Summer entered autumn as we waited in the parking lot. Downhill from the overlook, broadleaf maples and apple trees showed the first turn of the season.

Two neighbors and I were at Dr. José Rizal Park on the north end of Beacon Hill to meet 20 students from Seattle Pacific University (SPU), the Christian university on the north side of Queen Anne Hill, near the ship canal. 

For the last six years, I’ve sponsored students from SPU’s CityQuest program. Incoming students are placed for a day with nonprofit agencies and community groups. Seattle Pacific takes seriously the call for good works in the Epistle of James: “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.”

I tend to keep quiet on religious matters. Most people I’ve known who call themselves religious are not shining examples of the best that humanity offers. No matter where one turns, the hydra of hypocrisy raises a furrowed head — whether in persecution of Christians by Muslims in Pakistan and Egypt, of Palestinians on the West Bank and Gaza by Israelis, or the long, awful history of anti-Semitism that culminated in the Holocaust. Though riots have happened in 23 nations over a hack video on You Tube mocking Mohammed, the response seems more human than cultural. If not the sin of pride, too many are marred by the arrogance of narrow minds.

That’s one reason I look forward every fall to working with young people from SPU, as the administration and faculty share real commitment to walking the talk.

 

Getting to work

There's no strict schedule, I’m given an approximate time when students will arrive, around 10 a.m. I get to the park early to ready the tools for the day. 

That morning, my neighbor Brent and I swapped yarns about technology companies. Jessica, the off-leash area steward, left us at 10:30 to meet two regular volunteers to start work. At 10:45, I saw the yellow school bus take the wrong turn at the top of the 12th Avenue Bridge — this happens every year. About 10 minutes later, the bus pulled into the lot, and 20 bright, eager, young people stepped out, ready to go.

We walked down the access trail to the largest of the three orchards. The group split in two — half off to work with Jessica on her projects, while Brent and I got our team clearing brush piles made the day before at United Way of King County’s Day of Caring. 

At that event, 130 volunteers pushed through an amazing series of tasks. Providence, Washington Federal, AT&T and Nordstrom employees established a trail, spread 10 cubic yards of mulch, cleared dry grass from a slope where a fire had burned just two weeks prior and prepared the park for the rains of fall and winter. Could 20 18- and 19-year-olds finish the work of 130 career professionals?

 

Communing with nature

The gray and light rain of Friday gave way to Saturday’s sun, autumn in the air, on the breeze. A trio of Cooper’s hawks circled above us, calling in the chirp and whistle of raptors. Stellar jays earnestly watched us, and crows — especially when the group broke at noon for sack lunches of apples, potato chips and peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches.

By 2 p.m., the students finished. Cut brush and grass were neatly composting, woodchips covered the forest floor and outlined trails. 

I asked Hannah, a sophomore leader, what was the best part of the day. 

“Helping out,” she said. 

One freshman said, “This is the first chance we’ve had to bond.” 

They sang and chatted as they worked, and made jokes.

Brent observed, “There’s such a difference between the sophomores and freshmen. The sophomores are more confident and self-assured.” 

It was the difference between a young person and a young adult.

 

The importance of nature

While chaos played out in the news, while disrespect fumed in the rancor that has replaced our national debate, while so many found so little to make the widest divide possible, 20 almost-20-somethings did their creative best — a ripple spread across our human sea.

After three of us carried a tarp full of brush to the compost site in the woods, a young woman said in a tone not quite a question, “Nature’s important to you.”

“Yes,” I answered. 

I let the matter rest, the light filtered around us and the trees.

CRAIG THOMPSON is a longtime community activist. To comment on this column, write to QAMagNews@nwlink.com.