Burning Man, an annual event in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert dedicated to “community, art, self-expression, and self-reliance” might seem like an unlikely foothold for Anglican liturgy. But this year, the Rev. Alex Leach ’19 received an Episcopal Evangelism Society grant to see if he could prove otherwise.
A Burning Man participant since 2011, Leach thought that his experiment was likely to succeed. “Being in Northern California, there are tons of spiritual but not religious people,” he says. “Burning Man is an environment where interacting and building relationships is the most important thing. When people see your camp is open, people wander in to chat.”
The grant provided funding to create and print a Black Rock Prayer Book for the event, which Leach says used the Book of Common Prayer model for morning prayer and Eucharistic liturgies and “tailored language for Burning Man context.” The ritual of the liturgies, which also included an Ash Wednesday service at a central Burning Man structure known as the temple, attracted both people who had grown up in the church and those who had no experience of Christianity.
“One group of people really valued that they got to experience the Christianity they were raised in,” he said. “They got wounded by the church and left, and this was healing—they got to reengage in a space where they could say ‘I know I’m going to be safe from shaming or being told I’m wrong.’ Another group grew up atheist and many of them said, ‘I don’t really know what this Christian thing is, but I hear about it in the media.’ They got to see a different Christianity that’s incarnational and horizon expanding.”
Leach, a transitional deacon and curate at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Davis, California, has been part of the event since 2011, but didn’t start “putting Christian faith on Burning Man” until 2017, when he offered foot washing to a few other participants. In 2018, he and other Episcopalians— Annie Dunlap, Charis Hill and the Rev. Brian Baker, former dean of Trinity Cathedral in Sacramento whose “Burning Man sermon” went viral in 2015—decided to start an Episcopal Burning Man community, called Religious AF Camp. In 2019, the camp expanded to include 17 members and multiple daily liturgies and events.
“I could not believe people wanted to come to a Bible study,” said Leach. “Every day, we had guests come.”
For Leach, Burning Man offered lessons not only in evangelism, but also in church leadership. “When you run a theme camp, the whole way the organism runs is that eighty percent of participants need to be taking active leadership,” he says. “That’s our parishes. A theme camp is what every congregation should be. It’s this great space where, as someone leading, I’m constantly being challenged to encourage other leaders to step up and to be letting go of control.”
Back home in Davis, Leach says that his Burning Man ministry makes him hopeful about reaching out to people in Northern California.
“It gave me great hope that 70 or 80 people showed up for a Eucharist at Burning Man,” he says. “They just want to know that they’re going to be safe from being shamed. These people live in my community, these people are my neighbors, but they don’t know that it’s safe to come to something back home.
“The tradition that our parishes are preserving is something people are hungry for.”