected from those spaces.
“It’s very equitable,” he says. “In some ways, that’s the beauty of public land. It doesn’t matter what economic situation you’re from or ethnicity you are, it’s public land.”
NC provides the experience at no cost to participants, including national park passes for families to use throughout the year.
“We pay every bill,” White says. “We pay their gas if they’re driving themselves. It’s 100 percent taken care of—food and everything. … The cost, that doesn’t really matter. It’s really about exposure. It’s about people and place. It’s about connecting people to God in a way that they would not be able to, given the concrete jungle that we live in.”
The program combines elements of adventure, play, fellowship and an educational component related to the environment—perhaps learning about tree varieties or leaving no trace.
“What does it look like when God gets his way in a place?” White says. “We see trees, and we see a care for the environment. We see birds. We see blue sky. These are all things that come out of the biology of what it means to live on this planet, and so as people who are Jesus people, we go, ‘If God made all of this stuff, we want our neighbors connected to that, because what does the psalmist say? ‘The earth declares the glory of God.’”
Whereas human ingenuity is evident in the city, God’s handiwork is on full display in the wilderness.
“We see neighbors whose minds are blown that these things are so close to where we live here in Fresno,” White says, adding later: “We hear a lot of stories like, ‘I didn’t know this was this close,’ or ‘Wow, this is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.’”
Matthew Fabrizio has participated in two Wilderness Program outings, traveling to Hume Lake and the San Joaquin River Gorge.
“I had a wonderful time at each,” Fabrizio says. “The outing was organized, fun and enjoyable. My favorite part so far has been being able to get out into nature with a variety of different people in different places.”
The experience brought new opportunities.
“For me and my wife, it has been a very enjoyable experience, providing awesome community-building opportunities,” Fabrizio says. “I believe it has done the same for others, as well as the opportunity to do things that we might not normally choose to do.”
White says the experience can have the effect of widening participants’ imaginations.
“When you go to the mountains and you’re sitting there in this wild place that isn’t contingent on you and what you created, it sparks people’s imagination for what our own neighborhood could look like,” White says. “You’re more willing to plant a tree when you’ve seen some that are fully mature. You’re more willing to grow some food in your front yard when you realize that the world is abundant and doesn’t need you.”
More like heaven
NC has taken neighbors on between six to eight wilderness adventures, and White says he intends to continue through the year and hopes to receive a state grant to continue the program.
“We want to be in a loving relationship with people that leads to a relationship with Jesus,” White says. “We want those folks to imagine ways that our neighborhood could look more like heaven.”
As February’s Wilderness Program at Hume Lake concludes, participants share about their experience before traveling down the mountain together. The trees thin. The air quality worsens. The valley is dry and desolate compared to the mountains, and returning to the Jackson Neighborhood brings homeless encampments and alleyways littered with trash. But there is possibility, as residents imagine what the neighborhood could look like if God had his way.
“We see the wilderness program as an on-ramp,” White says. “It’s an on-ramp for people to build relationships, see things they may have never seen before, open their imagination to what’s possible and deeply connect them to their place—the neighborhood that they come from—in a new way.”