This interview is part of The Reconstruct, a weekly newsletter from Sojourners. In a world where so much needs to change, Mitchell Atencio and Josiah R. Daniels interview people who have faith in a new future and are working toward repair. Subscribe here.
On a late fall weekend in Parrish, Ala., Ryan and Jordan Cagle were cutting down the okra plants that had grown outside their window. The now-spent stalks would be removed to make space in the soil for the next crop, and the dead stalks would be composted to nourish new soil for future plants.
Growing up in rural Alabama, Ryan said he was the type of kid who wanted to “get out of dodge and never look back.” And for a period, he did. But God called him and Jordan back to the South, directly back to Ryan’s hometown — even to the same street he lived on as a child.
The Cagles are co-organizers of Jubilee House, a nonprofit ministry based in Parrish with multiple initiatives, including operating a free store and free pantry, passing out free naloxone to combat the opioid crisis, and reclaiming an old football field as a farm. Together, they work to sow a type of Christianity that would revitalize the literal and metaphorical soil of the Bible Belt.
Ryan calls much of this work “compost Christianity.” At Jubilee, the bones of mutuality and Southern hospitality are used to nourish an anti-racist, egalitarian future where all people flourish in the South.
Ryan Cagle spoke with Sojourners associate news editor Mitchell Atencio about political organizing in the rural South, ecology and Christian imagination, and resisting the Christofascism of his local sheriff department.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Mitchell Atencio, Sojourners: What do you find valuable about living and doing the work of the church in the South?
Ryan Cagle: There are a lot of preconceived notions about the South; it is somehow worse than any outsider could ever think, but at the same time, so much better than what it gets credit for.
The South is the crucible from which the Civil Rights movement was birthed. We have some of the largest per capita populations of Black people and the most LGBTQ+ people. So to just write-off the South as this completely backward place just blows my mind. It’s not [a region] that needs to be pushed off into the Atlantic or whatever, which some people outside of here feel is the best solution.
But there is a lot of hatred. There is a lot of bigotry. There is plenty of white supremacy to go around, and particularly Christian flavors of those things — or church flavored at least.
So, it’s a place that I love, but it is a love-hate relationship at times. I wanted to get completely out, and it was getting out that kind of gave me the space to look back and reflect on the South and my place in the South as something that the Spirit could use to be generative and life-giving. I fault no one for getting out if their identities are being marginalized, persecuted, or oppressed. I fault no one for leaving, but I see it as a privilege to be back; it’s something I feel God has called me to. People might not like me being back here, but I’m more than willing to be a thorn in people’s flesh [and] in these systems of white supremacy.
To me, the most beautiful thing about the South is that it is fertile soil — both literally and figuratively. The work of mutual aid is already culturally embedded. Most people don’t call it that or don’t even understand or have a concept of mutual aid within anarchist or socialist philosophies. But when we moved here, we had to dig 300 feet of sewage line to get our house connected to the town sewer. It was going to take us weeks to dig it by hand and we didn’t have the money to rent a tractor or anything. My neighbor across the way saw what was going on and just went and borrowed his tractor from work. Not even his tractor! He just went to his job and said, “Hey, I need to use this tractor for the weekend” and he dug the whole 300 feet of trench in 30 minutes.
And he knows where we are politically and theologically. He knows there’s differences there — but we’re neighbors. So, there’s this notion here of community that is already embedded. And of course, it needs to be teased out to more radical implications, but one of the things I just love about the South is that notion is already there. That’s not to negate all of the horrible s--- that happens in the South, because there’s plenty of that to go around. But this [is a] kernel of mutual aid and solidarity.
You work pretty closely with your town council. Can you talk about the work of hyper-local politics, the relationships you have through it, and how it reframes what it means to be politically engaged?
There are definitely people who are called to that national-level work. But I tend to be of the opinion that those gears move too slowly for change to happen in communities like mine. So, I don’t have much interest or stock in those things. For people who do, that’s amazing, that’s what you’re called to do. But the local level is where I feel like the most gets done.
One of the things about being back in my hometown is there is a bit of relational capital built up. Most of the council people are people who knew me as a kid — maybe coached me in Little League, or I grew up with their kids.
All the major initiatives we have at Jubilee House are connected to the town. We see them as dual power projects. Our 24/7-access pantry is outside of town hall; they provide all the electricity for the fridge and everything for free, which wouldn’t be a lot anyway, but it’s in the most central place in town, so it’s easy for it to be there. When we asked them to use the library and old high school for the free store, [there was] no hesitation. We [asked] to take this old football field and turn it into a farm, and they said yes.
People always ask, “How did you convince your town to do this?” A lot of it is dependent on the relational aspect of building relationships with people who are in leadership. But it’s also just asking — especially in rural areas. The town has a lot of property, but not a lot of money to do anything with it so it’s just sitting there vacant.
[We build] those relationships in my town with our town leaders and council people, and work with them to revitalize and breathe life into things and invite them to participate in new ways.
We’re setting up a free “vending machine” for Narcan, which is the first one of those, maybe in Alabama, but definitely in this part of Alabama. (Narcan is the brand name for the device that sprays naloxone, an opioid-overdose antidote.) Our county commission has all this money from opioid settlements and they’re refusing to use it for anything good. So, we’re saying, “Okay, we’re not going to wait around on you. We’re going to figure out a way to do it.” And that vending machine is, again, in partnership with our local town. The county won’t do anything, but the town says “Sure, we love this idea. You can put the vending machine on town property.” Our communities are being burned alive by opioids, so anything we can do to help keep people alive, we want to do it.
You mentioned a football field that’s being turned into a farm. Did you grow up gardening and farming?
