Field Notes: May 2018

Nearly every one of the 36 people who gathered for Faithlands were out of our element in the semi-arid central California climate, so we decided to explore the dramatic ecosystem. Upon encountering a tree leaning precipitously over a sparse spring river, barely holding on to the stream bank, Rev. Grace Hackney said, “The tree was calling to me.  So I stayed there to hear what it had to say.

And it told me, ‘Lean into the danger.  Lean into it, so that your roots will go deep into the soil, and will support this work that is so essential.’

Logo for the School of Divinity's Food, Health, and Ecological Well-Being Program

Renewing theological education for the 21st century, we equip religious leaders with the knowledge, skills, and pastoral habits necessary to guide congregations and other faith-based organizations into creating more redemptive food systems, where God’s shalom becomes visible for a hungry world.

Those who gathered at Paicines Ranch – clergy, sustainable farmers, land trust stewards, lawyers, religious, and non-profit leaders – did so with a shared sense of the common threats to agricultural and religious communities.  Ecclesial communities are faced with rapidly changing demographics, pluralism, and cultural upheaval, forcing a recalculation of ministry and our stewardship of the Church’s significant land assets.  Similarly, agricultural communities and aging farms are disappearing and those that survive are rapidly expanding, pushing toward industrial monoculture, threatening the ecological and economic health of our farmscapes.  This creates significant barriers to land and capital for young farmers.

The Faithlands gathering was about facing these challenges head-on. Faithlands is the brainchild of The Greenhorns, whose mission is to assist young agrarians’ access to land and capital for sustainable agriculture.  Faith communities are among the largest landholders in the United States, yet given their diminishing resources they are struggling to steward their land.  Faithlands encouraged the idea of bringing young farmers into contact with faith communities who can provide land for sustainable agriculture, and as a means by which to reinvigorate and reimagine faith.  The aim of this gathering was to grow deep roots in the soil of collaboration and imagine new ways forward for ecclesial communities and emerging agrarians.  Young farmers committed to sustainable food practices coupled with an entrepreneurial spirit present an opportunity for churches: to imagine theologically creative, progressive ministries, combining sustainable agriculture and socially conscious community development.

From the beginning, Faithlands was charged with a sense of abundant opportunity, as story after story was shared of successful, viable agriculture programs from Miami to the Pacific Northwest.  Stories like Moses Kashem’s at St. Simon’s Farm in Miami demonstrated that there are pathways for successful collaboration between faith-based organizations and agricultural initiatives.  While these overlapping communities provide new opportunities for sustainable agriculture, they also present new legal and organizational challenges.  How do we navigate the various interests of multiple parties?

That’s when we learned about three important organizations – Agrarian Land Trust, Land for Good, and Sustainable Economies Law Center – whose representatives Jamie Pollen, Kathyrn Ruhf, and Neil Thapar, were on hand to teach us. Jamie and Kathryn are skilled shepherds for these kinds of conversations and can assist in moving forward in the midst of complex interests. Neil presented thoughtful reflection on legal trends, challenges, and experiments that are happening nationwide as models for sustainable agriculture.

Smart planning, honest conversation, and creative thinking are creating ways forward for congregations and farmers alike.

As we leaned into meaningful conversation about land access and food sovereignty, we were forced to confront the twin devils of bigotry and racism, spotlighting the truth about the inequities of opportunities for farmers everywhere, whether of differing skin color, gender identity, or religious persuasion.  Both agricultural and religious communities have been seedbeds for such intolerance. We found ourselves further leaning into this danger by listening to stories by the Rev. Venice Williams at Alice’s Garden in Milwaukee, reminding us of the role that water once played in securing freedom for enslaved people, and still plays today as communities of color seek sustainable solutions to food insecurity.  [editor’s note: Rev. Williams is one of our speakers and workshop leaders at this year’s Summer Institute on “Food Justice, Faith, and the Ecological Imagination.”]

Rev. William’s story, alongside of the witnesses of Rev. Dr. Ambrose Carroll of Green the Church and Darriel Harris of the Baltimore Food and Faith Project, demonstrate the diverse cultural and ecological soils from which this movement is growing.  We also heard from central Jersey Muslim farmer Dr. Hisham Moharam, offering that “People farm to escape the consequences of capitalism.”  Much of our subsequent conversation centered on economic systems and the manipulation of resources from the poor by the rich that demands that faith and agricultural communities speak in a unified voice in anticipation of a desired future of more sustainable and equitable communities.

Faith communities have a pivotal role to play beyond the provision of land.

Indeed, though there were many faith traditions represented—Muslim, pagan, Jewish, Christian—there was a deeply shared spirituality undergirding this work that clergy can facilitate in several important ways: first, congregations must prophetically imagine and proclaim a desirable future through regenerative land stewardship.  Second, congregations and faith leaders can serve a priestly function by blessing and commissioning farmers and congregations for this work in the context of their religious life and liturgies.  Finally, congregations must become places where thoughtful pastoral care, emotional support, and spiritual formation are available to all.

Faithlands is committed to continuing the conversation and expanding the voices around the table.  We are developing a leadership team that will consider our most faithful next steps.  Armed with new knowledge and resources, our farmers are looking to share information with colleagues about the creative opportunities available to anyone seeking to practice sustainable agriculture.

Faith leaders are reaching out to their ecclesial structures to see what land may be available, and to encourage faith communities to think more deeply about the possibility of ecclesial renewal through agriculture and ecology.  Together, we hope to expand the ecosystem of voices and experience that will allow the work to grow.

For all its concerns about our physical and spiritual places, Faithlands remains hopeful.  Hopeful that a new, multi-faceted spirituality is emerging, rooted in the earth and the communities which we call home.  Hopeful that the danger is not insurmountable.  And hopeful that if we lean into that danger, we might discover deeper roots that support us as we proclaim a new heavens and a new earth that are truly good news for all.

Sam Chamelin
Advisory Board member
Pastor, Keep & Till