Summer of 1993
Chapter 4--A Christian Ministry
in Grant Village
My main reason for being in Yellowstone
that summer was to volunteer for an organization called A Christian Ministry
in the National Parks. ACMNP is an interdenominational movement founded
by Warren Ost to offer religious services for visitors and employees in
Yellowstone National Park. It is not a missionary group nor is it
affiliated with a particular denomination like the Campus Crusaders and
the Innovators. It is an ecumenical attempt at bringing the denominations
together for worship in Yellowstone. ACMNP specifically assigned
me to volunteer as a student worker at Grant Village.
Our staff at Grant Village consisted of five
members, more than the entire staffs of many national parks. We had
three ministers and two student workers. Of the five of us, four
of us came from different denominations, and we spanned the ideological
canvas of Christianity. Two of our members, Dan and Michelle, went
to Jerry Falwell's Liberty University and were fundamentalists, I grew
up in a mainline United Methodist tradition, Matt was a student minister
of the mainline but more liberal United Church of Christ, and the other
member (whose name for now totally escapes me) was a liberal Presbyterian--though
Presbyterians are not necessarily liberal. Now, the ideal hope for
our staff was that each would bring the strengths of our denominations
together bringing a richer sense of Christianity not only to those for
whom we ministered but to each other. In 1993 at Grant Village, that
did not happen.
So, the elements of the story are these.
There were five members of the ACMNP staff. We were in Grant Village,
Yellowstone National Park. The latter may have been the ministry's
salvation, the chemistry of the five of us certainly were not. Let
me explain a little bit about the early events of my summer with ACMNP,
the relationships of the people in our staff, and Grant Village, the environment
in which we lived, in which we were part of for that summer.
Let us begin with Grant Village.
The area of Yellowstone in which I was employed,
lived, and served as an ACMNP member is the newest area of the park to
be developed. Grant Village was envisioned in 1955 under the Mission
66 plan for Yellowstone National Park. Only completed in 1984, Grant
Village still failed to show up on some maps of Yellowstone even in 1993
when I arrived. In more than one way, Grant Village is an afterthought
to many people nor is it endeared by many people. First off, Grant
Village is not right on the main road. Located in southern Yellowstone,
twenty miles north of the South Entrance, many people drive right by it
without ever visiting it. Afterall, all there is for a tourist to
see in Grant Village is a visitor center with an exhibit on the 1988 fires
and yet another view of Yellowstone Lake from Thumb Bay, a view which is
more impressive in the West Thumb Geyser region just a couple miles to
the north. More than once, I heard rangers make cynical remarks about
the politics that created Grant Village. The area lies in prime Grizzly
habitat, at least in the late Spring when the cutthroat trout are spawning.
The Park Service naturalists wished the area had never been built.
The Village itself consists of the Hamilton Stores,
a Yellowstone Park Service Station, a ranger station, a Visitor's Center,
a Post Office, two restaurants on the lake, a four hundred site campground,
lodges run by TW services, and employee campgrounds and facilities.
So, the main purpose of Grant Village is lodging for the southern section
of the park. The facilities themselves are wonderful, especially
for employees. My dormitory room had the appearance of a hotel.
The floors were carpeted, the room was spacious, there was a sink in every
room, and a bathroom was shared with one's neighbor. Married couples
had a bathroom all their own. One has no sense of roughing it at
Grant Village. The Hamilton Store at which I worked was the most
modern-looking in the park, consistently had the cleanest layout, had beautiful
wood carvings around the inside perimeter, and had no need to appeal to
"rustic charm" in justifying its aesthetics.
Anyhow, I loved Grant Village nearly immediately.
I did not know about the invasion upon Grizzly habitat that had created
Grant Village. If I stopped to think about every evil committed that
had a say in bringing me to where I was, I would never find satisfaction
in anything. Rather than being bitter about past evils, I found and
find it more important to concentrate on not creating future ones.
Grant Village was comfortable in a way that growing up in my crowded household
and living a year in a cramp dormitory room at Ohio Northern had never
been. The view that it had over Yellowstone Lake upon the Absaroka
Range could be breathtaking. I have never ever tired of taking a
glimpse at the mountains over the lake. Hamilton Stores rested about
a half mile off the shore, had buildings blocking a pristine view, but
taking a quick peak at work over the waters to its pretty backdrop left
me just that much more pleasant. I liked to see the different colors
of the surface of the lake depending upon the amount of sunlight and cloudcover.
