May 2017 Field Notes

It’s a warm Friday afternoon, and as I sit in a second floor window seat at the Reynolda House Museum of American Art—an institution devoted to sharing and celebrating human creativity—I find myself wanting to share and celebrate the human creativity I’ve witnessed over the past several months.

In early March I took a group of eight WFU School of Divinity students to the borderlands region around Tucson, Arizona. I titled the course “Ecotones of the Spirit,” the result of a collaboration with my friend and colleague Dr. Gary Paul Nabhan. Gary is an ethnobotanist, local foods advocate, Franciscan lay brother, and desert dweller. He is one of the most knowledgeable and inspiring people I’ve ever met about the connection between land, culture, foodways, and spirituality.

Over eight days Gary introduced us to an inspiring variety of leaders in the borderlands ecotone: faith groups assisting immigrants, permaculture experts on rainwater harvesting, young Tohono O’otham farmers using indigenous foods to address obesity and diabetes, and ecological restorationists using native plants to re-green the desert.  Students were exposed to the complexity of border issues, especially food security and climate change, and asked to consider how as future religious leaders they might lead in such an ecotone. Undergirding our trip was an exposure to the desert contemplative tradition in Christian spirituality with readings from the Desert Fathers and Mothers. Each morning we began our day with contemplative prayer.  You can read more about the trip in this press release. I’m grateful to the good people at the Shield-Ayres foundation, whose generous support helped underwrite the trip for our students.

In late March the Food, Health, and Ecological Well-being Program hosted two important events in Winston-Salem.

  • “Fighting Fire With Food: Growing Health for The Beloved Community.” Over 120 people turned out to hear Rev. Heber Brown and Rev. Richard Joyner share vivid stories of how they’re creating healthy, thriving communities through food in Baltimore, MD and Conetoe, NC, respectively.
  • Brown and Rev. Joyner then joined a national gathering called “Tending the Field.” In partnership with my friend and colleague Matthew Williams and the Forum for Theological Exploration, we convened 20 faith leaders working on issues of food, health, and ecology for several days of intensive conversations. Our goal was to both identify “the field,” and also to build and strengthen networks of faith leaders working in the field to amplify our efforts. The conversations were rich. I hope to share the results in the coming months.

A few weeks ago the Johns Hopkins Health Review published an article—with a few quotes on our program—that looks at the rise of faith communities working on food issues.

In early April I joined a lively conversation at the Seminary Hill Colloquy, a gathering for scholars working on “food security, sustainability, climate change and alternative market economies” hosted by the Methodist Theological School of Ohio. It was a gift to meet such a diverse and talented group of religious scholars who care deeply about our common home, and who are working to shift conversations within the academy toward what Pope Francis calls “integral ecology.”

Speaking of the Pope: from Ohio I flew to D.C. where I was spoke at a conference organized by the Pope’s Pontifical Council on Culture. It was called “Towards a New Economy: Justice, Culture, and the Social Market,” and though Pope Francis wasn’t there, Lewis Hyde was there, author of The Gift: How the Creative Spirit Transforms the World, and a new book called Common as Air. Hyde spoke about the cultural commons, that vast sum of knowledge we’ve all inherited through the ether, and in my talk I responded by speaking about how the cultural commons is at every breath dependent upon the ecological commons, which is of course under assault from all sides, especially the current regime in Washington, and how therefore our cultural and religious lives are in danger of losing the literal ground from which they derive their meaning.

Which brings me back to human creativity.

The events and conversations I described above have reinforced for me a growing conviction: that in the work of restoring our common home, one of the most important things we people of faith have to offer is our religious imaginations. Seeing a world that does not yet exist, a world where God’s shalom is visible, and then working toward that vision.





Fred Bahnson
Director of the Food, Health, and Ecological Well-Being Program
Assistant Professor of the Practice of Ecological Well-Being


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