E14: Nurya Love Parish on a Calling to Steward our Lands
Tuesday, February 19, 2019
Did you know that most church land holdings are not located in high-priced cities? Instead, they're in countless rural locations from Maine to California, with land deeded over in wills by former parishioners or purchased over the years by church leaders. Today's guest on The Leading Voices in Food series is Nurya Love Parish, who is animated by the idea that from a religious perspective, land is part of creation and needs to be managed with wisdom.
How did Plainsong Farm begin and what purposes does the farm serve?
Plainsong Farm is, to give some geographic context, about 20 minutes north of Grand Rapids, Michigan. It includes 12 acres, two houses, two barns (only one of which is usable at present, but the other one we are going to get to be able to use for events eventually). We have about an acre and a half under cultivation. We feed over just over 100 families in the growing season. That just kind of gives you the farm context, but there's so much more to it than that because our purposes are not only to grow food for people, but also to grow people for God. And the farm itself began as a response to a call from God. It is on property that my husband and I were living on at the time. It is a long story that is in my book about how this property transitioned from being the place where I lived, to the place where I serve God in ministry in addition to growing food for people.
We seek to renew Christian discipleship through community-focused agriculture. We are looking to grow a generation of leaders that is articulate about the connections between faith and food and climate and health. We want to enable churches to grow their sacraments in a way that is sustainable and regenerative for the earth. And we have a week program that's in cooperation with Honorary Growers' Guild, which is another faith and food ministry. It's important to us to foster health in our community by providing vegetables that we grow on the farm to people that buy them through the CSA community supported agriculture program and also to our neighbors through food pantry partnerships. But I think one of the biggest reasons that I'm here today is the Christian Food Movement work that we've been doing and particularly the conversation around faith lands that we helped to catalyze.
First, what does it mean to grow people for God?
Oh my gosh. Well, that's something that we spend a lifetime trying to understand. What it means to me to grow people for God is to provide them with a place to understand that they are human and they are of one with the soil humus. To recognize that all of us have a place in creation, and that we belong to that larger life that we didn't create and that we do not sustain. And somehow, to have the humility that goes along with being human that so often after the industrial revolution, we've kind of forgotten. We seem to think that we can manage Earth and climate change is definitely proving to us that we need to be more realistic about humanity's place in the globe. And wise, in how we take our place and ensure that there is still a place for future generations.
So how are you able to accomplish that through your work? What does that look like?
So we do a few different programs that help people to have that immersive experience. One of our programs is called Sabbath on the Farm and it's an outdoor worship experience. When I say an outdoor worship experience, you need to imagine people sitting on hay bales around it would be a campfire, except usually we're doing this in the summer. So it's daylight really late in Michigan and there isn't usually a fire there. It is a time of worship that includes silence just to be outside, to breathe, to recenter yourself in nature and recognize that you are a created being, just as all that you see around you is a created being.
Another program that we have is the way that we do our heirloom wheat program. I should say Honorary Farm and Mill in California started this ministry and that is a heirloom wheat for communion bread. So it's planted in community, harvested in community. The way that we approach it is also through the lens of using this as a meditation on scripture. So there's a place where Jesus says in the Bible, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it does not have a life. And we take literal grains of wheat and they go on the ground. And then you see, after winter--because we do wheat in the winter in Michigan--so you put your grain in the ground, you think how is this ever gonna work? Winter comes and it could be covered by snow and ice, you think is anything alive there? And then in spring it comes back up again, green and, and you realize--it just happens to be right around Easter--and it's a visual witness for the amazing work that God can do. Where it looks like everything is dead and gone, and there is life there that is invisible to the naked eye.
And then months pass and the meditation that we have is around the Kingdom of God, where Jesus has this teaching, that the Kingdom of God is like a harvest. That is the grain grows. The person doesn't understand why, but when the time is right, they go in with their sickle. And we go in with our sickles and hand harvested this wheat. And it was a moment again of seeing these ancient scriptures are from an agricultural context. And they teach us something about humans and our right place that we've lost touch with when we're not in that agricultural context anymore. And my hope is that we, we can open people's eyes through the sacraments, and then also open people's eyes to their and in their community that we belong to each other and we belong to creation. And that invites us to ask questions about how food is then shared, how is food grown, how is food shared?
Because these are agricultural experiences that we're having in the context of faith.
So Nurya, you have so much involvement in these intersections between food and faith and you named and cataloged the Christian Food Movement and were behind the initial Faithlands Conference. Could you tell us a little bit more about these initiatives and why do they matter?
Well, when I sat down today I said I was astonished that I was here. In 2014, I sat in my basement and thought, I know that there is work being done by people from a Christian faith perspective around sustainable agriculture, justice and equity and health for all. And I know this work is being done, but I know it's not visible. That moment in 2014 was inspired by Nigel Savage who founded Hazon and a speech that he had given at Jewish theological seminary earlier in the year where he said, if you type in Jewish food movement into Google, you get lots of hits.
