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Holden Village

Photo courtesy Holden Village.

Holden Village: Walking the ‘all are welcome’ talk

You don't have to be Lutheran to love this remote, family-oriented retreat in the Wenatchee National Forest.

Fair warning: I am about to enthusiastically suggest your family consider a mountain retreat that is “rooted in the Lutheran Christian tradition” and located far far away in the Wenatchee National Forest. If your family is not rooted thus, you may be reaching for the X tab right about now. But hear me out. 

My family (with the exception of my parents) are not Christian. We are, most of us, agnostic, atheist and/or “other.” In my clan, we have been Catholic, Episcopalian, Buddhist, non-religious members of the LGBTQIA+ community, a bar mitzvaed-but-not-religious Jew, a yogi, a Muslim, a death metal aficionado, a “no labels” shoulder shrugger and a pagan in the manner of early Celtics. 

Why we go

And yet, Holden Village has been one of our family’s beloved getaways for nearly 20 years. Every time we make the 3-hour trek to Lake Chelan, ride the 4-hour Lady of the Lake boat up to deactivated town of Lucerne’s boat dock and then ride 30 minutes on an old school bus along death defying switchbacks to be delivered dusty and hungry at the village’s doorstep, we do so with eagerness and joy.

How is that possible? The village clearly states the answer on its website:

“Holden Village welcomes and embraces people of all races, ethnicities, religious backgrounds, gender identities, sexual orientations, and abilities. We strive to overcome learned prejudices and develop relationships across differences. We actively seek liberation and transformation through education, relationship, and engagement . . . “

Holden is indeed a place of spiritual renewal, but it’s one where “all faith traditions are celebrated and welcomed.” And, most important to our family, where “non-Christians can feel comfortable in an atmosphere of mutual acceptance and conversation.”

That means while you are likely to meet a whole lot of Lutherans, none of them will try to convert you or your kids. And almost all of them will make your family feel like you’ve just walked into Grandma’s kitchen as she was about to pop your favorite meal on the table. If you’re interested, residents, volunteers and guests here will happily invite you into interesting dialogues covering the range of world concerns, from global warming to gender freedom to the nation’s mass incarceration crisis. The latter was the topic of several classes open to all visitors on our recent visit. 

Or, they are happy to leave you alone. It’s up to you.

They had us on the first trip

I first took my kids to Holden, a former copper mining town that was sold to the Lutherans for $1 back in the 60s, when they were two and five years old. A friend and avid hiker/conservationist had passed through Holden the year before and was smitten with the village’s dedication to sustainability, its unique composting and recycling systems, and its many environmental commitments. Besides those things, which I too cared about, she promised we’d find wonderful wilderness around Holden, a welcoming community, wholesome food, activities and arts galore and ample quiet space when and if we needed it. The latter was important because my then toddler son was in his screaming-for-no-clear-reason phase. Not long after our trip, the phase was diagnosed as autism.

The sign of a welcoming community to me is this: my toddler standing in the middle of a dining room filled with two hundred people and letting out a shriek loud enough to raise the dead. And no one – NO ONE – flinching in response. Folks just went right on chatting and eating. Later, an elderly woman came up to me, shushing my son in the corner, and asked if I could use a break. 

Understanding and kindness

“How about you go on a little walk? I’d be happy to hang out with him – he’s quite a singer!” 

She later shared that her son had autism. She listened to me as I bawled out our story of worry and testing and waiting for a final diagnosis. I didn’t know I’d come for this emotional release, but there it was. 

While my son stuck pretty close to me on that visit, my daughter ventured out, met children from around the country, played, hiked, explored nature as part of Holden’s kid fun programs, threw clay pots on the village wheel, started to weave a rug on a giant loom and shot pool with her dad down in old village pool hall and bowling alley. In other words, she tramped around Holden with the kind of childhood abandon and freedom you don’t see much of in childhood these days. 

Summertime is kid time

Holden is open to visitors most of the year, although summer is the best time for families to visit. Fall and winter are quieter — a haven for snowshoeing enthusiasts, indoor arts lovers, and families who need more space and less people. A decidedly smaller volunteer community cares for this historic site outside the summer months.     During a June visit one year our family participated in our first Pride parade at Holden Village, a colorful romp up and down the one city block main street in front of the village. It was a wonderful moment to bring fledgling discussions about equity and love into a more concrete space.

