EcoTHEO Wanders and Converses with Beatitudes; Charlotte and Food Deserts

Published: March 20, 2012

The Wandering Conversation Series started as a dream of EcoTHEO, the student organization at Wake Div that seeks to create conversation around and opportunities for the care of creation. We were seeking to find a way that EcoTHEO could connect with other student organizations through our events in a meaningful way. Also, we work with the intent of getting folks outside connecting with the Earth in a different way. Little did we know that the first conversation of this series would land us not on a forest trail bantering about theology and sniffing flowers, but on a four mile walk through the streets of Charlotte, NC discussing food deserts, systemic injustice, and poverty.

The Beatitudes Society joined us in creating and planning our first Wandering Conversation, and got us connected with Jason Williams from the Hyaets Community in Charlotte. On March 3rd, a chilly Saturday morning, a group of Wake Div students accompanied by Dr. Mark Jensen, the Faculty Advisor of EcoTHEO, ventured down to Charlotte to meet up with Jason and his friends at Hyaets to learn a little bit about food issues in a community close to our own. We went forward with this event with the belief that food issues and social justice concerns are, in fact, connected.

Hyaets is a beautiful community of people who live together in many senses of the term. They share living space, food production and preparation, mealtimes, responsibilities, and burdens. They seek to live in relationship with those whom society often deems the “least of these” in downtown Charlotte and learn more fully about the love of God. Of particular interest to Jason and the folks at Hyaets are issues of food scarcity and quality and that their homes are located in what could technically be called a “food desert.” The term food desert is used to describe an area in which it is very difficult to find healthy and affordable food; those without personal transportation are particularly impacted. Jason remarked on how his neighborhood is a desert in many ways, but at the same time is a vibrant oasis of “life-givingness.” He spoke with authentic love for his neighborhood and for Hyaets as he told us, “something here, I believe, is the Kingdom of God.”

We decided that one way to learn about this issue as a group in such a short period of time would be to walk to the grocery store, get food for lunch on limited budgets, and walk back to Jason’s house. Once we arrived at the grocery store, we found ourselves wandering the aisles trying to buy the most healthy and easiest to prepare foods on “family” budgets of around $7 for a family of 5 on EBT and around $9 for a family of 4 on a minimum wage salary. During the two mile walk to the grocery store, shopping and lunch time, and two mile walk back, we discussed a variety of topics: the importance of a sense of place for a person, the cycle of poverty, theological connections to matters of food, community, wholeness, and loving creation. Sure, the walk wasn’t too bad for those in our group, folks who walk frequently, are in good health, and had the morning free, yet there is something fundamentally wrong with this picture on a larger scale than our “experiential learning” of the trip. What if I had health concerns, or children, or time constraints? The bus route takes even longer than the walk and includes a good deal of walking too. How would I get all of the groceries back home other than carrying them for 2 miles, week after week?

As we engaged our frustrations, we were deeply aware that we’d be heading back to our homes in mere hours, with vehicles (or at least access to one), plenty of food, and that school world would become our primary focus once again. What are take-aways from a trip like this? How can it be a more meaningful experience that integrates into our way of doing ministry? How do we reconcile the seemingly contradicting notions of the love of a deeply invested and providing God with the reality of a world lacking at the hands of the industrial provider that has no concern for its consumers? The topic that seemed to lay beneath all of the rest was what does it look like to take seriously the call of Jesus to both contemplation and action? We are called to bear witness to the Good News; how does our current participation in the industrial food system (and even on a smaller scale) bear witness to the extravagant, mysterious, and ultimately sacrificial love of God? How do we give attention to the radical nature of Incarnation in how we eat and share (or hoard) food? This world, and all within it, is being drawn to the fullness of life by God’s Spirit; what could it look like if we started living into the places (physical locations, communities, etc.) we inhabit with this in mind?

In late March, the Wandering Conversation Series will lead us to an afternoon of fly fishing with Academic Dean Jill Crainshaw and Shelia Hunter co-organized by EcoTHEO and Women’s Work. I look forward to the conversation and fellowship that is to come from this Series this Spring and thereafter! For now, I’ll keep thinking about the issues that have become more apparent for me during my visit at Hyaets as seeds of hope were planted and/or watered in each of us that chilly winter morning in the midst of injustice and pain.

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Baylee Smith
Second Year