A new path for New Day: Kalamazoo church partners with DNR to share land with nearby neighborhoods

Editor's note: This is the first in a series of stories exploring faith-based and faith-inspired works, the people accomplishing them, and the connections with the community they are creating. The series is supported by the Fetzer Institute.

A Kalamazoo church is demonstrating love for their neighbors by sharing a rare development-locked wild space in a unique partnership with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

For New Day Church, the DNR, and more than 500 homes surrounding the church’s untamed 18 acres off Nichols Road, the partnership represents a new way of collaborating on restoring and sharing a scarce resource of undeveloped land in Kalamazoo. 

“It’s super rare to find a local landowner who has this much property near developments that is willing to share,” says Ken Kesson, DNR Wildlife Biologist. “If you look at the site from the air, it’s surrounded by development. This is a win-win for everyone, and we hope it adds something special to the community.”

The desire to share the property with surrounding neighborhoods and community arose out of a commitment to be a good neighbor, say New Day Co-Pastors and spouses Bill and Marilee Menser. Around five years ago, the church began actively promoting the short path to surrounding neighbors as open to all. A lot of neighbors used it especially during the pandemic. 

A passion project for all involved, both New Day pastors, the DNR, and neighbors are excited about plans to create a wildlife refuge in a development-locked area.“We didn’t just want to be a church that neighbors attend, but we also wanted to be a good neighbor, whether you attend or not,” says Bill. “We believe Jesus gave his life on the cross as a gift to anyone who wants to receive it. In one, small way, this project is the same -- a gift for anyone who would like to receive it.”

Marilee, who leads church outreach, says that the church wanted the neighbors to hear the message, “You are welcome on our property, and you are welcome at our church.” To accomplish that goal, the church began organizing community events to which neighbors were invited, such as an annual Candy Trail near Halloween and Christmas Caroling. The annual events have become progressively popular. In October 2022, the Candy Trail drew over 180 kids from the surrounding area.

“As a person who feels overwhelmed by the billions of people in the world who all need help, who all need Christ, I was thinking I need to narrow it down,” Marilee says. “How about the couple of thousand who drive past our building every day? That live by our acreage? Let’s focus there.”

The extensive habitat restoration, which the DNR is funding over the course of a few years through their Southwest Regional Wildlife Private Lands programs, will cost around $70,000. It will include removal of invasives, planting of grasses and wildflowers, cultivation of existing mature deciduous trees, and creation of at least two miles of paths with educational signage. The result will be a savannah with Eastern deciduous trees, natural sedges and wildflowers, and a prairie wildflower meadow. 

While much of the brush and tangle has been cleared on the land, a stick teepee created by kids remains, a reminder of the former trail.The uncommon partnership between New Day and the DNR was sparked by a casual talk at a school function between Bill Menser and Mark Mills, Regional Manager for the Wildlife Division of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Mills says he became interested because of the rarity of the land and the couple’s passion.

“It is not a normal project for us because we are a wildlife division,” says Mills. “Historically, we improve wildlife habitat for private lands and state-owned property. But we are trying to shift some focus and attention to groups of people and locations that are not traditional users. 

For New Day Co-Pastors Bill and Marilee Menser and their congregation, being good neighbors means sharing the gift of their land. With congregants, they knocked on over 500 doors to share about the new trails.“We’re always looking for passionate partners,” says Mills. “When you have someone who approaches you and who is passionate, that opens the door to stepping in through partnership.”

In an initial walk-through of the property, Mills says he observed a lot of unexpected species using the land. “We have an opportunity to do some restoration here and reach out to neighbors with a beautiful refuge in the middle of development that will attract endangered species such as monarch butterflies and grasshopper sparrows.”

On the church’s part, Bill and Marilee shared that a focus of this work is founded upon the Bible passage in the book of Psalms, chapter 96. That entire chapter is all about people and creation praising the greatness of God. Verse 12 within that chapter exclaims, “Let the field be joyful, and all that is in it. Then all the trees of the woods will rejoice before the Lord.”

“We want to be good stewards of the land that God has given us. We want to honor God by the way we care for it and be generous with others like He has been and continues to be with us,” Marilee says. 

“The heart behind this project is to represent our Christian faith by being like Jesus. He gave his life as a gift to anyone who wants to receive it,” says Bill. “Through this project, we can be like Jesus. We have a gift we can freely share with our neighbors.”

Through the cleared brush, the first stage in the restoration, visitors can see the surrounding houses of two neighborhoods.As a couple, they are drawn to wild places in the city, like Asylum Lake and Al Sabo Land Preserve. Bill and Marilee say they are thrilled to offer this gift of cultivated wild space to an area of Kalamazoo that is primarily residential. 

Formerly located on Dutton Street, New Day moved to its current spot at 3600 Nichols Road in the mid-90s when its previous site was purchased by Bronson Methodist Hospital to make room for a new parking garage. 

When the partnership between New Day and the DNR was solidified this summer, the church assembled teams of congregants to knock on neighbors’ doors to personally tell them of the upcoming plans in order not to blindside them by the extensive work that would be starting, to personally share the good news, and to invite them to attend one of two informational meetings in late August. The neighbors' response was overwhelmingly positive, surprised, and thankful, say the Mensers.

