Texas Pastor Grows an Outdoor Church, Proving Church Can Happen Anywhere: Church Under a Tree

Date Posted: 1/23/2020

By Lindsay Peyton - En Español
Pastor Elizabeth Palmer reminds us that church is the people who attend – and not the building. She explained that she was called to serve God in a different way, one that she never expected. Church Under a Tree offers prayer outdoors, to help individuals who feel uncomfortable inside those four walls. When the pastor ministers under the tree, she said that she’s able to “to do church like Jesus did.”
Pastor Elizabeth Palmer had a dream about a tree – and knew it was a vision as soon as she awoke. She just wasn’t sure what it all meant. In the morning she prayed,” God, what is this?”
Palmer was serving as pastor for two congregations in Hempstead – St. Thomas and Harper UMC -- in addition to working full time as a nurse in Houston. She alternated Sunday sermons – and was bringing communion to sick and shut-in members, when she spotted the tree.
She saw a couple people sitting under the tree, and she parked her car. “They were drinking at the time, and they put their bottles up,” she recalled. “I started talking to them and told them that God loved them.”
Palmer led them in a song. “After that, I prayed with them,” she said. “I gave them communion, and I told them that they don’t have to take it. I told them that I would be back.”
Palmer started thinking about Luke 10:25-37.  “Jesus taught that you should treat people as you would like them to treat you,” she said. “Jesus said people should love their neighbors, that neighbors could be down street, on the corner or under a tree.”
And, Palmer said, Jesus went where the people were – and that’s what she wanted to do.
“Imagine a church with no pews, no piano, no sermon, no offering,” she said. “In fact, there’s no walls or roof.”
Her vision started to take shape – and Church Under a Tree was born in September 2017. The first time, she met with three individuals; the second time five people showed up. Then there were four more.
Jesus did not feel a need to keep his message inside a building, Palmer said. He also ministered to the “lost, the needy, the hurting and the downtrodden, those who felt ostracized from their church.”
For the past couple of years, Palmer has preached Under the Tree on the first and fourth Sundays of each month. She also passes out toothbrushes, toothpaste, combs and snacks. “I leave them with the word of God,” she said.
They also have a circle for prayer requests.
“Under the Tree let’s me know that we’re not playing church anymore,” Palmer said. “This is the real deal.”
This year, Palmer wants to unite her congregations – to bring the churches that operate in buildings to serve the Church Under the Tree. She also will invite other congregations in Hempstead to join them.
Palmer also retired this year from her nursing career, giving her more time to build up her three congregations.
“Imagine Jesus sitting under a tree, surrounded by a small circle of seekers, sharing the gospel of grace and unconditional love and mercy and redemption,” she said.
Palmer wants to see all of her congregations loving each other. She quoted an old Gospel song, “We are one in the Spirit. We are one in the Lord. And I pray that all unity will one day be restored, and they’ll know we are Christians by our love.”