Church Gardening As Peacemaking Ministry

The book cover of “Soil and Sacrament” by Fred Bahnson. Photo via RNS.

The book cover of “Soil and Sacrament” by Fred Bahnson. Photo via RNS.

Fred Bahnson’s first bit of advice when he started planning a church garden eight years ago came from an elderly tobacco farmer who grabbed a handful of soil, rolled it around in his fingers and shook his head:

“You don wohn fahm heah,” he said in his deep North Carolina drawl.

Those were not the only discouraging words he received as he planted and cultivated one of the earliest and most successful church gardens, 20 miles north of Chapel Hill.

But Bahnson, a Duke Divinity School graduate and a pioneer in the church gardening movement, had a different view of farming than the older tobacco farmer. He knew that if he gave back to the soil more than he took out — in the form of compost, manure and other soil food — he could create an abundant garden.

Creation is Groaning

Oil spill illustration, fish1715 / Shutterstock.com

Oil spill illustration, fish1715 / Shutterstock.com

In his letter to the Romans, the apostle Paul writes: “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God …” (Romans 8:18-19)

And who are God’s children in the immediate context? Paul explains the “children of God” are those whose spirits cry “father” when referring to God. “For,” according to Paul, “all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.” (Romans 8:14) If this is true, then why is creation longing for the children of God (those led by God’s Spirit) to be revealed?

In Genesis 1, the author writes, “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.” The Hebrew words for “very good” are mehode tobeMehode means “forcefully” and in the Hebrew context tobedoes not necessarily refer to the object itself. Rather it refers to the ties between things. So, when God looked around at the end of the sixth day and said, “This is very good,” God was saying the relationships between all parts of creation were “forcefully good.” The relationship between humanity and God, men and women, within families, between us and the systems that govern us, and the relationship between humanity and the rest of creation — the land, the sea, and sky and all the animals and vegetation God created to dwell in those domains—all of these relationships were forcefully good!

Evangelism After the Storm

Hurricane Sandy destruction in Breezy Point, N.Y., Leonard Zhukovsky / Shutterst

Hurricane Sandy destruction in Breezy Point, N.Y., Leonard Zhukovsky / Shutterstock.com

“But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry.” 2 Timothy 4:5 (NIV)

On Oct. 28, I was shocked into a cruel reality when I received an urgent text message as I was about to preach my Sunday sermon at Mount Carmel Baptist Church in Arverne (Far Rockaway), N.Y. We were told to evacuate immediately, and that both of the bridges that lead to and from the western portion of the peninsula would be shut down. Hurricane Irene had proven to be a false alarm in 2011, and we mistakenly thought that Sandy would be as well. I instructed all of our parishioners to leave immediately after service. My family and I packed up and headed out to my sister’s place in Bloomfield, N.J.

When I ventured back on Halloween, it took more than five hours to get to Far Rockaway, a peninsula that lies between Jamaica Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. What I saw on the way was sobering, if not devastating: boats in the middle of the street, debris everywhere, no electricity for miles and miles of Queens and Long Island, and homes – hundreds, if not thousands flooded — many destroyed. My own home and church in Arverne took on nearly 7 ft. of water. At Mount Carmel, our offices, fellowship hall, kitchen, and bathrooms were destroyed.

As the World Turns, Congress Stands Still on Climate

Oil refinery emissions, David Sprott / Shutterstock.com

Oil refinery emissions, David Sprott / Shutterstock.com

Forget about future generations – climate change is already hitting poor people around the world, not to mention contributing to natural disasters in the U.S. from New York City to Arizona. Apparently that’s not enough for some members of Congress, who have chosen to use their authority to try to block any and all attempts to do something about the problem.

Earlier this month, President Barack Obama announced a major, comprehensive plan of action on climate change – changes that would do much to protect human health, the poor, and future generations by mitigating some of the worst impacts of climate change. A central part of the plan is to address climate pollution at its largest source: coal-fired power plants.

Unfortunately, many members of Congress are already taking steps to decry the president’s plan as a “war” – on coal, on American energy, and yes, even on America itself. Leaders from John Boehner to Michele Bachmann to Joe Manchin have made it pretty clear that they view attempts to care for creation as an assault on our country.

Surviving the Next Gulf Oil Spill

In an attempt to rebuild the image of the five gulf states — Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas, federal and state officials have joined forces on their journey to replenish the damage from 2010's BP oil-well tragedy. Talks of baseball stadiums, sea walls, and donations to the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council are among the many entities who will benefit from President Obama’s Restore Act signed last year. The New York Times reports:

The money will mostly be split among the states and a new entity, the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council, composed of state and federal officials. There are already plenty of ideas among the states for spending the cash, including constructing a sea wall around the city jail in Mobile, Ala., and deepening shipping channels. Biloxi, Miss., is using money already given to the state by BP to build a baseball stadium.

Here’s another idea: the states and the council should require that a nickel of every dollar they control be used to buy and protect coastal marshes and wetlands. It is the most important thing they can do to help the gulf survive the next oil spill.

Read more here.