On another visit, when my kids were 10 and 13, both were readily welcomed into the roving band of teens that spent their evenings moving back and forth between the hot tub under the stars, the sauna with its freezing cold plunge and the ice cream shop. While they explored new ways of being and the beginnings of adolescent unity and angst (there was heartbreak that summer!), I enjoyed respite from the nagging expectation of constant parental supervision.  

An atmosphere of fun and peace

There is charism at Holden. It’s found in the way impromptu music groups play on porches, or in an all-village Clue game erupts across the lawns complete with dressed up volunteer characters and in a line of adults and kids wringing out tie-dye shirts behind the “craft cave.” It’s found in the same bread made by hand for 60 years which is  available 24/7 along with butters and jams and fruits in season. “Holden hilarity” – the sudden parades or surprise concerts or festive work parties – is a part of that charism.

Nature all around

Each time we return to Holden we set aside a day to hike up to one of the breathtaking lakes in the protected forest surrounding  the village. This summer we trekked up to Hart Lake to celebrate my dad’s 80th birthday. However, you needn’t climb to reach the forest. Leisurely strolls take you to waterfalls, a river, a woodland labyrinth. That first year, I carried my soon-to-be-official-autistic toddler back and forth along the path to10 Mile Falls less than a mile out of the village center. It was not far, but it was the connection to nature I needed to achieve a spiritual renewal I hadn’t realized I yearned for. For him, the birdsong, two deer and a wealth of rocks on the path were the doorway to peace and contentment, a rare and blessed thing in those early years.

About the deer: they are everywhere in and around Holden Village. In summer, they wander on the grassy lawns, nibble on tree leaves, and every now and then leave their babies to rest in the flower beds. Chipmunks abound, butterflies dance, fish are abundant in the rivers and lakes. For a child, all of this makes Holden an ever expanding moment of wonder and surprise.

Symbols and signs

But going back to my initial warning. All around Holden there are references to its Christian foundation – a scripture reference here, a cross or other symbol there, a class or event or activity with a theological tie. Grace is said at meals. The center platform in the village is called The Ark. 

At the same time, there are many nods to a wide range of belief systems, religions, social justice movements and land stewardship. Each night residents and guests are invited to gather for “Sacred Space” in the village center. In the old days this 30-minute pause was called Vespers or evening prayer. But I noticed on our recent visit the effort to make this time more inclusive and less uncomfortable for non-Christians. And, as with all things Holden, visitors are invited to participate or not as they choose. No one will check or judge you for your presence or lack thereof.

Separate but a part of

Heading up to Holden this year, members of my family and I discussed our disgust with the fundamentalist thinking that has led to recent Supreme Court rulings and which has added to the polarization of our country. Sometimes we want to paint all religions with the same close-minded, sexist, racist brush that has colored recent politics — and run as far and as fast away from them as we can.

But, sitting in Holden’s Sacred Space in early July, listening to a group of Lutherans place social justice and equity for the earth and all people and all rights at the center of their faith, my spirit, religion-eschewing as it is, was touched. My daughter, an atheist, felt the same. We did indeed feel comfortable in an atmosphere of mutual acceptance and conversation. We did indeed feel like part of a “celebration of unity, diversity, humanity and all creation.” 


Eventually, our clan boarded the rickety school bus and headed back down the lake. As we did, the residents of Holden Village gathered in the dust of our retreating Bluebird to wave us out of town. It’s a tradition. In this same manner, villagers have been welcoming and saying goodbye to families of all faiths and more for 60 years. 

How I wish the spirit of love, inclusion and acceptance we feel at Holden Village were the rule rather than the exception of the world today. I like to think each time we visit we bring the possibility of that hope a little closer to reality.

If you go:

Summer 2022 rates include room and board:

  • 3 nights, $381 per person. Children under age 3 are free. 
  • 5 nights, $650
  • 7 nights, $840

Adults volunteering at Holden receive free room and board. 

Round trip tickets on the Lady of the Lake boat to Holden are $98 per adult and $49 per child over age 2. Children under age 2 ride free.


About the Author

Cheryl Murfin

Cheryl Murfin is managing editor at Seattle's Child. She is also a certified doula, lactation educator for and a certified AWA writing workshop facilitator at