Reflecting on Gainesville: 360 Degrees of Pig Frogs

April 21, 2015

by Jake Lawlor, 2014 Gainesville Eco-Steward

jakeIt’s been close to a year now since I headed down to Gainesville, FL with the rest of the Eco-Stewards crew, but I’ve found myself thinking back to it more and more these days as the 2015 visioning trip is in the works. I joined Eco-Stewards because of a recommendation from my boss at the time at John Knox Ranch, a Central Texas summer camp where I was filling a brand new position as Environmental Stewardship Director for the summer (great place – check it out if you’re ever in the area).

The Eco-Stewards group was comprised of an amalgamation of people from various backgrounds united in the common interest of Presbyterian Earth Stewardship. This offered a pretty unique opportunity for us all to meet and share ideas with people with similar interests, but different areas of expertise. Over the week, we got to experience some pretty incredible things, ranging from working on some organic farms to speaking with community members who were active in food systems sustainability, to learning about Florida hydrogeological systems with the Florida Springs Institute.


We stayed in a  local church (located at the corner of 22nd and 22nd – hilarious Gainesville design flaw in my opinion) full of nicely broken-in couches and lots of character. We helped cook and serve meals at the Gainesville Catholic Worker House, spent some time taking in the smells of freshly-grown sunflowers and strawberries at local farms, and enjoyed a week in the Florida sun. Not to mention the group’s close encounters with the alligators, giant tree snakes, and sea cows of the Florida swamplands, all the time serenaded by the omnipresent songs (snorts, really) of the Florida Pig Frog.


The week not only introduced me to some new ways of thinking about local food systems, but also familiarized me with the whole world of Presbyterian Environmental Ministries. As a unofficial-Presbyterian who had been working at a Presbyterian summer camp for a few years, I wasn’t fully aware that things like the Eco-Stewards Program, Young Adult Volunteers, or Presbyterians for Earth Care even existed. This great group of people at Eco-Stewards opened a whole bunch of new doors for me to consider in the next few years and were a pleasure to share time and space with.

In summary, this program both introduced me to loads of new people, experiences, and opportunities, and also helped me more fully conceptualize the true connection of food and faith. Furthermore, the broader connection of people and place. Connections like these will become increasingly important in coming years considering obstacles like urbanization, water shortages, and climate change. This one week spent analyzing food systems in Northern Florida won’t save it all, but it’s certainly a place to start.

Visioning in Montana: June 2015

March 2, 2015

This June, the Eco-Stewards Program will host a visioning retreat in Montana, the site of our 2011 program trip. Read more here to find out who is invited to help us vision the future of The Eco-Stewards Program…

The 2010 Eco-Stewards hike through the prairie of Eastern Montana.

The 2011 Eco-Stewards hike through the prairie of Eastern Montana.

Who? Past Eco-Stewards, Program Leaders & Steering Committee Members

Where? Montana (Luccock Park Camp & Greenwood Farm)

When? June 1-7, 2015

What? Since 2007, The Eco-Stewards Program has been a wonderful experiment working to combine faith with environmental stewardship. Realizing the importance of beginning each journey thoughtfully and prayerfully, we’ve decided to use this year as a way to discern our vision for the future by considering such questions as: What will be the focus and location of our programs for 2016, 2017 and beyond? What will be our role in the larger faith and environmental community? From June 1-7, we will meet to discuss the future aspirations, goals and intentions of The Eco-Stewards Program. We want to move into the future purposefully and sustainably. Together, we’ve decided to return to Montana (site of the 2011 Eco-Stewards Program) for this Visioning Trip. This event will be open to past Eco-Stewards, leaders and steering committee members in an effort to guide the program into the future. Check back for updates on our Visioning Trip.

