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Down to the River to Pray

A former Olympic paddler leads waterfront worship services in North Carolina

Members of Wayne Dickert’s River of Life Congregation. Photo by Mike Dubose

Instead of dress shoes, there were Chacos. Instead of organ music, the sound of rushing water. This June, for the first time in many years, I found myself at a Sunday morning church service. It looked nothing like any congregation I’d seen, and that is the point of Wayne Dickert’s River of Life congregation, a non-denominational fellowship built around a shared love of the river. 

Held every Sunday from Memorial Day until September at the Nantahala Outdoor Center in the mountains of western North Carolina, a River of Life service feels more like a campfire circle than a shared worship. Attendees were greeted by acoustic music in the picnic area beneath the NOC ropes course, mere feet away from the facility’s eponymous river. Terry Cotton, the designated one-woman welcome party, wrapped each of us in a spirited bear hug. When Pastor Wayne took the microphone, everyone took their seats and the service began. 

Dickert is an elder statesman in the Blue Ridge river community. He has been connected to the NOC in varying capacities for over 40 of the organization’s 50 years. He has seen nearly everything the sport of whitewater paddling has to offer as a teacher, ambassador, and competitor. He qualified for and competed in the 1996 Olympic Games, earning a 9th place finish on the Ocoee River course. 

Dickert started River of Life in an effort to combine his passions for ministry and the water. He is also the pastor at Bryson City United Methodist Church, so he departs River of Life every Sunday to return to his home assembly for his second sermon of the day. Every Sunday, that is, except for the final of the month, on which the River of Life congregation shuttles up to the Nantahala put-in and enjoys a trip down the river together. 

Now in its sixteenth summer, River of Life prides itself on being a sanctuary. It is non-denominational, with a desire for positive impact and water as the primary unifiers.

“We’re water people,” Dickert explained to me after the service. “Most of us are here because of the water. We’ve been drawn here because of the river. Some are just more outdoorsy people who aren’t river people but just love the setting. We could hold River of Life in other settings, but I don’t think it would hold the same significance in other places. Being by the Nantahala River, being by a river, is important.” 

Wearing sandals, sunglasses, and a Pyranha Kayaks t-shirt reading Drop Waterfalls, Not Bombs, Dickert greeted the 16 in-person attendees and additional live streamers with his signature warmth and gregariousness. He delivered an update on ROL’s initiative to build wells in Haiti, which now has a tally of 137.  

Following his opening address, Dickert opened the floor for attendees to share “God sightings,” moments of perceived grace or beauty from the previous week. A woman named Joan rose from her seat and made her way to her car, returning a minute later lugging an orange Wave Sport Diesel 60 kayak, as well as a spray skirt and paddle.  

“Hey Daingr, come here, I don’t know if I can fit in this,” Dickert said to a young boy in attendance as he examined the boat.

After the boy, wearing jeans and sneakers, climbed inside, Dickert told him to pick up the paddle.

“You know what my God sighting is?” Dickert asked the boy. “That’s your boat and paddle and spray skirt!”

The circle burst into applause, the boy’s face unfolding into a massive grin. Dickert then turned the microphone over to his summer intern, Parker Hughes, to deliver the day’s sermon. Hughes, a graduate student at the Duke University Divinity School, spoke of a recent paddle he enjoyed with Dickert on Lake Fontana. He recounted the beauty of the water and the accompanying sadness he felt in observing the amount of trash littered on its banks.

“We have a special role that God has given us to take care of creation,” Hughes told us. “We share in God’s glory, and one of the ways we share in His glory is by being good stewards of our land.”  

Wayne Dickert competed in the 1996 Olympic Games. Photo by Mike Dubose

Every service concludes with a moment of solitude, when congregants disperse from the circle to find a place along the river’s edge for quiet reflection. Separated by pulled-to-shore slalom gates, we stared into the rustling Nantahala. On the other side of the river the road was beginning to come alive with traffic. The sun was up, awake, but had yet to melt away the fresh morning chill. We returned to the circle to sing “Amazing Grace,” then, after a few final words from Dickert, the service ended. 

“For Bryson City, the river is one of the things that puts this place on the map,” Hughes told me. “It’s both an economic hub and is really tied to the spiritual life of the place too. It really is a part of the service. You can hear it at all times. To just have that flow in it is beautiful.” 

Hughes, a California native, does not consider himself a paddler, but, as evinced in his sermon, has embraced the River of Life’s fluid philosophy.

“I think it’s a really cool way of envisioning what church can look like, what a community of faith can look like, kind of centered around an outdoor activity, around the river,” he said. “Being out here and getting to share everybody’s appreciation for the peace and quiet, and the community that had been built up around this place is pretty incredible.”

Dickert stuck around after the dismissal to break down the speakers and load them into his nearby Subaru, on top of which was strapped a blue Pyranha kayak. A few cars over, Daingr’s parents were strapping his new boat to their car, which put a smile on Dickert’s face. He has watched both this congregation and the NOC grow up through the years, and while kayaks are not given away every week, each Sunday on the Nantahala feels like a gift to him. 

“It’s pretty cool that from pretty humble beginnings and just having people come together and support each other, push each other, challenge each other in supportive ways, what can come out of it,” he told me. “It’s remarkable.”

Cover Photo: Congregants meet at the Nantahala Outdoor Center in the mountains of Western North Carolina. Photo by Mike Dubose

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