A Pattern For Change

Climate change illustration, Sangoiri / Shutterstock.com

Climate change illustration, Sangoiri / Shutterstock.com

I’ve believed that climate change is the greatest moral issue facing us, and something I want to work on in my congregation. But how? I asked someone who had conducted a survey in our denomination, and he said that most churches discussed the issue but had little or no concrete action. I talked to activist congregations whose members were experiencing burnout and no longer meeting as a group. In a meeting with concerned congregations, I found that they experienced a big separation between climate-change interest groups and social action groups. In my congregation, we formed a “Green Team” that was concerned with saving energy, but it was reluctant to do any political action. 

After much prayer and many conversations and group meetings, our Social Justice Minister called a group together that he called “The Climate Change Initiative.” Twenty-five of us showed up, and after we introduced ourselves, our minister said he had noticed three groupings emerging: Practical, Political, and Spiritual Action. 

We started to meet in three subgroups, but still collaborated. A year later, I met a leader of a United Church of Christ congregation who had pioneered and formed the UCC national denominational emphasis. She said the same three elements were evident in their congregation work, and that had, she thought, contributed to the pattern for change. 

'Fiddling While the World Burns:' A Faithful Response to Partisan Gridlock

Gina McCarthy, Public Domain, U.S. Government via Wikimedia Commons

Gina McCarthy, Public Domain, U.S. Government via Wikimedia Commons

Last week, concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reached 400 parts per million – nearly 15 percent over what many scientists estimate is a safe level. Amid this and other crises in creation, the Environmental Protection Agency needs a strong leader to navigate the complex policy and economic situation that governs environmental policy.

In March, In March, President Barack Obama nominated Gina McCarthy to lead the EPA. At the time, many regarded her as a shoo-in, as she has held top posts under Republican governors, was endorsed by many in the energy industry, and has acted as assistant administrator of the EPA under President Obama since 2009.

It was surprising, then, when all eight Republican members of the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee decided to boycott McCarthy’s nomination hearing. This surprise decision, which effectively canceled the vote, was part of a longer-term pattern of obstruction and partisanship on once-routine matters.

In the face of such unprecedented risk to human health and well-being, many were surprised that senators tasked with studying issues of clean air, clean water, and similar issues put ideology ahead of fairness in obstructing the vote. Sen. David Vitter, the leader of the obstructionist group, said it best himself in 2005 when discussing judicial appointments: “I think that every nominee deserves a vote. It’s a matter of fairness.”

The Lord Will Destroy the Destroyers of the Earth (Rev. 11:18)

Burning Earth, Igor Zh. / Shutterstock.com

Burning Earth, Igor Zh. / Shutterstock.com

We in our era have accomplished something no other civilization would have considered possible — or desirable. We have taken human wastefulness and self-destruction to never-before-seen levels and we have distorted our scriptures to justify  even celebrate — our own destruction.

Whether it is fracking (with its own legacy of toxic waste) the Keystone XL Pipeline (with its virtually guaranteed oil spills across prime farm land) accompanied by the largest population ever seen on the face of the earth — with its attendant garbage and sewage — we are seeing threats to our climate, food supply, economy, and quality of life on a level never seen before in human history.

Historically, theologies (and philosophy) have put a brake on human avarice, violence, and unbridled destruction of the environment.

Reflection and restraint, for millennia, have been the twin pillars of historic conservatism.

Not now.

Biblical Economics and Ecology for the 21st Century

Caring for the Earth illustration, Sunny studio-Igor Yaruta / Shutterstock.com

Caring for the Earth illustration, Sunny studio-Igor Yaruta / Shutterstock.com

In the secular American political world, even among  progressives, two progressive focuses – social justice and healing of the Earth  – have remained mostly segregated from each other.

But the Bible, in one of its crucial passages, intertwine social justice and the urge toward healing Earth. It is as if the Bible  – after watching the alienation of two May Days (pagan spring and workers’ social justice) from each other –  had shrugged impatiently and said: “Now here’s the way to do it!”

The Bible calls for an entire year of rest for the land and its workers, every seventh year. Deuteronomy adds that in that year, everyone’s debts are annulled. (Deut. 15: 1-3). Thus the Bible sees economics and ecologics as intimately intertwined, and calls for a practice of strong, spiritually rooted regulation of both.

Leviticus calls this seventh year a Shabbat Shabbaton – restfulness to the exponential power of Restfulness, an echo and expansion of the restful seventh day. Deuteronomy calls the year “shmitah”  – “release” or “non-attachment.”

Why all this? Because, says YHWH, YyyyHhhhWwwwHhhh, The Interbreathing of all life, “The earth is Mine. You are but sojourners, temporary visiting-settlers, with Me.”  (Lev 25: 23)

On Scripture: Earth Day, God, and the Apocalypse

Globe in hand,  Magdalena Bujak / Shutterstock.com

Globe in hand, Magdalena Bujak / Shutterstock.com

Have you ever heard someone described as, “So heavenly minded, he was no earthly good?” This phrase suggests one danger of interpreting the book of Revelation. Sadly, when it comes to considering the natural world and Revelation, heavenly mindedness often undermines care for our environment. Some Christians have a tendency to think, “Well, if I’m off to heaven, I shouldn’t care much about this silly earth of ours. It’s just a temporary home, after all.” 

In fact, Revelation suggests the opposite: the earth isn’t truly “left behind,” but renewed, becoming the very dwelling place of God. Revelation 21 calls people to be, well, “earthly good,” caring for creation as we prepare for God to come home.