What if I’m new to the Eco-Stewards Program? We hope you can join us for our 2016 program (details to come after this Visioning Trip.) In the meantime, please stay connected with us by signing up for our blog updates (see the right-hand sidebar) and joining our Facebook page (The Eco-Stewards Program). Better yet, introduce yourself over email by writing to Rev. Rob Mark at

Food for Thought: More Learning from Gainesville

February 22, 2015

jessrigelBy Jess Rigel, 2014 Eco-Steward

It’s been a while since I was blessed to travel to Gainesville to participate with the Eco-Stewards in a week of education, communion with nature and overall bliss. But since then, I’ve been pretty busy. Too busy in fact, to reflect much on how that trip helped shape my values around the sacred nature of earth care, and particularly, how it challenged my views surrounding food justice issues. As a Seminarian, I have spent the past several months learning and reflecting on academic aspects of theology, not necessarily practical ones. And though I am taking a class next semester focused on Food and Scripture (!!!), most of my theology classes deal little with land and food issues, if they do so at all.

However, during my Christmas break, I was given the opportunity to do some service work with my mother. My parents live in Florida, in a county a few hours south of Gainesville that is known for its food insecurity. My mother volunteers once a week with the local school district, packing bags of non-perishable food for each school’s homeless youth. Though these youth usually have shelter of some sort, it’s not a home, but rather a hotel, or a temporary stint in a relative’s house; and so on weekends, they receive supplemental food when the Federal school lunch and breakfast programs aren’t available to them.

For a few hours, I helped my mother stuff bags with 2 breakfasts, 2 main meals, fruit, and 2 snacks—most of which, because they must be both non-perishable and kid-friendly, have little to no nutritional value. I was helping to feed the working poor—those most traditionally vulnerable to diabetes, hypertension, and stroke—with Pop-Tarts, sugar cereal, fruit in syrup, and sodium-laden Ramen dinners. While I am not a food snob, and while I know any food is better than no food, I also know through the thoughtfulness of the Eco-Stewards Gainesville Program, that another, better means of providing food for hungry people is possible.

Our trip to the Gainesville Catholic Worker Hospitality House exemplified how programs attempting to thwart food insecurity can provide not just food, but nourishment, in a way that is community-focused, nutritionally-dense, and ecologically- sustainable. As our host and fellow Eco-Steward Daniel Loya explained, folks in Gainesville aren’t calorie-deficient—there are plenty of feeding programs throughout the city—they are nutrient deficient. Through partnering with local farms and home-cooking multiple meals a day, as well as serving, hosting, and sharing those meals with all who show up hungry for food and community, Daniel and his fellow Catholic Workers and volunteers are directly fulfilling Christ’s call to feed His sheep, as well as gaining strong relationships with those they serve, and with one another.

Eco-Stewards share a nutritional meal at The Catholic Worker House in Gainesville.

Eco-Stewards share a nutritional meal at The Catholic Worker House in Gainesville.

Another “feeding” program that focused on health and nutrition that we were blessed to visit in Gainesville was through the Alachua County School District. We visited a local elementary school, where we not only shared a nutritious and delicious lunch, but also learned about how the school has busied itself implementing both a USDA Farm to School Grant as well as their Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program. We were told about how students have been exposed to new varieties of vegetables, such as “atomic red” and “purple dragon” carrots, and how through such exposure, they’re consuming more vegetables. We also learned about how the Alachua County School District is sponsoring family events, to get parents and grandparents on board about nutrition. The Alachua County Farm to School program even has a Farm to School Work Hub through Loften High School that gives students agricultural skills and lets them share the produce they grow with their fellow students through the school lunch program!

Eco-Stewards learn about the Alachua County Farm to School program.

Eco-Stewards learn about the Alachua County Farm to School program.

While neither of these programs addresses all the links between hunger and the empty calories that lead to health problems among too many of our nation’s citizens, they are drawing attention to the dichotomies of many well-intentioned food service programs, and making a positive, tangible difference in the Gainesville community. Furthermore, both the Gainesville Catholic Worker House of Hospitality and the Alachua County Farm to School program serve as beacons to other communities—giving us hope that we might model them and best meet the needs of the hungry who surround us, seen and unseen, no matter where we live.

Eco-Stewardship as Watershed Discipleship

August 1, 2014

By Vickie Machado


Entrance to Wild Goose Festival 2014.

In June, I was blessed to be in the presence of a troupe of magical carnival folk, a high desert wilderness priest from Taos, a watershed pioneer from California, a food justice activist with a contemplative soul and a lion’s roar from  PC(USA), and a mindful Catholic Worker from Gainesville. They are all part of the gaggle of goosers—my community of the Wild Goose Festival. This is my third year attending the Goose, and it continues to get better and better as I see familiar faces, meet new friends, and engage in thoughtful conversations about life, God, nature and society.

