Watershed disciples reimagine the good life

Feb 27, 2017 by and

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Todd Wynward of Taos, N.M., describes himself as “a serial social entrepreneur.” Licensed by Mountain States Mennonite Conference as a minister for watershed discipleship, he directs the Taos Initiative for Life Together, described as “a Mennonite-inspired social change movement,” according to taostilt.org.

“TiLT has become, in the past three years, a real passion to do adult transformation education and discipleship training,” Wynward said. “We wanted to live out a demonstration site of ‘how then shall we live?’ today in the face of such profound environmental and economic change. How do we live out Mennonite values on the ground? How do we follow Jesus?”

Todd Wynward, left, director of Taos Initiative for Life Together, and adobe building instructor Stacy Diven make bricks for an adobe construction project. Adobe buildings stay cool during the summer. — Taos Initiative for Life Together

Todd Wynward, left, director of Taos Initiative for Life Together, and adobe building instructor Stacy Diven make bricks for an adobe construction project. Adobe buildings stay cool during the summer. — Taos Initiative for Life Together

Watershed discipleship, a term coined by author and theologian Ched Myers, refers to Christian living centered on one’s watershed — the area of land containing a common set of streams and rivers flowing into one larger body of water. For Wynward, it also refers to the urgency of life change in light of social and environmental concerns.

“In this watershed moment of historic climate and economic change, how do you practice your discipleship?” he asked. “How do you practice your discipleship in your watershed with the other creatures, human and nonhuman? How can you be a disciple of your watershed, with your region as your rabbi and teacher?”

TiLT’s website describes its aspects of “creative cultural resistance, transformative economics, watershed discipleship, high-desert homesteading, innovative education and shared community practices to reimagine the ‘good life’ in America.”

The organization’s multiple focuses include living in close community, spiritual formation practices, reduced dependence on oil as an energy source, service projects, peacemaking, alternative economics and investment in the health of their geographical location.

Living different values

Twenty years ago, Wynward and his wife, Peg Bartlett, joined Albuquerque Mennonite Church.

“I became a Mennonite . . . because of their example of lived-out discipleship,” Wynward said.

The couple encountered the congregation of around 40 people “meeting in the basement of another church with no pastor, and they seemed to be OK with that,” he said.

The group valued lay leadership, the priesthood of all believers and simple living. A weekly study group discussed living with less, which impressed Wynward.

“It felt like a learning laboratory that was happening in their regular lives,” he said. “It felt like we were on the journey of living differently.”

Wynward grew up with a nominal Christian background, getting involved in the sanctuary movement in the 1980s in Tucson, Ariz.

“I really found radical discipleship happening with people on the border declaring sanctuary for those who were considered illegal,” he said. “I was looking for that kind of thing but also with a deeper prayer and contemplation edge, and I found Mennonites in Albuquerque who were attempting to live in the world but with different values.”

In 2000, Wynward and Bart­lett moved to Taos with the support of their congregation and adopted their 1-year-old son, Nico. They founded Roots and Wings Community School, a public charter school in Lama, 15 miles north of Taos, with an emphasis on outdoor adventure and caring for one’s area.

Bartlett still works there full time, while Wynward has moved on to focus on TiLT.

“We’ve been in the business of creating visionary institutions,” he said.

Program coordinator Tyler Eshleman, originally from Harrisonburg, Va., helps manage a lot of the daily life at TiLT, including caring for livestock and gardens, as well as leading outdoor trips and other educational programs.

He works with two other TiLT team members, Angie Fernandez and Jacob Concha, who do education, activism and service.

“A lot of what I wanted to do in college was around sustainability,” said Eshleman, who did some agricultural work in Haiti and graduated in 2016 from Eastern Mennonite University with a degree in peacebuilding and development.

The challenges of closer-to-nature living are not too much for Eshleman, who grew up in a sustainability-minded family and doing a lot of camping. For example, he said, the adobe structure he lives in stays cool during the dry summer, making air conditioning unnecessary.

“How do we reimagine the American dream?” he asked. “It’s not about the things you’re losing; it’s about what you get to do.”

The main challenge for Eshleman has been the separation from the networks of familiar people. He, Wynward and Bartlett are the only Mennonites for around 90 miles.

But he believes the TiLT project is making a difference.

“Part of what’s so attractive and part of the reason I’m out here is not just because it’s a liberal-progressive groovy hippie thing,” Eshleman said. “It’s about transformative discipleship. How do we live together in community in a way that affects our spirituality?”

‘Ultimate Jesus thing’

TiLT is considered a church plant under Mountain States Conference’s SEED project — Seek, Explore, Encourage and work to Develop vital churches. Wynward, Bartlett and Eshleman worship with a local Methodist congregation.

Eshleman said people notice the references to Mennonites on TiLT’s website and often have questions.

“If we’re demonstrating an alternative lifestyle, that attracts people and causes them to have questions about our faith,” Eshleman said. “People know Mennonites for their social justice and peace, and for us being Mennonite out here, people are interested in that.”

Wynward describes TiLT as “an incubator for intentional life change” rather than an intentional community. His goal is to provide “a launch pad for intentional discipleship,” as opposed to merely promoting simple living for self-centered reasons.

“The ultimate thing Jesus was doing was about restoring right relationship — with self, with others, with creation and with God,” he said. “How do you have communion at all of those levels?”

In 2014, Herald Press contacted Wynward after reading some of his writing online and approached him with a book proposal. He had not thought of writing a book before the idea was suggested. In September 2015, Rewilding the Way: Break Free to Follow an Untamed God was published.

“2025 is the 500th anniversary of Anabaptism,” Wynward said. “We were founded by radical reformers who truly shook their world. What do we have to show for ourselves? What are we doing that is transforming and risky and wonderful?”

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