News and Views

Baby turtles serve as evangelists to power of miracles

Posted by Guest Author on

By Dottie Yunger*

Around Ash Wednesday, a pastor’s thoughts naturally turn to spotted turtles. Wait. What?

Rev. Dottie Yunger introduces a baby turtle to water and the turtle introduces her to wonder.
Rev. Dottie Yunger introduces a baby turtle to
water and the turtle introduces her to wonder.

As I prepared for Lent this year, those preparations included ashes for worship and an incubator for turtle eggs. Working part-time as pastor of Solomons UMC and aquarist assistant at the Calvert Marine Museum, this marine biologist minister often has an eclectic To Do List any given week. The beginning of Lent this year was no exception. The spotted turtles at the museum had been mating, and we came in one day to find two elliptical eggs in the tank. The female had laid them in the water, which is not typical; females dig a nest on land with their hind legs. Without knowing if the eggs were even fertilized, let alone still viable after being submerged, we decided to put them in an incubator we had on hand.

I researched the incubation period for spotted turtles, which is the amount of time the eggs remain and develop in the nest. For spotted turtles it can be around six weeks. “That means they will hatch around Easter,” I told the aquarist. “The odds aren’t good,” she said, “so I wouldn’t get your hopes up.” I responded, “We are talking about Easter. Getting our hopes up is exactly what it’s about.”

Lent came and went, and Holy Week brought its usual worship, reflection and focus, which is to say I forgot about those two tiny white eggs tucked into the incubator. On Easter Monday, I was recharging my spiritual batteries caring for the creatures at the museum, when the aquarist said, “Dottie, stop whatever you are doing and come here now.” No, it is too soon after Easter to do anything quickly, I thought, until it occurred to me, Yes, it is Easter Monday, the perfect time for a turtle miracle! (Isn’t that what all pastors think?)

And it was. The lid of the incubator was lifted back when I got there, with an empty turtle shell inside. One of the turtles had hatched, and the other was just beginning to. At about an inch long and with bright yellow spots, the hatchling was surveying her new world around her. The life that had been developing and growing and persevering in the dark burst forth into the light. And everyone there who saw it, regardless of his or her faith or lack thereof, proclaimed the same thing – “It’s an Easter miracle!”

A turtle emerging from it's shellI never imagined a tiny turtle would be such a powerful evangelist. But that’s what Dash – that’s what we named her – was that day. By the next day the second turtle hatched, though more slowly and needing some help from us. Her spots were even more pronounced, and we named her Dot (a proud day for me). A spotted turtle can have over 100 spots, and no two turtles’ spots are the same. Each is a unique, individual, one-of-a-kind creature (that will preach).

Why work part time at the Calvert Marine Museum, and why spend Easter Monday there instead of resting from Holy Week as pastors do? Why ponder the theological significance of a baby turtle? For me, because this is the call God has placed on me; this is the ministry to which I am called. To care for God’s creation, all of it, all of us. To consider God’s people and the sparrows and the lilies, and to pastor to them all. Both my theology and my ecology studies inform this ministry to all of God’s creation.

In his article, “Consider the Turtles of the Field,” Brian McLaren describes emerging theological values that we all might embrace, not just marine biologist ministers like me. They are:

  1. Increased concern for the poor leads to increased concern for all creation. The same forces that hurt the widow and the orphan, the elderly, children, and minorities, hurt turtles, trees, soil, water, air. These are forces such as greed, impatience, selfishness, arrogance, hurry, anger, competition, irreverence. When those forces are exposed and rejected by God’s people, God’s people and all of creation are then re-valued, re-deemed, and made sacred again. This includes the redemption of a tiny spotted turtle and her hatchlings. They are seen as the priceless creatures of God for which they are, not deemed worthless by a society who values a road through their wetland habitat more.
  2. What Brian McLaren describes as an “eschatology of abandonment” is replaced by a gospel of the kingdom. This understanding of end times focuses almost entirely on God bringing us to heaven, beyond time, beyond matter, beyond this creation entirely. All of creation, therefore, is wrapped up like an empty candy wrapper and thrown in the trashcan. Creation is seen as the “cosmic backdrop” for human salvation; there’s no continuity between this creation and the new heavenly creation. This “candy wrapper creation” is ultimately discardable, because, “Why get sentimental about a cheap container destined for the cosmic dumpster of nothingness?” This view causes as much harm as an actual discarded candy wrapper does, as plastic whose manufacture, incineration, and accumulation without ever biodegrading pollutes and poisons the land, water, air – and the communities who live connected to them. The gospel of the kingdom values creation here and now, and in and of itself. McLaren persuasively states: “In this kingdom, Jesus said, sparrows matter. Lilies of the field matter. Yes, people matter even more, but it’s not a matter of either/or; it’s a matter of degree in a world where everything that is good matters — where everything God made matters.”
  3. Finally, and maybe the most difficult to practice in our American culture, is the concept of private ownership replaced with an ethic of biblical stewardship. A capitalist economy is replaced with a stewardship economy. This economy of God’s kingdom has very clear values, and those values have correlation with the ecological principles. That correlation is how I understand myself as a scientist and a person of faith, and the relationship I see between science and religion. When I realized the reasons I cared about turtles in my science world were connected to the reasons I was a person of faith and vice versa, I realized I could accept a call to ordained ministry.


Those values, and the correlation to ecological principles, include:

  • Community – seeing beyond the individual to the communal. This theological value is reflected in the scientific concept of an ecosystem, a community of organisms interacting with each other and their physical environment. A spotted turtle is an individual species, and it is also one species interacting with other turtles, raccoons and muskrats, and the habitat including the stream, mud, leaf litter, etc.
  • Fellowship – sharing and holding in common with the community. The scientific concepts of coevolution and symbiosis reflect in some ways this fellowship. As two or more species change over time, they affect each other’s evolution, such as the way flowering plants and insects have. Scientists classify some of these interactions as symbiotic – relationships between two or more organisms that live closely together. Some of these relationships are mutualistic; both organisms benefit in ways they could not if they lived separately.
  • Mission – participation in God’s kingdom for God’s purposes. Scientists use the term “niche” to describe an organism’s role in an ecosystem. When we alter or destroy the habitat of spotted turtles, we alter or destroy the purpose for which God created spotted turtles. And we act like we know better than God how spotted turtles should be spotted turtles.


After Dash hatched, I gently picked her up and placed her in the palm of my hand. Spotted turtles are semi-aquatic, and it was time to introduce her to water. I poured a small amount in my cupped hand and watched her reaction. She put her head under the water and looked around, then began to move around in her new watery environment. Yet another entirely new way for her to view her world. As she did, I considered this turtle of the stream, this creature of God, and I whispered, “I now baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”


*The Rev. Dottie Yunger is pastor of Solomons UMC in Solomons.