Tucked away in a remote valley in Washington’s North Cascades lies a community hell-bent on living and establishing the Kingdom of God in the world. Holden Village, a Lutheran church retreat center that opens their doors to everyone, is a place that holds deep meaning for me. Though I’ve only visited there three times, the last more than twenty years ago, Holden continues to keep a hold on my imagination and give me hope of possibility in the midst of impossibility.
As of early this morning, the Wolverine complex fire was two miles east of the village which was evacuated of all but essential personnel last week.Firefighters and village residents and staff remain confident that efforts to contain the fire and protocols already in place, including the metal roofs on most of the buildings, that Holden will escape the flames. Of course this is fire, a natural occurrence that has no mind of its own and no objective other than to consume everything in its path. This fire was caused by lightning strikes and it is difficult not to pay proper respect to Mother Nature and her natural cycles. If anything provides a clue to how miniscule our efforts to subdue her can be this fire does. And while we pray the hand of God would stay the flames and preserve this special place, I don’t know of any villager who believes that God operates in such a way as to preserve or destroy a church retreat. But in the case of Holden, whatever the eventual outcome, the Spirit that informs and guides Holden will not let fire be the last word.
Holden was the dream of one Wes Prieb who heard that the mining company that owned the property was ready to shut down and sell it off, including the structures. From the Village’s website; “A newspaper report about the closing caught the attention of a fellow named Wes Prieb, who was living in Anchorage, Alaska, at the time. Wes did not know quite where Holden Village was, but that didn’t stop him from writing to the company, inquiring as to price. Howe Sound promptly replied that the asking price was $100,000. On April Fool’s Day, 1958, Wes—by now a student at the Lutheran Bible Institute (LBI) in Seattle—wrote a second time. Again a prompt reply: still $100,000. Two years later, again on April 1, Wes wrote suggesting that the property would be “desirable” for use by the church or Lutheran Bible Institute. He received a telegram instructing him to call the company’s office – collect. The company wanted to give the village to LBI.
Wes realized that it might be time to let LBI know what he’d been up to. College officials were stunned and skeptical. With Wes, they made a trip to Holden and were awestruck by the facility, the size and potential. They also recognized restoring and maintaining the village was beyond the tiny college’s financial capacity. With start-up funding from several national Lutheran youth groups and efforts from many volunteers, the non-profit Holden Village, Inc., was formed.”
I don’t know about you but Wes either had been touched by the sun, or he had been touched by the Son. From those audacious beginnings Holden has grown into an internationally recognized place for retreat and renewal. On my last visit, members of the Seattle City Council were citizens of the village at the same time our church hike group was there with others from our congregation. It isn’t just for Lutheran’s and it isn’t just for those bearing the Christian appellation. But make no mistake, it is a vision and working model of God’s Kingdom. I called the folks with us at the time as citizens for that is who we became. Residents and citizens of Holden.
My first visit to Holden was as a chaperone for three members Luther Memorial’s youth group. I was still pretty young myself, married less than three years and a father not yet a year. But I leapt at the opportunity to go with the three young men as “adult-supervision” and we set out to drive across Stevens Pass, and up to a place where the Lady of the Lake waited to carry us up Lake Chelan to a place called Lucerne, not much more than a dock and a couple of outbuildings. The boat mostly serves as transportation for tourists headed to Stehekin but carries pilgrims from North Seattle and Minnesota and even Luther’s Germany to the dock at Lucerne. Holden lies a twelve mile bus ride up a winding gravel road. That is one way to get there and by a wide margin the most likely way.
But you can walk into Holden as well; if you have about a week and a ride to the trailhead an another ride at the dock down lake. I’ve done that twice in my lifetime, again with a contingent from Luther Memorial. Heading up the Suiattle River drainage one passes a spectacular campsite with an open air lavatory view of Glacier Peak that is hard to beat. Continuing east one passes a remote cabin before heading up to intersect the Pacific Coast Trail, a short descent to glacier fed Lower and Upper Lyman Lakes, Crown Point Falls and down to Hart Lake before hiking into the outer reaches of the village, past an old ball field and abandoned foundations of houses for married miners. The village itself is a collection of buildings one would expect to find in a mining operation, including dormitories, recreation hall, and a kitchen and dining hall. I’m not sure how we timed it both years but we managed to coordinate our arrival with the village’s observation of world hunger solidarity day. After five days on freeze dried spaghetti and “meatballs” and iodine treated water, rice and beans were not what we were craving. But portions are generous and by Friday the village barbeque more than makes up for the delayed gratification. The village even then was very “green” and very attentive to the danger of fire. Smoking was allowed but make sure the butts go into the sand filled cans.
But Holden was about more than healthy eating, Smoky the Bear, and a warm bed and soft mattress after a few days on rocks and Top Ramen. Holden Village is a cooperative community that asks a little of the residents but gives back much more. Sounds like what Jesus was talking about to me. One can enjoy informal classes or discussion groups ranging from how best to deal with frostbite to practicing non-violence and everything in between. A substantial library, a worship space for evening vespers, bowling on a hand operated lane, and ice cream sundaes between 7 and 8:30. If that doesn’t suit you, there are opportunities for service ranging from helping in the kitchen to running the printing equipment or working in the bookstore. Or you can wander back out onto multiple trails that take you back up to Hart, or off to Holden Lake or down to a quiet spot on Railroad Creek where you can take in the spectacular peak named Bonanza. The kitchen will even cook the trout you pulled from the creek that morning. Or you can wander up to the old mine which is currently in the midst of a major remediation project that will see the removal of the giant tailings piles which have been poisoning the lower part of the creek.
Personally I didn’t really appreciate Holden at the time for what was going on. In the midst of the Reagan Era, it was easy to dismiss the villagers as throwbacks to the 60’s. Idealists that refused to come into the real world. What I didn’t realize at the time but what Holden was teaching me nevertheless was that these were not hippie rejects singing Kumbaya and living in a dream world but a people with eyes directed faithfully to a future Kingdom. Holden doesn’t hit you over your head with it, but using a bad metaphor, it leeches into your soul like the poisonous tailings. One is certain death, the other though is the promise of a different life.
I am watching the Wolverine fire with more than passing interest. Holden is a place that crept into my system a long time ago and stayed there. As I continue to grow and try and understand what God wants to do with me I realize that the Holden I experienced will have a lot to do with whatever the outcome is. I pray the fire misses this special place, not only mine, but for many. But I am CERTAIN that if the worst should befall this place, that it will not be the final say. Holden will almost certainly rise from ashes. I include myself among a people that believe in resurrection, not just at the Tomb but even for someone like myself and most certainly for a place called Holden Village.
I was moved to write this from a post a friend of mine made this morning on Facebook. Another member of our rag tag youth group and resident of Holden. I share Aimee’s words because they not only made tears flow, but words as well.
“I dreamt of Holden Village last night. I awoke with the Holden Prayer in my mouth; Holden is more than just a place, it is a state of mind. May the Village be safe from the fire…
‘O God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.’”
Picture 1 Fire Hoses protecting the village
Picture 2 Pastel I did based on a small creek that feeds into Railroad Creek just outside the village.