"We used to pay to have this property mowed; it was a huge lawn," says Sister Catherine Grace of the Community of the Holy Spirit, speaking about the Bluestone Farm and Learning Center in Brewster, New York. The Community now is in its third year of gardening, and with only 23 acres, is growing vegetables, fruit, grains and beans for drying. Nut trees are going in around the edge of the woodland. "The idea is to eat organically and locally," she adds.
The Community's farming efforts are rooted in work with Sister Miriam Therese MacGillis, OP, begun in 2001. She helped the group pose the question: "What are all the unborn of Earth's living systems asking of us -- as women religious in the Episcopal tradition of the 21st century -- so that they might come into existence?" This opened up thinking about the future and made connections with the deep-time origin-creation story. Sisters Helena Marie and Catherine Grace were charged to establish an earth learning center at Melrose Convent in Brewster. Sister Helena Marie had always wanted to garden, and the rest is an emerging story.
"Recently we realized we needed to add animals to our farm, for ecological balance,' says Sister Catherine Grace. "Our six ducks give us eggs and fertilizer, and clean up the bugs and slugs around the place."
To some it may appear that the Community of the Holy Spirit is indulging in a rural idyll, but evidence from around the country suggests that they are participating in a trend to reconnect with the rest of creation through the means that everyone, wherever they live, has -- through their food.
Netha Brada, priest at St. Matthew's by-the-falls, Iowa Falls, advocates for Harvest of Hope, a winter farmer's market plan where 15% of the proceeds go to a fund to help farmers in need. "I have had people make the remark to me that their church is not a rural church (which is right, if one is thinking of the classic definition of a rural church), but my answer is to ask them if they are interested in eating -- and when they say yes, I tell them, "You are a rural church."
Brada serves on the Board of the Churches' Center for Land and People (CCLP), an ecumenical organization formed for the purpose of supporting small farmers, community-sustained agriculture and related issues, in Wisconsin, Iowa and Illinois. The Dioceses of Iowa and Milwaukee are among its sponsors.
Tony Ends, who operates Scotch Hill Farm in Brodhead, Wisconsin, with his wife Dela, also works part-time as the Executive Director of CCLP. Ends describes the spring he was called to work with CCLP: "I was finally getting close to becoming self-sufficient in our own operation (sustainable farming) after years of very had work and sacrifice, when several people brought to my attention the tragic suicides of a grain elevator operator and a small family meat processor within 30 minutes of our farm.
"Also, I was at that same time drawn into a community struggle ... in my rural neighborhood over expansion of a mega-dairy operation... A single farm, which had had a 30,000-gallon spill of liquid waste at its existing 2,500-cow dairy, was proposing to generate more waste on one farm than a city of more than 300,000 people does, every year, and knife it into surrounding soils.
"The more I listened, studied, observed, researched from my contact with this issue, the more I realized that I [could not] quietly go about my business on my little corner of the world. Whatever we eat reflects an entire system of farm and food production, and it either violates life or sustains life, profits from life as a business or reverences life as Creation...."
Ends, who is a member of Trinity Episcopal Church in Janesville, Wisconsin, points out the tremendous human price exacted by much of our food system. He notes that we seem to want to get to know our doctors, lawyers, teachers and pastors, but not those who grow our food. "We budget for the best, the highest quality, the most secure service in almost every area of our lives and then squander our dollars on cheap food from an anonymous system of production that threatens food security, endangers our waters, depletes nonrenewable resources; encourages dependence on fossil fuels; damages our health, diet and nutrition; and contributes to injustices economically and socially...."
He adds: "To farm ecologically and sustainably is to integrate crops and livestock at a sane, humane, just level of production. This is not
possible unless a farm family adds value to its raw products and direct markets them to the public."
Ends and his family do this through Harvest of Hope, and through community supported agriculture (CSA). Every Saturday during the growing season, for example, they deliver fresh produce to Berry Memorial United Methodist Church in the Ravenswood neighborhood of Chicago.
CSA sites, where farmers provide boxes of seasonal produce to subscribers (sometimes called shareholders) are now finding churches to be handy drop off centers in many parts of the country.
Joyce Wilding, Episcopal Ecological Network coordinator for Province IV, is encouraging participation in CSA's at her congregation, Christ Church Cathedral in Nashville. Avalon Acres Farm, for example, drops off shares at the cathedral as well as United Methodist and Unity churches nearby. "This is a wonderful way for members to pick up their shares and save travel," says Wilding.
For some people, reconnecting with nature through their food means growing their own. Whether deciding to take the search for heirloom tomatoes to their own tiny backyard, or working toward sufficiency in food for a large family, growers turn to sources like Bountiful Gardens. "They may come to us for seeds for gourmet or health reasons," says Betsy Bruneau, "but they learn about sustainability."
Bruneau, a priest and member of the ministry team at St. Francis' in-the-Redwoods Church in Willits, California, manages this outreach arm of Ecology Action, a non-profit promoting biointensive gardening.
"There's a big difference between people we talk to in Willits, and people we talk to on the phone, calling from areas where there's less consciousness of organic and sustainable practices" she says. Willits is in the heart of Mendocino County, California, where the first ban inthe U.S. on growing GMO crops was passed in 2004.
Bruneau has always seen selling seeds as a ministry "both to the earth and to people, to their quality of life. Maybe its just the personality of gardeners, but people often tell us their stories. Sometimes they are stories of loss. But people become reoriented to life through growing a garden; through growing their food they feel hope again."
A few parishes may be beating the bounds and petitioning for a good harvest this Rogationtide (days of prayer and fasting traditionally for the harvest, usually the three days preceding Ascension Day), but many more will be exploring ways to reconnect with the bounty of the earth and those who steward it.
A meal is at the center of our life. And "every time you put food in your mouth that is a eucharistic experience," says Sister Catherine Grace. "They are all holy moments."
Bluestone Farm and Learning Center web site
Sister Catherine Grace's blog
CCLP web site http://www.cclpmidwest.org/
and read Tony End's Earth Day message at
Examples of CSA's
http://www.delvinfarms.com/ and http://www.avalon-acres.com/
Bountiful Gardens http://www.bountifulgardens.org