Sometimes, I liked to walk a little bit in the forest to see if I could
find a trace of elk. Grant Village was out of the way. It may
not have been the most beautiful place to see in Yellowstone, but it was
the greatest place to live and work. Rather than having to deal with
the hellish crowds at Old Faithful, one could find a bit more solitude
in Grant Village and yet have all the modern conveniences of the world
at hand, or at least almost all of them.
Our services in Grant Village were in an amphitheater
on the edge of the lake below the Visitor's Center. The location
was usually used for ranger presentations and slide shows, but it was the
perfect spot for us to worship God. As one looked at a simple stage
adorned merely with a podium and a cross, one could glance to the right
and behind the stage between the trees and get a good look at the lake
and mountains. Honestly, when picturing an outdoor service before
arriving in Yellowstone, I had imagined almost the very thing that was
now reality. Reality was better, though, as I could not imagine the
pretty mountains or the lake. Actually, there are better spots even
in Yellowstone and certainly in Grand Teton National Park, but I doubt
that I could have been more pleased with our outdoor cathedral. What
better way to sing the praises of Jesus Christ.
I was the last of our staff to arrive in Grant
Village. Because my arrival date was so late, I missed the orientation
conference given by A Christian Ministry in Yellowstone National Park.
The contingent of ACMNP members in Yellowstone was so large that it had
its own organization to meet the demands of managing a ministry in the
Park. A Christian Ministry in Yellowstone was based out of Gardiner,
MT, and was headed by a Methodist minister from West Virginia named Bill
Young. I only met Bill Young very late in the summer, but his name
was invoked so often during my time with ACMNP that he held his influence
over the staff even in the remote stretches of Grant Village, the furthest
point in Yellowstone one could be from Gardiner. If anything, he
was used by feuding members of our staff to try to get leverage over each
other. Anyhow, being the last to arrive and missing the orientation,
I already found myself walking into a situation that was not ideal.
It was not so much that I was unprepared, it was rather that there was
already tension on the staff before the very moment I arrived.
As mentioned, there were five of us on the staff.
Besides myself, there were two others who worked with me at Ham's, Dan
and Michelle. Matt Perkins, our head minister, worked at Yellowstone
Park Service Station (YPSS), and the other guy worked for TW. Each
person was unique, and each brought something to the table that someone
else did not like. That is, everyone brought something except me.
I was the ear that everyone talked to about everyone else. I think
I understood everyone's complaints and could sympathize with everyone.
That we never worked anything out may have been partly my fault as I was
not the sort of person to initiate mediation. My ways were quiet
and subtle, and sometimes that is not good enough. Part of the responsibility
was mine, but it was not me who was at the core of any dispute.
Dan Wesbrook and Michelle Angel dated each other
and came to Grant Village to share the Good News. As I stated before,
Dan began the summer as a dishwasher and that he seemed to me to be very
nice. He was very nice, but he was an incompetent sort of person
who was not very good at anything. Jim Holder, Maria's husband, yelled
at him often about how bad a job he was doing in the Employee Dining Room.
He had bounced around from job to job in life and said that his most recent
job was running his own home improvement company. I have great doubts
as to whether he succeeded in that endeavor. Michelle Angel, on the
other hand, was a very competent person, but was not nice at all most of
the time. She was a Romanian exchange student, a Romanian Baptist
of all things, who was the most domineering person working in all of Hamilton
Stores. It seemed that anyone who came near her at work had a fight
with her at one time or other. I learned quickly not to play board
games with her because she would start screaming and yelling about not
being explained certain rules of the game when she found herself losing.
Once, she and I were hitting the ping pong ball around and she was mad
that I hit the ball hard on her. The next thing I knew a ping pong
paddle was coming at my head. She was something of a Mad Romanian.
In her relationship with Dan, she was the boss. Dan drove a very
large old blue cadillac. Michelle would not get out of the passenger
seat unless Dan opened the door for her. I once asked Dan if that
bothered him, and he shrugged it off, "That's what she wants, although
sometimes she can insist on it at unreasonable times." Sometimes,
Michelle was not quite in a foul mood. In those moments, we all could
have a good laugh. We also found ourselves in good spirits if we
found ourselves disagreeing with something Matt Perkins said, or did not
say, or did, or did not do.
Matt Perkins was a slick, pompous man in his
late twenties. His whole personality said, "I want to be the leader."
Tall, blond, and good-looking, Matt had many talents. He could play
the guitar, he had a pleasant voice, was very articulate in speech.
He definitely was sincere about doing good work in his post of responsibility
as head minister. However, he was also condescending, was conniving
in his relationship with Dan and Michelle, and thoroughly wishy-washy.