The informational meetings, co-presented by the Mensers and Kesson, drew over 50 neighbors and congregation members. The presentation was informative and allowed space for anyone to ask questions. One of those neighbors was Nate VandenBos, who lives across Nichols Road from the church in the Northwood neighborhood. 

The 15 acres of the New Day Nature Trails will become a savannah with deciduous trees and wildflower prairie.“It’s going to be a fantastic makeover,” says VandenBos, who has been walking the New Day trail for the past few years. “If they kickstart it correctly, put the right plants where they belong, in ten years, it’s a showcase. It will be a space for both solitude and community, a place that is both unmanicured and a little bit manicured, that will attract birds, bees, and butterflies.”

VandenBos says he has been impressed by the church’s generosity and hopes to be a part of helping to maintain the trail in the future. 

“They’re the real deal,” says VandenBos, who has even begun attending services at the church. 

In the stewarding partnership, the church entered a 10-year commitment with the DNR to keep the land public and open. Fifteen acres is the equivalent of 11 football fields or 225 tennis or pickleball courts. Up the road near Mosel, a 14-acre lot was recently developed into a Rugby field and parking lot by Kalamazoo Rugby, another example of undeveloped parcels transforming into recreational space.

The possible partnership to restore the 15 acres behind New Day Church happened over a chance meeting between DNR Mark Mills and Co-Pastors Bill and Marilee Menser while at a school event.“We’re happy to collaborate as part of our health initiative and our public partnerships,” says Kesson. “Nature is integral to mental, emotional and physical wellbeing.”

The steps to restore the land to a native, species-friendly habitat will take between two and three years, say Mills and Kesson. Restoration began this fall when the DNR removed a lot of invasives and overgrown brush including surface vegetation. Many of the larger trees and native grasses underneath were preserved. An oat cover crop was planted in November and depending upon how the treatment of invasives has progressed, the site will hopefully be ready to plant native grasses and wildflowers next fall, though that may take another year.

“After the planting, we just watch to see what happens,” says Mills. “Native species tend to be slow-growing and slow to establish so it can take two to three years before the field will be established.”

Northwood resident Nate VandenBos, who frequently walked the New Day Trail, especially during the pandemic, is thrilled about the church’s upcoming partnership with the DNR.New Day’s visions for the land don’t stop with the trails. “We’ve thought about a natural playground and gazebo to do outdoor weddings as well as hosting neighborhood walking clubs or prayer clubs,” says Marilee. 

Kesson says the path will include educational signage that shares information about the habitat. The Mensers say the path will also likely include spiritual signage. In the past, the trail has included signs along the trail with lines from the Lord’s Prayer and from the Beatitudes to provide opportunities for spiritual reflection. 

“This is a passion project for all involved,” says Bill.

In the end, the New Day Nature Trails will become a series of winding paths with access to a neighborhood on the south off of Carsten Avenue and hopes for access to the Valleywood neighborhood on the north. The Mensers are currently communicating with the Kalamazoo County Drain Commissioner Jason Wiersma about creating a path off Meadowcroft Avenue near a fenced-in retention pond. However, a few path development obstacles exist, such as a steep incline.

The possible partnership to restore the 15 acres behind New Day Church happened over a chance meeting between DNR Mark Mills and Co-Pastors Bill and Marilee Menser while at a school event.“We will continue trying to find a way to provide an access path for the Valleywood neighbors. We would love for them to be able to walk directly into this restored area in their own backyard,” says Bill.

For those who walk the current trail regularly, they may be surprised by the thinning of the trees and brush, but it’s all part of an important step in the process of restoration, assures Mills.  

“If you walk it now, you can tell which areas are clearer that will become the prairie sections, and which areas will be forested sections,” says Marilee. “They removed all the dead trees to allow the nice, healthy trees space to grow.”

“We found out that there are dogwoods that are going to bloom next spring and we will be able to see them now that the overgrown invasives are gone,” says Bill.

Over the next few years, the transformation will be gradual, but the result will be a refuge where dislocated wildlife, like native butterflies and songbirds, will be able to congregate and where church members, neighbors, and wildlife enthusiasts can come to be rejuvenated in beautiful nature and enjoy the gift New Day has shared. 

New Day Church, at 3600 Nichols, moved to their new site in the mid-1990s when their former Dutton Street site was sold to Bronson Methodist Hospital to build a parking garage.

If you or your organization owns land and are interested in pursuing support or a partnership for cultivating private land for public use and restoration, please contact the Department of Natural Resources.

Photos by Fran Dwight. See more of her work here.
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Read more articles by Theresa Coty O'Neil.

Theresa Coty O’Neil is the Managing Editor of Southwest Michigan Second Wave. As a longtime freelance writer, editor, and writing teacher, she has a passion for sharing the positive stories in Southwest Michigan and for mentoring young writers. She also serves as the Project Editor of the Faith in Action series and Project Lead for Battle Creek Voices of Youth.