I made this pilgrimage as a contributor to the festival, meaning I had the upmost pleasure to be part of a workshop (Decolonize Your Mind First) and a panel discussion (Watershed Discipleship). While the issues of Food Justice embedded within Decolonize Your Mind First evoked memories of Gainesville’s Eco-Stewards Program, it was the panel on Watershed Discipleship that opened my eyes to the purpose and importance of the Eco-Stewards Program.


Folks gather at the Decolonize Your Mind First workshop.


Watershed Discipleship Panel

Created by visionary theologian Ched Myers, Watershed Discipleship is a bioregional approach to faith, which grounds our actions in our watersheds. With the reality of climate change, this movement realizes we are entering a “watershed moment that demands serious, sustained engagement from Christians.” We are called to care for creation as we recognize:

We won’t save places we don’t love

We can’t love place we don’t know

And we don’t know places we haven’t learned

Having studied bioregionalism, the notion of placing ourselves in a bioregion, watershed or ecotone, not only made sense to me but it seemed like a natural course of action. Of course, shaping our lives according to – or at least being mindful of – our natural environment is the most sustainable way to live. Not only is it more sustainable, but there is a certain fruitfulness that comes with it.

It is because of our call to care for creation that I see the importance of place-based programs such as Eco-Stewards. Our cultivation of how to learn, know and love places, not only aids our ability to save them, but it also provides ourselves with a spiritual foundation on which to connect to a place. It promotes ‘being’ and presence in a placeless society. In the past four Eco-Stewards’ trips, learning and experiencing how others care for their land has prompted me to further learn how and what I might do to care for my own region. We have been blessed with this Earth, it is up to us to care for it one watershed at a time.

Eco-Steward Reflection: “…like the manatees…”

June 11, 2014

By Colleen Earp

Eco-Steward Colleen Earp biking through Gainesville

Eco-Steward Colleen Earp biking through Gainesville

I’ve had a few weeks to reflect on the time I spent in Gainesville, so I’m really excited to share some of our adventures! I don’t know where to begin.

We toured a beautiful organic farman incubator kitchen, talked with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers about fair labor conditions for farm workers, went to some really great coffee shops, and visited a ton of incredible places: Payne’s Prairiea community garden where you pick and you pay what you can, a farm to school program, a farmer’s marketthe Gainesville Catholic Workera microfarm, and a church yard community garden, biked 20 miles to the Alachua Conservation Trust to tour Forage Farm and talk about water issues with the Florida Springs Institute. We ate amazing local foods and learned about the connections between all of these places. There is some beautiful work going on in Gainesville, feeding the hungry and loving the earth. To top it all off, we hiked the Devil’s Millhopper and tubed the Ichetucknee. I’m sure I’m forgetting a few stops but it was a week of constantly amazing things.

And, of course, I would be remiss not to mention that tubing the Ichetucknee lead to swimming alongside manatees as they moved up the beautifully clear spring-fed river. Yep, I just dove in and swam beside these two incredibly beautiful creatures.

Keeping up with them is a lot harder than I would have guessed. They’re so big and slow and graceful, but also very strong. We floated so slowly down the river that I was surprised how hard it was to swim upstream. I was also just a little bit excited, so holding my breath long enough to be underwater, take pictures, and kick frantically without scaring the manatees was a challenge.


It was a really amazing week to come together with other people interested in the relationship between faith and environmental work. As we all reflected on how awesome the Eco-Stewards Program was, and how good it was to connect with this sort of building-less church that the program has created, it came up that these kinds of great experiences kind of carry us for a while. A week like this is fleeting, but so deeply moving. And in the face of the church being a complicated place for many young adults, it’s kind of important to find these beautiful things to sustain us while we sort out the tough stuff and figure it out for ourselves.

While deep in the throes of that conversation, Rev. Rob Mark, one of the trip leaders, piped in, “…like the manatees…” Yes, exactly like the manatees. So incredibly beautiful, and only with us for a very short time, but I think about it every day. Not just manatees. The whole week of connecting with the great things going on in Gainesville and the church.