His every sermon consisted of, "Love is a good thing." Certainly,
it is, but there seemed to be nothing challenging and provocative in his
messages. There was nothing that spoke to the meat of the human struggle.
He seemed to have his own ideas, but his political style forbade him from
stepping on anyone's toes directly. Often, I told him that I thought
his sermons lacked substance. He always listened, but he never took
such criticisms very seriously. However, when I would agree with
him that Dan was hopelessly incompetent and unfit for ministry, we had
some more substantive conversations. It was unfortunate. Maybe,
I should have been more blunt with my distaste for his approach to his
face. Maybe, I am a lot like Matt Perkins in some ways.
The other guy was much more liberal. We
once got into an argument about the gender of God. While I basically
thought the issue irrelevant, he thought that the making of God into a
male had a demoralizing effect upon women. To myself, I thought that
I wished that God was a woman because I find it easier to imagine intimate
love with a woman. Anyhow, his agenda was more social than religious,
I thought. Yet, I did not know him well enough to make that judgment.
He was a good man. Yes, he partied and likely got drunk a few times.
Yet, something was calling him to share something about his experience
and faith. He was on good terms with Matt, but he hated Michelle
and had no great love for Dan. In turn, they thought that his lifestyle
was not very Christian. Neither were open to the other's brand of
Christianity. Soon, he had as little to do with the Baptist contingent
as he possible could. That too was unfortunate. In this case,
I doubt that there was anything more I could have done.
My first sense that anything was wrong was when
Dan asked me that very first lunch whether I had met Matt yet and that
he wanted to know what I thought about him when I did. My second
sense was that evening when Dan and Michelle came to my room to pay me
a visit. I do not remember whether we stayed and talked in my room
or went over to his room to talk. During the first month or so, Dan
would often pay me a visit. Anyhow, I met Michelle. We talked
a little bit about our backgrounds. They asked me if I was saved.
That question can be a loaded question and means a different thing in traditional
Methodism than it does to a Baptist, but I knew what they meant.
To a Methodist, "Are you saved?" is always answered with a yes whatever
your own beliefs are because salvation is taken to be what Christ did for
us by dying on the cross. To a Baptist, the question means, "Have
you accepted that Jesus Christ is your savior?" Well, I had, so the
question was answered simply with a "yes." Anyhow, it did not take
me more than five minutes to grasp what their fundamental beliefs were.
I had been raised as a pastor's son in the Methodist Church, but I grew
up heavily involved in ecumenical endeavors. For three years, I had
played the role of John the disciple in the Living Word Outdoor Drama,
an outdoor play about the death and resurrection of Jesus, put on by all
the churches in Cambridge, Ohio, the town where I went to high school.
I had attended many different kinds of churches and had spoken long hours
with my father about the differences between the faiths. Methodism
itself is diverse in itself, and I knew plenty of fundamentalists, charismatics,
liberals, academics, and every other stripe in my own denomination.
I knew the jargon of the fundamentalist, and so I could relate to Dan and
Dan soon brought up Matt Perkins, and Michelle
made an angry sigh showing that she already had a dislike for him.
Just the mention of his name were already fighting words for her.
They did not recognize his brand of Christianity. Where Dan and Michelle
made evangelical suggestions. I cannot remember, but they have wanted
to make an altar call. In any event, Dan wanted more control over
the service and felt that Matt was edging him out. They said at the
time that they were not sure why and that Dan wanted to talk to Bill Young
about it. I was beginning to get the sense that this Matt, whom I
had not met, was very by-the-book when it came to ACMNP. I began
to fear that he wished to suppress our Christian expression for fear of
offending someone. If Dan had in mind the idea of winning an ally,
and I doubt he thought in those terms, he was winning my sympathy.
However, I wanted to meet Matt for myself.
The opportunity to meet Matt came the next day
when we met at his cabin for a staff meeting.
Matt worked for YPSS. The service station
in Grant Village, as in much of the park, are full service. Matt
worked pumping gas, adding oil, washing windshields, etc. By the
end of the summer, he had attained the rank of supervisor. His tendency
to rise through the ranks quickly at no matter what he does would lead
me to believe that if he had made YPSS a career that he would be on the
Board of Trustees right now. Anyhow, YPSS employees ate with TW employees
but lived in an area by themselves. Their living arrangements were
not as nice as ours at Ham's and should be described as more rustic.
Matt Perkins was lucky, however. He had his own room.
Dan, Michelle, and I arrived together.
I was not so anxious to meet Matt after hearing about the tensions between
them. It is never fun to be thrown into a fight. They just
The meeting began with Matt entirely in control.