I did not really grow up gardening. My great-grandparents did a lot of that. But a lot of that kind of got lost. Although, I did spend a great majority of my time in the agricultural department at my high school. I actually took enough ag classes to get an extra seal on my degree. Of course, being in the rural South, most of the schools around here have ag, which varies from woodworking to horticulture, small engine [mechanics], a whole scope of things.
When we got back, my wife wanted to start a garden. She’s really the green thumb. I’m more “let’s do the thing and figure it out,” but she’s got a way with plants that I can’t understand. So, she has all the magic when it comes to really growing stuff. I can carry bags of dirt and plant and do all those things.
We felt this need to be connected to the land in the way that restorative agriculture offers. We had been discerning what it means to be connected to the land, and after planting our first little garden, we built a greenhouse on our property. Most of our front yard is a food forest.
We’re fighting food insecurity in our community with the free pantry, [and] we’re beginning to reimagine, “What does this mean for us to create systems that can respond to [food insecurity] differently?” The farm was birthed out of that.
Have you had to learn a lot on the fly as you work at this?
It’s a mix of general knowledge and learning. I definitely wasn’t taught restorative agricultural practices. We have been baptizing and submerging ourselves in that world. It doesn’t feel purely new, it almost feels like a recovery of something we lost along the way. It’s a lot of experimentation, learning from elders, and reading. Learning what grows together well is a process. You can read certain books, but then, different soils are going to act differently. So we’re learning what’s best for this space. We’re pulling from a lot of sources, old and new, local and beyond our own area.
Why do we need to establish a connection and relationship to the land?
We, particularly white Christians, have mostly inherited a theological worldview that treats the land as less and treats the earth as something to be used. Rather than a “thou,” the land, nature, and creation, [are treated as] a commodity. That is not actual discipleship to Christian imagination. It’s capitalist imagination; it’s colonialist imagination. We have to learn to love the places we live if we’re going to do good there. If God’s gonna burn it up one day and we’re gonna go off to some sky kingdom, then who cares what happens to it? But if we are going to learn to care for our neighbors, it has to also include caring for the earth because the earth is our neighbor. These trees in my yard are my neighbors, the squirrels, the foxes that I see are my neighbors, the white-tailed deer that run through here are my neighbors. The dwindling population of lightning bugs are my neighbors. To love my neighbor as myself means I have to include those creatures. It’s crucial for reconnecting to have a kind of paradigm shift, not to something new, but something very old within the Christian imagination.
If we read the Hebrew Bible, it’s never God and humanity. It’s God, humanity, and the land. When humanity is in right relationship with God, the land produces and it flourishes. When humanity is out of step in its relationship with God, the land suffers.
To do good here, I have to learn to love the land and get to know it. Particularly as someone who is here because of colonialism. This was not my land, right? It means learning about who lived here, from the Muskogee Creek peoples to the animals that are no longer here because of the forces [of colonialism and capitalism].
I don’t have anything against baptismal fonts or baptistries in churches. But there’s a reason early Christians sought to baptize people in “living waters,” which were rivers or creeks or actual bodies of water — it wasn’t happenstance. It’s because the land participates in that baptism; that river participates. And we’ve become so disconnected from that.
All I can think about is the Black Warrior River, which is one of the main watersheds in my area. It has been polluted for decades by Tyson Farms. No one really cares, but how differently would our community care if that was the place where all of our churches went to baptize people? What would that do for our theological imaginations?
(Tyson Farms has operated the poultry processing plant that polluted the watershed since 2018. The plant, previously owned by American Proteins, has a history of polluting the watershed dating back to at least 2011.)
Where is the tension for you in this work? You practice Christianity very differently from many of your neighbors in the Bible Belt; I have to imagine you balance being a space of welcome and neighborliness with challenging people.
When the town first gave us the property to build a farm, one of the local churches was up in arms. “They’re gonna do gay church on town property!” That was their literal protest.
[But we told them], “We’re actually just going to be growing food. That’s what [the land] is there for, right?” Luckily, a town council person who went to that church — who disagrees with us and doesn’t have the same theological opinions — just said “I don’t think that’s true, they’re just going to feed people, so we’re going to let them do it.”
There’s definitely tension. The things we do are different because this is not “charity,” it’s solidarity work. The majority of churches in our community, even the ones that are doing good, work off a charity model. The way we do things seems completely absurd to them.
So there’s not a lot of connectivity with these other local churches, ministries, or nonprofits. Honestly, the biggest area of friction we have is with the sheriff’s department and the churches that support the sheriff. Earlier this year, a man was murdered in the custody of the sheriff’s department. They tried to cover it up.
(Walker County Sheriff’s Office arrested Tony Mitchell after his family called the office for a wellness check. Mitchell died in the sheriff’s custody. His family alleges in a lawsuit that he was beaten, abused, and froze to death in their custody, and the FBI opened an investigation into Mitchell’s death.)
The sheriff’s department is a fully Christofascist organization. They have a whole PR campaign where they do prayer circles before they go do drug busts. They do baptism services. They do all of these “Christian things” to generate an image in the world, while systematically destroying lives. We were holding vigils for [Tony Mitchell] and we invited all the major churches in our community to come and none of them came. Instead, several of the churches got together to go to the sheriff’s department and pray over deputies as they were coming into work at five in the morning. But wouldn’t come to a vigil for a man who had been killed in [the sheriff’s] custody.
It’s hard not to be in a perpetual state of rage with churches and nonprofits in our area who don’t want to do anything at all or only want to do surface-level stuff, or stuff that ultimately leads to the dehumanization of the people in our community that need help.
I see what the church can be and what Christians can do because I’ve experienced it myself. It does weigh heavily on my soul because there are so many people in our community who need [that]. If churches in our area cared about the poor even 10 percent of how much Jesus asked us to care about the poor, then we would have a drastically different system.