The people of Christ the King Lutheran Church in West Chester, Ohio, are ministering to pollinators—butterflies, to be specific.

When its youth group learned that butterflies, especially the iconic orange and black monarchs, were at risk, the teens planted a pollinator habitat as part of the congregation’s care for creation ministry.

According to Youth for Monarchs, a service-learning program for youth groups that launched its pilot program at Christ the King, the monarch butterfly population has declined 80% in the past two decades, mostly because their habitats, including the milkweed that the caterpillars require, are being destroyed. Now Christ the King has dedicated part of its 8-acre property to growing native plants that feed and attract butterflies, bees and other pollinators.

“When you walk through a restored wildlife habitat—even a small patch—you become a witness to the abundance of life and goodness in God’s creation,” said Donna Pellegrin, a 12-year member of the congregation who led the youth group’s 2018 butterfly garden launch. “Every creature is in symphony, and you can’t teach the creation story any better way. When we teach Genesis and creation in Sunday school, inside sitting around tables, it’s not the same as being a witness. You cannot help but meet God in nature.”

Pellegrin’s daughter, Anna Lavin, now in college, initiated the garden at Christ the King. When Lavin found caterpillars suffering in the family’s yard, she asked her mom if they could save them. They brought the caterpillars to an environmentalist, who explained that the insects needed to eat milkweed, so the mom and daughter got the plant and nursed the caterpillars back to health.

 “An opportunity to teach people”

The butterfly project at Christ the King has not only aided the monarchs and other pollinators but has also benefited the community.

“The amazing thing about this focus of ministry is that butterflies are cross-generational and they cross every spectrum,” said Matt Byrd, pastor of Christ the King. “Everyone can get behind butterflies, and this has been good for the congregation and the community. To see people unify around this when people are so divided right now is miraculous. The gift of our land and caring for creation became an opportunity to teach people.”

The community gathers in June for the congregation’s annual Monarch Fest, an event to teach about butterflies and pollinator gardens, distribute free milkweed plants, provide garden tours, sell plants and offer family activities.

Pellegrin also offers educational seminars throughout the year, including a “Sowing Seeds in Winter” class, which gives instruction on starting miniature greenhouses in milk containers to grow native perennial plants from seeds. Last winter, parishioners and supporters from the community grew 500 native plants from seeds, which were then given away during Monarch Fest.

“The gift of our land and caring for creation became an opportunity to teach people.”

The congregation has also cleared the woods behind the church building of honeysuckle, an invasive and nonnative plant. Pellegrin is earning a certificate in permaculture, a landscape design philosophy that focuses on natural ecosystems, and had learned from a fellow environmentalist that honeysuckle was detrimental to a pollinator garden.

“A monarch habitat is home for many creatures,” she said. “If you restore the habitat for monarchs, you restore it for many creatures, including bees, dragonflies, hover flies and an enormous list of pollinators and spiders. We’ve lost 1-in-4 birds globally as part of habitat loss, and it has a cascading effect. We’re losing more than 6,000 acres every day. We plow it, pave it, poison it and it’s gone. We’re trying to do our part to restore it.

“We’re all part of this same food web, and every time a piece of this web disappears, it affects the entire web. Every time we lose a butterfly it affects us. Those it affects first are those who can least afford it.”

While the congregation had no budget for the garden project, local grant money, donations from nurseries, and congregational and community response have helped to make the gardens flourish.

“This has been an amazing way to help us focus beyond our four walls to the community,” Byrd said. “We did congregational revitalization training through the Southern Ohio Synod, and this project helps us focus on the needs of the neighborhood. People are inspired to see that our church cares about creation.”

Byrd said it’s fun to hear reports from the neighbors about seeing the butterflies. “Five years ago, when I showed up here, creation care was nowhere on our radar,” he said. “It has become a focus of this congregation, and it’s amazing to see people’s passion grow.”

Wendy Healy
Healy is a freelance writer and member of Trinity Lutheran Church, Brewster, N.Y. She served as communications director for Lutheran Disaster Response of New York following the 9/11 attacks.

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