Like 80,000 hits. You type Christian food movement, you won't find many. And that speaks to...in his context, he was saying we've really come a long way. And as a Christian I read his words and I knew he was right, because I had been looking for a Christian movement. I hadn't been finding one. And so in 2014 I sat down and decided to can make what I know about a little bit more visible. It started as a little pdf guide and then it was a little bit bigger of a pdf guide. And then I asked people to send me some money if they thought it should be a website. And they did send me money, and it became a website. And now there's about 300 books, resources, and organizations. And again, I know it is the tip of the iceberg. At the same time that I was starting this website and trying to catalog all of these things and then share news about them as people sent me news, was also when we were starting the farm.
So the Christian Food Movement site really kind of got put on this back burner. I was starting a nonprofit. I knew this Christian Food Movement was going to be a part of what we did, but it wasn't the front burner of what I had to do to get the farm off the ground--because we were a bootstrapped nonprofit. And so, now that Christian Food Movement work is coming back into the foreground and I'm starting to realize how many people have engaged in it without me even recognizing that it was growing. Just kind of like that wheat under the ground in the winter that you don't see. And there's a lot of life at this intersection that was totally invisible 10 years ago.
So what are some pillars or tenants of a Christian Food Movement? What is it moving towards?
Well, the cornerstones that I put at the top of the website when I made it-because that's what I was seeing across all of the projects are as follows: Discipleship - because it's very much grounded in this understanding that we don't fully understand our life on earth, but Jesus can show us something about life on earth that I know I we and I need to learn. So discipleship is a core tenet of it.
Sustainability, which by now it probably would be called regeneration, but four years ago it was sustainability. This recognition that we need to live ecologically on this planet with a recognition that for generations to come, we need health for creation. So discipleship and sustainability.
Health is a very important principle across many of these ministries.
People are seeking bodily health and spiritual health as one in the same and recognizing in Christian scripture we're taught that our body is a temple for the Holy Spirit. And so how do we treat our bodies? And I am still on this journey. How do we treat our bodies? And how do we ensure health for all? Because all people have that within. So, health would be another one.
And then justice. The recognition that there we inherit systems of inequity that we did not create, and that we do not want to support. And God did not create these systems of inequity either. And God does not desire an inequity among all of God's people. So how do we make justice is another question that guides the Christian Food Movement that I'm aware of.
So how do people get involved in this Christian Food Movement and what actions do they take on the ground as a result?
It's a really good question because there is such a continuum of what would you call a Christian Food Movement. The pantry in the church that I serve could be considered a part of the Christian Food Movement. The people that volunteer for it wouldn't probably consider themselves that way. They would just say they're doing what Jesus tells you to do: feed the hungry. And yet they're doing it as disciples. They're intentional about having healthy food on the shelves. They're doing it because they want poor people to have equal access. So it's a justice ministry. And I think the one piece--they'll probably listen to this--one piece that I'm looking to talk about with them more is how does this make sense ecologically? But there are so many food pantries in Christian churches across the country and you could say all of them. Similarly, all the gardens, you know, you could say all of them. But what I find most intriguing is the stuff that is showing up that is worship-based and food centered.
So there are farm churches, there's one here in Raleigh, Durham. There are garden churches. There are dinner churches and some people are having their core experience of Christian faith and discipleship around agriculture in some fashion. Now, what is that going to become? I do not know. And yet I think it's the leading edge of something that we should all be very curious about.
Is the Faithlands Conference part of that work, and essentially what is that and what came out of it?
I would love to know that too! The Faithlands Conference began with this recognition that there are some factors at play in the wider culture that were not yet in dialogue with one another. One of those factors is the reality that I'm a white mainline Protestant, semi-Protestant as an Episcopalian. And when I look across the landscape of my denomination, I recognize that the ways that we do church now are not economically sustainable into the future. I noticed the same things with my compatriots along other mainline traditions.
What is unsustainable about it, if you could dive into it?
Sure. Well, the average age in the Episcopal church is 60. And that's not to say there are not wonderful dynamic young leaders in the Episcopal church, and there are new ministries that are springing up in the Episcopal church. But we have the historic moment where the things that we used to do don't work the way they used to anymore. And young adults are not excited about the things that we did that worked in 1955. And so what that looks like where I live, which is sem- rural Michigan, is it looks like futures of possibly closing churches. So for example, a church that is 45 minutes away from me closed not long ago. 10 acres across the street from an elementary school, with probably not a whole acre that would be cultivated. I'm not sure that any of it would be cultivatable in terms of agriculture, but it would be a great ecological demonstration site.
That isn't in the imagination of the church leadership. And so the Faithlands conference existed to bring together religious leaders and land trust and land access professionals, primarily those who are seeking access to land for new and beginning farmers. Because as we know in the food world, access to land and access to capital are the two greatest barriers for anyone who is seeking to start a new farm. And in the church world, I know we have land, we have capital. What we don't have are young people and imagination.