Will that excitement wear off? Perhaps, just like the manatees kept swimming away up that clear, cool spring. But it leaves me with a sense of hope in what I am doing, and encourages me to keep seeking out the church in the world like this.

Greetings from Eco-Stewards Gainesville

May 28, 2014

Our Eco-Stewards Gainesville trip wrapped up Saturday morning. We had a blast exploring the local food and watershed of North Central Florida. Our journey took us all over the city and into the surrounding area. This is a photo of our group at the geological state park known as Devil’s Millhopper. Thank you so much for your prayers and support. Stay tuned for more photos and reflections on our week together.


Start the Countdown for the Sunshine State!

May 13, 2014


We are days away from Eco-Stewards Gainesville,  Food & Faith: Uniting Together in Southern Foodshed. Our program will take us to Swallowtail Farm, Forage Farm, the Gainesville Catholic Worker, and down the Ichetucknee River, among a collection of other local places. These places, as well as the local people, will be our teachers during our time in Gainesville.  As we finish filling in the last minute details, we wanted to take take the opportunity to introduce this year’s 2014 Eco-Stewards and program leaders. Please keep this talented group in your prayers during the week of May 18-24. And stay tuned to the blog that week for updates from the field!

2014 Eco-Stewards:

Audrey Holt, 23, is a PC(USA) Young Adult Volunteer currently based in Boston, where she works on food justice issues. Her work with a PC(USA) and United Church of Christ (UCC) congregation and a nonprofit community day shelter for women deals with issues surrounding food systems, access and waste. “Just as my family, food, and home were a gift, so is this giant planet. I am thankful for what it provides and therefore I feel the need to preserve it.” With roots in Kansas and the Baptist tradition, Audrey enjoys writing and reflecting with others as well as pie baking and homemade noodle making.


Colleen Earp, 28, is currently in New Orleans serving as a PC(USA) Young Adult Volunteer. She acts as Wetlands Advocate, which involves education, raising awareness, and actively practicing conservation through planting and monitoring vegetation. She recently attended PEC’s national gathering at Ferncliff.  “The world is too beautiful and perfect to have happened by accident. It’s very easy for me to see God in a big old tree, in billions of grains of sand on a beach, in a stunning sunrise or a dreary weather pattern.” Colleen holds a B.A. and M.S. in Geography, focused on the physical environment and human-environment interactions. She worked for many years at a Presbyterian camp, enabling youth and adults to interact with creation physically and spiritually.


Chelsea Guenther Benhem, 25, is currently a student at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, where she coordinates the campus’s community garden. Chelsea is interested in the spiritual aspects of gardening. “I think that gardening is an opportunity to help the church develop embodied learning that connects God, self, and creation. Gardening cultivates joy, care and attention.” She also serves as an intern at Crescent Hill Presbyterian (USA) Church in Louisville.


Jake Lawlor, 21, is a student at the University of Texas, studying Environmental Science with a focus in Biology. He spent a summer studying sustainability in Northern Tanzania and works as a program director at Camp Fire after school programs. This summer Jake will be founding the Environmental Stewardship Program at John Knox Ranch, a Presbyterian Church (USA) summer camp in Central Texas. “I find the best places to worship are outside in God’s creation.” He also enjoys volunteering with Austin Parks Foundation, Pease Park Conservancy, and Texas Adopt-A-Creek


Anna Mullen, 24, is a student at Harvard Divinity School, where she is currently pursuing a Master of Divinity degree with a personal focus on environmental ethics and eco-theologies. Anna, who is affiliated with the United Methodist Church, is also the manager of the Harvard Divinity School Garden and a Field Education Intern at Peace Lutheran Church. “I am particularly excited about the prospect of participating in this program because of its focus on the interconnectedness of food, water, faith communities, and environmental, as well as economic, justice.” Anna also spent a year as a full-time residential volunteer at the Heifer International Learning Center at Overlook Farm in Rutland, MA.


Jess Rigel, 30, is a PC(USA) Young Adult Volunteer in New Orleans where she works as a community gardener. She first became passionate about eco-stewardship while serving as a YAV in Cascabel, Arizona. “Through my love of food and community gardening, I’ve realized that it’s impossible to respond to Jesus’ call to feed his sheep without making sure the land on which we grow our food is first provided for.”



