I recently organized an event at a small Methodist church in Cedar Grove, North Carolina: the newly-minted Bishop’s Task Force on Food. The meeting was comprised of fourteen farmers, theologians, pastors, community gardeners, and one ex-Special Forces soldier-turned-food activist named Stan. Stan’s newest tactical mission: getting churches involved in the sustainable food fight, which is why I invited him along to join us.
This food task force is but one example of a groundswell of interest among churches. For a faith whose central sacrament is the Eucharistic meal, a number of Christians are seeing the far-reaching implications of that meal for how they eat. And they are beginning to ask some hard questions. Why, for example, must that old warhorse known as The Church Potluck still feature tables brimming with Jell-O, high fructose corn syrup, and other “food products” we know to be bad for us? And why should our food supply be so dependent on fossil fuels which are quickly disappearing? Why has the number of malnourished people in the world (one billion) been surpassed by the number of obese? Clearly our eating habits are destructive. How, then, do we rethink the way we eat and what resources for that re-imagining do we already have within our faith tradition?
Before meeting we all read Michael Pollan’s instant classic “Letter to the Farmer-in-Chief” as well as a recent essay by agrarian theologian Norman Wirzba on his work with Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson to develop a 50-year farm bill.
Bishop-in-chief of the NC Methodist Conference Al Gwinn referred to these articles as places where the church needs to perk up her ears, and began the discussion on a sobering note: “We know that our society is going down an extremely treacherous path that does not have any potential of a good ending given the way we’re traveling.”
The bishop was followed by Dr. Ellen Davis, professor of Old Testament at Duke Divinity School and author of the excellent Scripture, Culture, Agriculture—Reading the Bible Through Agrarian Eyes (foreword by Wendell Berry), who said that one of the best resources for thinking about the way we eat and grow food is the Bible:
It’s difficult to go more than a few chapters in the Old Testament without seeing reference to land or food. The biblical writers were particularly interested in arable land. They were remarkably attuned to the incomparable value of land and its fertility. Situated in a semi-arid climate with erosion-prone soil, Israel had no margin for error. A point of connection here in the U.S. is that while we had a huge margin for error a few centuries ago, we’ve used it up. We’re like ancient Israel in that we now occupy a marginal ecological niche.
Dr. Wirzba, also present at the meeting, then asked,
How do we envision an economy in which the health of land and people together can be established? We need practices in which we can reestablish our relationship with the land. This is where church gardens are so important. To be in a garden is to learn that we need a new relationship with creation. It’s where our own lives become a gift to be given to others. Gardens can be a powerful witness to the world for the church to be able to say, ‘this is how you receive the world, this is how you receive each other, and this is how we share God’s goodness. This is how we resist treating each other as commodities.’
Stan spoke up to encourage our group to think about land use. “The local re-design of our food system requires land, any and all kinds, for gardens, local market space, and supporting storage and handiwork,” he said. “Churches need to actively seek donated land wherever it is available, and provide that space to community partners to nurture local food alternatives.”
Rev. Jeremy Troxler spoke next. Jeremy is a former tobacco farmer. Despite his awe-shucks demeanor he is an elegant spokesman for the agrarian way of life and is now director of the Thriving Rural Communities program at Duke Divinity School. “We need our parishioners to see that sustainable farming is not a liberal agenda,” he said. “In fact it’s really the way my grandfather lived. We need to use the deep wells of scripture to find ways to express that clearly to our congregations.”
Lunch that day was an all-local menu of onion and broccoli quiche, a salad of Jericho lettuce and sugar snap-peas, and fresh strawberries for dessert, all grown in the church’s community garden and on neighboring farms.
Before we ate Stan said something that’s stayed with me. We had been talking about the recent groundswell of interest in agriculture among churches. Shaking his head slightly and speaking in a hushed, almost reverent tone Stan said, “There are 830 churches in the NC Methodist conference. Think if every one of those started a garden or produced their own food. Once they are in motion—that’s an unstoppable force.”
Heads around the table nodded in agreement. The bishop blessed the food. And then we feasted.