He wanted to make plans for the entire summer and to plan the structure
of every service. We discussed the rotation of which minister would
be in charge of each service. Matt asked me if I would lead a Bible
Study, which I said I would. He also placed me in charge of Sunday
School and making sure that the offerings were given to the Hamilton's
auditor to send up to our offices in Gardiner. Matt seemed very interested
in meeting our share of the Yellowstone budget. He seemed to suggest
that if our services were no good, our giving would be down. This
was the sort of thing that infuriated Dan and Michelle about Matt.
It seemed to them, and to me, that instead of letting the Holy Spirit take
care of things, that we should cater our services merely to making the
experience more pleasant for the park visitor.
Matt also found himself invoking Bill Young's
name. I received paperwork on how particular ways of preaching led
to more satisfied campers, and ultimately higher giving. Bill Young
had apparently made a study on whether a style of preaching called deductive
(or drawing conclusions from a particular set of values) was better than
inductive (laying out a bunch of facts and leaving the congregation to
decide what to conclude) was better. He had found that inductive
preaching was more popular and more pleasant to the camper because the
camper feels that he/she is not being preached at. Dan had a very
hard time accepting this, and with good reason. For Dan, he came
to spread the Good News, the truth if you will. Facts without argument
do not necessarily produce truth. There seemed to be nothing wrong
with telling things the way they are. If the truth hurts, then that
is what it is supposed to do. No one said that preaching had to be
a pleasant experience. Fire and brimstone may certainly be an unproductive
way of sharing the Gospel, but so is its opposite. "Water and sugar"
may taste good, but too much sugar only makes us that much more sick.
Matt, however, bought wholeheartedly into the idea that a ministry does
not succeed unless it makes us feel good. This attitude left some
of feeling pretty unchallenged and bored by a Matt Perkins service.
The great challenge was worshipping in spite of it. I hope I succeeded.
I hope that Dan and Michelle were able to as well.
The meeting gave me the picture I do of Matt
Perkins. He liked to plan everything out, leave nothing to chance,
and stay in control of the situation. Generally, I find myself to
be a similar sort of person, but I do not like to find myself controlling
others in the way I saw him. Of course, I am not the type who makes
a good leader. I prefer to keep my hands off and only make the mildest
of subtle suggestions, unless someone asks. Then, I let them have
The next day was Sunday, and we put on three
services on Sunday. I had this day off, although I had not been scheduled
to have Saturdays and Sundays off, in general. I will discuss the
reasons why in the next chapter. Anyhow, I had the opportunity to
attend all three services that day prepared to give a Sunday School lesson.
As it turned out, there were never enough children to offer Sunday School.
My job as a student worker consisted of leading portions of the service
and helping with offering. Dan and Matt led the music since only
they played any instrument. Both played the guitar, a perfect instrument
for an outdoor service.
That first Sunday was sunny, and I was the first
to arrive at the amphitheater. It was about one-third to one-half
of a mile walk from the dormitory. The air was cold and crisp.
The lake shone through the trees like a mythical goddess taking water as
her form. The mountains beyond, the chirping of trees, the prancing
of snowshoe rabbits, made this a moment to remember. There were many
similar moments at that amphitheater. I was almost always the first
Matt had given me the combination of the lock
to the little room which contained our supplies. In this room was
the podium, a small wooden cross, and many very old hymnals. They
were about sixty-years-old. If someone reads this autobiography with
pity and some cash, I would beseech the reader to donate some newer hymnals
to ACMNP at Grant Village. Many of the songs we did not know, and
fewer still could both Dan and Matt play. Matt was a very good guitarist,
but Dan--as in all things--was not. He rarely kept to the rhythm
and would improvise beats of his own, completely throwing Matt off.
When Dan could lead by himself, things worked a little better. Dan
would add a couple catchy evangelical tunes that he had learned, and he
could follow his own beat. That morning, however, they played together.
It was not a musical masterpiece, but I doubt anyone noticed too much.
I set up the stage and waited for my cohorts.
The first service was at 9 am. Dan was
the leader for the service for the 9 and 10 am services. I soon discovered
why Matt was especially insistent upon finding ways to keep Dan more in
line. I had looked forward to hearing a fundamentalist Baptist preach.
I had rarely heard one that could not put on a good show, and who could
not articulate his faith simply and forcefully. Dan's sermon, however,
would have bored even the most attentive worshipper and confused even the
most gifted scholar.
Dan's sermon, very typical of every sermon he
gave, was not only monotone, very quiet, and much longer than the time
we were supposed to use for sermons, it was also a rambling dialogue that
never centered on a point. "The Scripture tells us the punishment
for sin is death." That remark might be followed with a story in
which someone sinned. Then, he might say, "Some people are very good,
but they have not accepted Jesus." This would lead into a strange
discussion about how various people in the world commit various kind acts.