Rev. Rob Mark serves as pastor of Church of the Covenant (PCUSA and UCC) in Boston, MA. He also serves as co-coordinator of the Eco-Stewards Program ( Rob grew up in the Boston area, the youngest of four children, with a Baptist father and a Presbyterian mother. In 1993, while living and working in a poor community in South Africa, he first felt a call toward ministry, a yearning to pursue peace and justice in the light of faith. He chose a Christian college (Wheaton in Illinois) and pursued the study of geology and international development, spending his summers leading youth trips to the Crow Indian Reservation in Montana. After graduation, he worked as a youth minister, coordinated a sister church partnership in Uganda, and then became a project administrator for a biodiversity and sustainable forestry firm. But the call to fulltime ordained ministry finally sent him to seminary, completing his Master of Divinity degree at Boston University in 2005. He was ordained to the Presbyterian Ministry of Word and Sacrament in 2006 to serve Camp Wilmot in NH. In 2011 he was called by the Congregation of Church of the Covenant to be their pastor. From 2007-2011, he was the designated co-pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Waltham, and since 2008 the assistant chaplain and McDonald Fellow at The Memorial Church at Harvard University. From 2005-2008, he was Executive Director of the Waltham Community Day Center for the homeless and low-income community.

Rev. Liz Leavitt serves as the Interim Minister at Westminster Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) an earth care congregation in Eugene, Oregon. She loves being a Northwesterner where a beautiful natural environment and serious and sustained efforts at environmental stewardship are joined to create a great place to live. Liz loves growing, preserving and enjoying foods of all kinds and lives on a small suburban plot where a veggie garden, chickens and bees keep her busy and well-fed. She also loves cycling, craft roasted coffee and her other life companions: husband Jason, dog Roxy and two cats.



From South Florida, Vickie Machado is the Florida Organizer for Food & Water Watch, where she works on keeping fracking out of Florida and the campaign to label genetically engineered foods. In May 2013, she received her Masters of Arts in Religion and Nature from the University of Florida focusing her studies on sustainability, bioregionalism, the Catholic Worker Movement, and the confluence of environmentalism, social justice, and faith. From 2011-2013, Vickie lived and worked at the Gainesville Catholic Worker, learning to further cultivate her understanding of what it means to live locally and simply. She participated in the 2011, 2012, and 2013 Eco-Steward trips.

Daniel Loya of Winter Haven, Florida is the Ministries Coordinator of the Gainesville Catholic Worker House, an intentional, live-in community of students, formerly homeless men and women, and others. He has been involved with the Gainesville Catholic Worker since 2010. Daniel was also a participant in the 2013 Eco-Stewards program in Portland. His passions outside of work include sustainable soccer, permaculture, and the Emergent Church Movement.


PC(USA) Representative:

Rebecca Barnes, has been the Associate for Environmental Ministries for the Presbyterian Church (USA) since December 2011. Particularly she oversees the national PC(USA) certification program for Earth Care Congregations, coordinates the volunteer local leadership network called the Environmental Ministries Action Network, and works to help Presbyterians connect their Christian discipleship to ecological, economic and global justice concerns. Rebecca is a graduate of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary where she earned a Masters of Divinity and a Masters of Art in Religion in 2011, with a thesis titled: “A Fuller Experience of God’s Grace: How the Sacraments Invite Us to Relationship with, and Care for, the Earth.” While in seminary, she authored “50 Ways to Help Save the Earth: How You and Your Church Can Help Make a Difference.” In her local community, Rebecca also organizes the Eco-Justice Worship Collective, an initiative to create dynamic, ecumenical, inclusive worship spaces to engage in eco-justice concerns. She likes reading, writing, yoga, art, dancing, and playing imaginary games with her two children.


Communications Coordinator:

Becky W. Evans lives in Boston, Mass. with her husband, Rob Mark, and newborn son. She is an environmental journalist and educator who teaches writing and communication courses to international graduate students at Boston University and undergraduate students at Lasell College. She recently earned a master’s degree in Teaching English as a Second Language and teaches ESOL classes for adult immigrants. She helps edit the Eco-Stewards Program blog and annual multimedia slideshows.