Gary Heaton paddled his 19-foot Old Town Tripper canoe to the rocky shore along the Roanoke River. The water was shallow and the canoe was steady enough for him to stand up inside it. A dozen people, who had all taken a break from their usual weekday lunchtime rituals, stood on the grassy bank several feet above him.

He picked up a zippered waterproof bag and announced, “If you don’t catch it, it’s going to hit you in the nose,” before he heaved it up the bank. The bag sailed over the group’s heads and landed on the ground.

A woman unzipped the bag, removed the laminated church programs inside and passed them around as Heaton, wearing a dark T-shirt and blue shorts and sporting a close-cropped haircut and scruff of a beard, remained in his canoe and played a harmonica.

When the programs had all been handed out, he tossed a long, fringed stole over his life jacket and shoulders, and he addressed the gathering.

“Good noon day!”

“Good noon day,” the crowd responded.

The people were not outside for a lunchtime stroll on the greenway or midday paddle down the river. They were in church. With a sycamore tree as a steeple and the bow of a canoe as a pulpit, the people prayed, sang and made music in Roanoke’s Smith Park.

For the past two months, Heaton, the minister at Greene Memorial United Methodist Church in downtown Roanoke, has led what he calls a “Downriver Devotional” prayer service every Wednesday at noon. The gatherings have been a summertime substitute for Greene Memorial’s regular Wednesday service, which takes place at the church and features guest ministers and a weekly prayer for city officials.

Heaton, who has been at Greene Memorial for two years, wanted the weekly services to continue during the summer, so he came up with the idea for the riverfront ritual. An outdoorsman who has spent much time on Virginia’s rivers, Heaton believes the summer services have helped connect people spiritually to God’s creation.

“As God has blessed us with the beauty and wonder of the natural world,” he said during the call to prayer, “may our prayers and stewardship of the earth be beautiful and pleasing to God.”

Earthy ministry

Heaton, 55, was called to the ministry through his boyhood love of the outdoors.

As a kid who grew up in the suburban sprawl of Fairfax, he loved going to Camp Highroad, a Methodist retreat in Loudon County, where he paddled, hiked and swam the summers away. He enrolled in the church’s Education Outdoors program and realized he wanted to become a preacher who would make nature and the environment part of his ministry.

He graduated from High Point College in North Carolina, majoring in physical education because it was the closest thing to a degree in outdoors adventure a student could get in the early 1980s. He attended Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C. and returned to Camp Highroad as a counselor. He met his wife, Beth, at the camp. The couple has three daughters.

Before coming to Roanoke, Heaton was the minister at Front Royal United Methodist Church for 12 years. He spent many hours on the Shenandoah River and repaired old canoes as a hobby. When he was transferred to Roanoke, he was happy to learn that a river — though not as wide and deep as the Shenandoah — flowed through the heart of the city.

Eventually, he made the river part of his ministry. He credits Greg Martin, director of Camp Roanoke, with coming up with the idea of a riverside church service while the two were on a canoe trip.

“United Methodism has a tradition of outdoors Christian education,” Heaton said. “If you want people to care about the earth, you want them to have a relationship with the earth.”

Short and sweet

The nearly 3-mile trip down the river from Bridge Street in the Norwich neighborhood to Smith Park can take up to an hour, but last week’s rains fed the river and made the float go by in barely 40 minutes. The river corridor is canopied by towering sycamores with branches uplifted as if in praise. Honey locusts, maples and other scrubby trees line the rocky banks.

For Heaton, the narrow, mostly slow-rolling Roanoke River reminds him of the skinny creeks he paddled as a boy.

“I love the green tunnel of a creek,” he said later. “You don’t feel like you’re in the middle of a city. It’s an oasis of wildlife and greenery. I love the fact that the water is being cleaned up. Even in the industrial settings, I believe the green is winning.”

When he arrived at Smith Park, near milepost 22.7 on the greenway, people came to the spot in twos and threes like it was Sunday morning at church. During the prayer service, a man in a ponytail played a Native American flute. Just before the group bowed their heads, Heaton asked them to “listen to the prayers of creation in the sounds of the creatures God created,” as a choir of cicadas sang in the trees. A playground swing squeaked in the background.

Heaton gains inspiration for services from The Green Bible, a study text that highlights biblical references to the earth and the environment. He briefly mentions the story of Noah and how “water at one time was a symbol of judgment and destruction … now we see it as a symbol of grace, redemption and spirit.”

After prayers, the group sang a hymn called “O Living God” to the familiar melody of “Oh Shenandoah.”

The entire service took nine minutes.

“It’s interesting, isn’t it, what he’s done?” said Wanda Powell, a member of First Baptist Church, who attended the river service. “This is a special kind of service, because it’s outside. It’s pleasant beneath this sycamore tree.”

Wednesday’s noon service will be the last “Downriver Devotional” of the summer. Heaton will be on vacation, but Meredith Simmons, the summer camp program director at Camp Alta Mons in Montgomery County, will lead the float. People are welcome to paddle along with her by meeting at the greenway parking lot at Bridge Street at 11 a.m. Those who want to meet on the riverbank should show up at milepost 22.7 in Smith Park.

Ralph Berrier Jr. has worked at The Roanoke Times since 1993, was the paper’s music reporter from 2000-2007 and he currently writes the Dadline parenting column and is a general assignment features reporter.

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