Did just say that out loud? We have more imagination than we give ourselves credit for, I should say, and than I just gave us credit for, but we don't tend to. We are too risk averse in the church because we are way too focused on preserving what we've inherited. And forgetting that what we have inherited, that is the most important, is the spirit of God and the spirit of God is always leading us beyond what our comfort zone is.
I was curious what came out of the Faithlands Conference, but I think that could tie maybe a little bit to the issue of how to spark creativity when you're in a restricted environment of attempting to be sustainable as an organization?
That's a great question. So let me answer it by going back to Plainsong Farm and the Faithlands conference. When we brought together people, and it was not just Christians, it was a multifaith it gathering...it was funded through Greenhorns, which is an organization for new and beginning farmers. And it brought together a combination of land access professionals and religious leaders across traditions. And one of the things that I realized in that context was that Plainsong Farm is really a demonstration project for what is possible in the future of religiously held land. When we began it, there was land and I had a little capital. We had this 10 acres and I had $15,000 and my partners in this ministry, Mike and Beth and the Edwardsons, they felt called to start a farm that was somehow connected to the church.
They were both under 30 when we started. They didn't have land. They didn't have access to capital. And when we began, which happened with me giving them $15,000 and the key to my house. I thought to myself, well, if the only thing that comes out of this is that a young and beginning farmer begins a farm in the state of Michigan--where we also see the average age of farmers being in the sixties--that would be a good thing. And I hope even just that happens. And just that did happen. Plus more. And what I've found in the intersection of these sustainable agriculture, religious leadership lanes is we need more demonstration projects. And so my aim is to simply to sustain the one that we have to have it influence other people to also recognize that they can do likewise. That it's really scary. That there are a lot of headwinds and that you can still persevere and find yourself being interviewed by the Duke World Food Policy Center! Which when I put myself in that basement and said, I wonder if I can come up with some things about the Christian food movement, was certainly not anything I anticipated.
In the context of your successes, how do you think the Christian Food Movement can address the question of how do you move away from a very charitable model of food distribution, which doesn't necessarily address systematic issues? What is the Christian food movements answer for that?
Oh, well, first I would say I didn't begin the Christian Food Movement. I just, I just named it and tried to give it wholesome conversations. So I don't speak on behalf of a movement, I speak for myself. And I would say that it's by experimenting and learning from people that aren't necessarily disciples of Jesus. There are a lot of people doing work in this world, trying to seek justice and equity. And part of my call as a Christian is to seek wisdom and to seek knowledge and to seek understanding.
And I know that there's a lot I have to learn from people that are not necessarily working in my lane. Having said that, I also would say there's a lot of wisdom in religious traditions and my hope is that as we have more conversation at these intersections. The wisdom of our faith traditions can be brought to bear. And the humility that is supposed to be the fruit of a religious life can be brought to bear on these larger questions that we continue to face as a country and as a global citizenship.
What do you feel for the churches that are able to the spark of creativity to be able to pilot a solution? What would you say are the features or characteristics of those churches? What differentiates those that are really willing to step out and be in an early innovator?
Well, here's a theological answer for you. They are churches that actually have faith in the resurrection.
What would you say are the unique gifts and contributions of your faith or faith based communities on this broad foods to food systems work as we drive towards a more equitable system. What does that element of faith really add?
Oh, I have a good answer for this. Sorry. Feel free to. We'll have to edit that out. It's not a problem because I wrote that one down and I was like, I like that. Totally didn't refer to any of these. Okay. I think as faith communities, we have this capacity. We have a theoretical capacity for a holistic approach and it's theoretical because we don't always live into our call.
But faith communities are where we ask really big questions. That's what faith community is there for. What is good, what is evil, what is life, what is death? And so theoretically faith communities are where we should be able to say, is this way that we're eating truly benefiting the humanity of the future? Is this good? Is this evil? My colleague Justin Fast reminds me, scripture teaches us not just to feed the hungry but it to satisfy the hungry with good things.
That is a quote. And so we have to ask, well, what are good things and what does it mean to be satisfied? And how am I hungry? I am still hungry spiritually and I will be and I will be hungry physically too. That's part of my human experience. So I would say too often religious people are uncritical handmaidens to contemporary society. And our unique gift is to be a community that asks really big questions. And, is radically willing to dare and to risk because that's what faith calls you to do. Faith is stepping out on nothing and landing on something which is a Cornell West quote. And we need that in the dialogue and in the conversation.
Nurya Love Parish is an episcopal priest and Co-founder and executive director of Plainsong Farm, a farm and ministry outside Grand Rapids, Michigan. She is the author of Resurrection Matters: Church Renewal for Creation's Sake, and has played a seminal role in framing and advancing the Christian Food Movement.