American spirituality is discovering itself anew as people of faith reconnect with the land. As I’ve traveled the country I’ve met fellow Christians who are falling in love with their faith all over again, and in every instance this love affair is tied to a place. Not a lofty cathedral directing the worshipper’s thoughts heavenward; these places draw the eyes—and the hands—down to earth, back to the soil from which Genesis tells us we were formed, and which we’re called to “tend and keep.” Our first and most basic human task, I’ve come to learn, is to care for the garden.
I use the word “garden” loosely. Caring for the garden is not just a nifty update of a feeding ministry; it’s a whole new way to be a church. By any count we haven’t done a very good job of caring for the garden. The way we eat is killing us: one third of us suffer from obesity and one in six suffer from hunger. Through our industrial agriculture practices, we’ve squandered a third of our topsoil in the past two hundred years. With the present reality of climate change, our best scientists tell us, the balance of life on earth is rapidly approaching a tipping point.
In a garden, everything is connected. The basic unit of health is not the individual; it is the community, and the ecosystem of which that community is a part.
Our planet is really just a large garden. The oil we spill in this gulf here affects the fish in oceans over there. The climbing obesity rates we see here are related to all that corn and soy we’re growing over there. On top of all that, the carbon we spew in our little corner here has ended up warming…the entire garden.
Instead of fretting over big, abstract ideas like Climate Change or World Hunger, though, perhaps we and our congregations should focus on the ground right in front of us, and work outward from there. We need to work on the big issues, yes, but we learn to do that best by thinking small and local. Instead of growing vast monocrops of grain, for instance, which harm the soil and harm our bodies, we should grow our food on a more human scale.
After I went to divinity school, I helped start a church-supported community garden in rural North Carolina, which I directed for the next four years. During those years I came to understand that faith finds a clearer focus when we begin to care for a patch of soil and the people it feeds.
The Lord’s Acre, a garden in North Carolina, produced an astounding nine tons of organic produce for the local food pantry last year on a mere half-acre, a figure which blows USDA yield charts sky high. But instead of chest-thumping over numbers, though, its manager, Susan Sides, talks about her work as “making love visible.”
We could all use more of Susan’s humility in the face of the unprecedented challenges we face: personal, spiritual, environmental. The good news I’ve witnessed is that there are many more Susans—people of faith across the country who aren’t in the headlines but who are making love visible and are doing it in a garden.
I’ve come to learn that our desire for real food is bound up in our spiritual desire to be fed. Our American diet and insatiable energy needs have masked a deeper hunger that drives us to consume even as our consumption fails to satisfy. But by learning how to live in the garden, we learn to embrace limits. We learn what it means to have enough, but not too much. We learn not only how to care for plants, but for our own bodies and one another, and ultimately, our planet.
Make no mistake: we won’t end climate change or obesity or hunger by growing a few tomatoes at the neighborhood community garden. We need activists and congregations pushing our leaders for sweeping change on multiple fronts. But our passions and convictions need to first be formed in a place where we can glimpse that unbroken wholeness for which we all yearn.
Faith, I learned, is not a doctrine to be expounded, a magic phrase to chant, or an argument to be won. It is a gift to be eaten in a garden—and eaten together.
Fred Bahnson is author of Soil and Sacrament: A Spiritual Memoir on Food and Faith(Simon and Schuster). He directs the Food, Faith, and Religious Leadership Initiative at Wake Forest University School of Divinity.