Sacred Acts: How Churches Are Working to Protect Earth’s Climate (New Society Publishers, 2012) is a collection of stories from across North America of contemporary church leaders, parishioners and religious activists who are working to define a new environmental movement, where honoring their religion means protecting the planet. The following excerpt is a story of several churches that are building green communities by eating together—promoting human interaction and climate care through sustainable food.
We do not have to get our hands into the earth to participate in the humus—we do that consciously or unconsciously, justly or unjustly, every time we eat. But to truly honor the humus, to honor the work of farmers and the abundant creation of which we are all a part, we must change our role from passive consumers of food to coproducers. This means that we must learn to cook, mold, knead and chop.
We must come to understand the differences in oven temperatures and the black arts of substitution and improvisation when our ingredients do not meet the instructions laid out for us in a recipe. We must become cooks and dishwashers — we must own, once again, the processes of our life as productive members of those processes.
I can think of no better example of a church that has taken on this role of coproducers than Englewood Christian Church in Indianapolis, Indiana. Englewood is an unusual church—a traditional Christian congregation mixed with what they like to call an “un”-intentional community. Over its 100-year history the church had slowly become a commuter church as members moved away and the neighborhood around the church began to change. But God had different ideas for the church. Over time several member families felt called to rehabilitate abandoned houses in the neighborhood and move there.
Now several church families live right around the church, sharing in its ministries, which include a day care for low-income families, a Community Development Corporation and an online and print book review, The Englewood Review of Books. Englewood is also a church that shows great hospitality. During each of the last several years they have hosted one or two conferences on topics ranging from immigration to the new monasticism. Two conferences focused on sustainable agriculture, and both did something remarkable—they served the kind of food the conference was advocating. I have been to many gatherings high on the virtues of good food, but few of them have been able to pull off the logistics of serving locally grown food that was raised while caring for the Earth.
The task of serving local food wasn’t an easy one for Englewood, but they did it by planning ahead, growing vegetables in the church’s community garden, and canning and freezing produce for the fall conference. Several church members also keep chickens in their backyards, some for meat and some for eggs, and these too served as part of the food for the conference. The food was wonderful, and we didn’t have to feel guilty when lunchtime came after valuable discussions on such topics as changing the farm system or living faithfully in a time of climate change. Most significantly, the food was grown, preserved and prepared at the church or in partnerships with farmers the church members knew. Going beyond the good intentions of serving organic food grown sustainably but brought in by an outside caterer, this was food produced in and by and for the community.
What Englewood presented at this conference was only an example of what was already being built in the everyday life of their community. Members of the congregation had already been learning the skills of gardening, canning, raising chickens and butchering them. Englewood was able to offer such delicious food, in a way other conferences often cannot, because the church was already moving beyond the merely consumptive model to one of coproduction.
What Englewood also models is the need for a community to form around the skill-based education required to enable us to escape from eating the junk food of empire. As various members of the church took on new skills such as canning, they shared them.
The sharing of skills is an essential practice that all churches must take up if we are to become coproducers, and churches are perfectly situated for just this task. We have the resources of people, of knowledge and, more often than not, of a common space. What if we invited older members of our churches to teach the younger members the lost arts of canning?
The church kitchen is a great resource in this work. Some members of my own church use it on Sunday afternoons during the late months of summer to can large batches of tomatoes. When they do this with other families in the church, it becomes joyful work — mixed with steaming pots, tomato skins, stories, music and laughter.
Christ Church Little Rock, an Episcopal church that sits conveniently downtown, has even opened its kitchen to serve as a biweekly pickup point for an online farmers market organized by the Arkansas Sustainability Network. Market members order food online during the week; farmers deliver it; and volunteers help distribute the produce. Around this market, a community has formed as market members linger to drink a cup of coffee or buy a pastry provided by The Root, a local-foods café.
Christ Church has also opened its kitchen, which is health-department-certified for commercial use, to small sustainable food businesses that do not yet have the money for certified kitchen space of their own, thus serving as a kind of incubator for sustainable business. This is a model that would be easy for other churches to replicate, encouraging the production and processing of good, nutritious food.
Buying food from the market at Christ Church or working with friends in a steamy kitchen to process a bumper crop of summer tomatoes, I am reminded of another important role the church can play in recalling us to the healthful and delicious food of God. The church has long been a place where food is best enjoyed in (green) communities.
Whether a regularly scheduled church meal, a potluck on a feast day or a Pentecost cook-off, the church is a perfect place for us, and for eating together.
In the world of fast and convenient food, prepackaged and nutrition-extracted, eating and shopping and preparing food have become lonely acts. We go to the grocery store, buy a can of tomatoes packed thousands of miles away and check out with an automatic system that requires only the knowledge to find a bar code. We can go through the whole process without any human encounter. This has come to appear normal to us, but to the Babylonians of Isaiah’s day, a market that held no more human interaction than an “excuse me” in a crowded aisle would have seemed strange. The market was once the center of public life, and still is in many parts of the world. It was the market, the agora of Athens, that gave us the foundation for democracy and the discourses of Socrates. We have lost all of that. With the privatization and consumption-oriented marketing of food, we have also lost a good deal of our public life — a life that will be more necessary than ever if we are to think and work together to face the realities of the climate catastrophe.
Reprinted with permission from Sacred Acts: How Churches Are Working to Protect Earth’s Climate by Mallory McDuff and published by New Society Publishers, 2012.