Would it ever tie into his introductory point? Never. There
were several points floating around, none of them ever made. Was
it an inductive sermon? Hardly. Dan would tell the world how
bad it was. He would mention somewhere that Jesus was our savior.
He would throw out a few other random proclamations. In other words,
it was nothing but judgment and conclusions drawn from a magical thin air
that I did not have the patience or will to figure out. Matt complained
to me that Dan's sermons were never about love and that he never usually
mentioned the word. I could not help but agree. That first
day, I hoped he would improve. I hoped if we could bring out the
problems that he would focus more. The problems came out, he understood
that he needed to improve, but his sermons never did. Eventually,
I would come to the conclusion that Dan was a very good man who simply
was not a very able man. He tried very hard, but he never did well
at anything. They say that God gives everyone something they are
good at. Dan was good at nothing, but he was a good man. I
am sure he will be in the gates of heaven before me. However, he
will not enter for his ability to give sermons. He will enter because
the love in his heart was greater than he knew how to express.
I sat through two of the sermons that day, but
something of note happened between the services. Some co-workers
of mine from Hamilton Stores were at the service. I had only worked
there one day and did not recognize them yet as colleagues. After
the first service was over, one man stood up and made an announcement.
This man, Buddy Glass, said, "If any of you wants to participate, we are
having a little communion service. We are not affiliated with A Christian
Ministry. We are just Christians wanting to share in the Lord's
Supper. For all of you who wish to take part, you are more than welcome."
Dan, Michelle, and I joined their little group. Matt declined to
join while the other minister was not present for the service. It
was a simple affair, and no harm was done. Matt, however, was clearly
uncomfortable with what was going on. However, he did not say anything
After the two services in which a few dozen people
had attended, after Matt had counted the money, we had a little staff meeting.
Briefly, all that was discussed was a small staff hike that we would take
together on Monday. Although I worked on Monday, the split shift
system at Ham's made it possible for me to join them for the short hike.
It was one of those rare breaks where I did not race to my room to take
a long nap.
If the morning service was vintage Dan, the evening
service was vintage Matt. He ran the service very smoothly without
a hitch. He was timely, spoke beautifully, and had a charm from the
pulpit that made the handful of people at the service respond to him.
His service was pleasant. His sermon was pleasant. I found
nothing in his sermon to find disagreement with. Yet, that was going
to be part of the problem for me. You cannot disagree with something
that gives one little food for thought. Anyhow, Matt ran a service
much better than Dan. While I found myself in an ideological agreement
with Dan and Michelle, I could not help finding myself thinking that Matt
was a far more effective speaker. If only he used that speaking to
explore things more deeply, step on a few toes once or twice, then I would
have been a little more touched. The main problem with Matt, though,
was not his sermons but his whole way of dealing with people. I found
it very distasteful and nearly in complete opposition to my own.
As the reader can surmise, ACMNP in Grant Village
in 1993 did not leave a fondness that was there in the previous chapters.
Not everything that is Yellowstone is beautiful. A wolf kills an
elk for food. No matter how necessary it is to the ecosystem and
to the life of the wolf, it is not a beautiful thing to see. The
smell of the sulphur cauldron can leave memories of a stench that one would
rather forget, but it is Yellowstone all the same. The five of us
on staff were in Grant Village, a land created for political reasons right
on Grizzly habitat--yet another ugly thing. One could probably write
about all the ugliness of Yellowstone and not be able to place it into
a single library. Life in Yellowstone is not always fond. However,
to see Yellowstone ultimately in that light would be the most abysmal lie.
Yellowstone's beauty is so overwhelming, life in Yellowstone so wondrous,
that it would be a fool who did not look even at the ugliness in light
of the beautiful. To do otherwise is to live an ugly, meaningless
sort of existence. What is false gives light upon the truth, and
what is ugly to the beautiful. The relationship of our staff in 1993
was ugly. However, I grew as a person in the experience. I
formed relationships with people and learned what I did right and wrong.
Right now, I think about it and gain insights. What is ugly is fleeting
in the presence of our thoughts. What is beautiful only lasts.
Yellowstone is a beautiful thing, and it lasts not only inspite of the
ugly, but makes that ugly thing a beautiful thing, at least if we choose
to think about it. I did not find my experience with ACMNP pleasant,
but it too attested to Yellowstone's beauty.
to next page
back to Table of Contents
Go back to
the front page