Rev. Mitch Nelson knew that monarch butterflies have become a severely threatened species. But when he learned that providing a protective environment when the eggs hatch raises monarchs’ survival rate from 9% to 75%, he began to imagine how his church in Duluth (Morgan Park) could make a difference.
Last summer, Nelson together with his congregation launched a “Raising Monarchs” project that has captivated and inspired his community. It also became his doctorate degree project.
The effort started with creation of a pollinator garden, with milkweed plants where monarchs could lay their eggs. Nelson had learned about caring for pollinator plants while earning his M.Div at United Theological Seminary (UTS). When a pollinator garden needed to be moved because of a construction process at UTS, Nelson engaged church folks to transfer the plants to Duluth.
He invited a retired teacher who had been raising monarchs for 40 years to share his work at a faith formation session. “I posed the question to him: Is this a real thing we could do as a church?” Nelson says. “And he said enthusiastically ‘Yes!’”
Nelson’s congregation collected caterpillars from milkweed leaves and created a protected environment in mason jars. The congregation watched eagerly every week for signs of hatching. On one Sunday, Nelson says, five had hatched and the congregation released them outside during the children’s message. “It’s a magical interaction to watch,” he says. “As these caterpillars go through the metamorphosis, they are like little teachers.”
The project spread throughout the congregation and members are now planting milkweed in their own home gardens and raising their own monarchs. “Milkweed replaces turf and that means fewer lawns that use pesticides,” says Nelson. “It is a tangible way to heal with nature.”
The project has also spread to other churches in the area. Nelson is going to teach a class and lead a field trip on Father’s Day to milkweed patches to show other congregations how to launch their own monarch projects. He’s also heard from six other UCC Conferences that are interested in creating similar efforts.
Nelson recently wrote a post for the national UCC website. He explains, in spiritual terms, the journey of the monarchs:
“There is a need for the Monarch migration route to have native plants for food along their way to Mexico. By having a pollinator garden with milkweeds, one will help ultimately help raise little angels. Let me explain: Monarchs take a little over a couple of months to migrate to central Mexico, and when they arrive, it is around the Day of the Dead and All Saints’ Day. In this mountain region of Mexico, the churches ring their bells in celebration of saints and angels returning from their journey. May your congregation experience the joy of making it possible for monarchs to fly home like angels.”
He also welcomes questions from interested congregations!