Early in the afternoon on Saturday, June 5th, temperatures were pushing into the 80s, gnats busied themselves with their customary swarming, and a few people began planting in their garden, albeit a little late. They were inspired to diligence by the rumors of rain and their desire for community.
They were all planting in a tilled piece of land on the property of Fayetteville Presbyterian Church, behind a handmade sign that reads, “Community Garden: Want to plant & reap?”
I was one of those planting. I am the intern at the church this summer (in conjunction with the Presbytery’s Stewardship of Creation Ministry Team and the Eco-Stewards). One of my main tasks this summer is to work with the community garden, where learning, fellowship, and experimentation are key. I’m not an experienced gardener, so anything I do in the garden is experimenting based on what I learn from the internet and through fellowship with experienced and novice gardeners.
We designed the garden plots to average 3′ by 9′ with a few marigolds planted around each plot to ward away the bugs that aren’t good for gardens. Anyone in the community is welcome to have a plot (or two) until space is gone, whether you are a person of faith or not. The plots are free and all gardeners can do what they please with their produce, although we encourage surplus fruits and vegetables be donated to the local food pantry at the Methodist church. I know I am excited to offer my first fruits to the food pantry, symbolically giving them to God—and in hopes of a bountiful harvest.
The garden is not only about providing a space to those who might not have a garden, but also to add a sense of community to the gardening process. Gardeners can gather to take care of their gardens, share gardening tips, disagree over gardening tips, and enjoy and meet their neighbors. While having fun and learning, the gardeners will bless the land by creating beauty and actualizing its growing potential and feeding not only the gardeners, but the gardeners’ family and friends, and the community, even the economically less fortunate members who represent an important part of our community.
We hope to continue involving the community, although the garden space is being used to capacity. Look for information on a local foods meal and discussions on sustainable farming. Church member and gardener Nancy Tissue already envisions increasing the size of the garden next year (still leaving room for the annual tent revival) and to provide even more locally grown, healthy food for the community.
Each Thursday at 10:30 through July 22nd, I will be at the garden for gardening activities with any children in the community who would like to come (children’s guardians are encouraged to stay for the quick, 45 minutes-ish program). The children can witness various plants develop their crop; learn about the interactions of the plants, land, and insects; help plant, water, and weed; and help create “upcycled” art to ward off birds (church member Donna Smith envisions scarecrow “creatures from the recycling bin”), since part of living with and off the land is creative sustainability.
I haven’t received a greeting like the one I received at Bethlehem Farm since I last visited my mother. “Welcome Home,” I heard each caretaker say as they stepped in for a hug. This special greeting is the huggable “red carpet” they roll out for all of their guests. This greeting, like all of their practices, stems from Bethlehem Farm’s mission statement: “Bethlehem Farm is a Catholic community in Appalachia that strives to transform lives through serving the local community and teaching sustainability.”
Part of their service and sustainable practices is their no-till garden yields produce year round. Director and gardener Eric Fitts oversees the organic production of the crops. Of the many natural ways Fitts cares for the plants, the newest is a chicken tractor. The chickens are moved from their spacious living area to the garden where they eat slugs and leave fertilizer. Fitts takes care of the land that takes care of him and those he loves, including the farm community, his wife, and his baby-on-the-way. The residents care for the garden with sensible, spiritual care.
Although spiritual for Fitts and others, not everyone involved in the farm is Roman Catholic, although the cornerstones of the farm come from catholicism. Catholicism is shared, not forced, and the Roman Catholics involved hope others share their faith and perspectives, too.
Volunteers and caretakers alike involve themselves in the faith aspect of the farm only as much as they are able and comfortable. The group “pray[s] multiple times a day,” explains Ashley Boone, the sustainability coordinator and communications director. “And they’re creative prayers,” she explains, prayers often focusing on justice in their geographic community and the world at large.
The group serves the global community by giving a little bit of Bethlehem Farm to each volunteer, what Boone describes as, “the experience the volunteers take home with them.” She said volunteers will contact the farm after leaving, asking for tips on starting a composting system at their home or resources for simplifying and “greening” their local faith communities. Boone says, “a large population of volunteers make changes that are pretty crucial about stewarding creation.”
Through the communal actions made inside and outside the farm, the caretakers and volunteers alike become a community. Not only do they live together, but also they become a part of Bethlehem Farm, taking ownership and participation. Boone sees this ownership especially reflected in the recent solar panels purchased and installed by the farm largely through the generosity of past volunteers.
The solar panels are just one “testament” to transformation, as described by Boone. And it is not only the lives of the volunteers that are transformed. In a few months Boone will leave the farm to serve through VISTA at the Alderson Hospitality House. Although leaving the farm, she said there are parts she will take with her, because her life has changed.
One way is through her diet. “What we eat is one of the largest ways we can have a positive or negative impact on the planet,” says Boone. The farm is very thoughtful about where their food comes from and that thoughtfulness started a passion in her to last the rest of her life.
When faced with issues outside of the familiar areas of presentation, she found it harder to view these issues in the same way. Today Boone says, “I won’t eat … meat unless I know where it came from.” Diet is one major service and sustainability practice the farm offers, one everyone already makes a decision about daily, for good or ill.
Recounting other sustainability practices on the farm, Boone mentions, “Some people find it funny how we recycle and reuse things.” Inside the home, you will see aluminum foil and re-sealable plastic baggies hanging up to dry for reuse in the kitchen. When outside the farm, Boone says they bring their own plates and cutlery to some meals so they won’t use paper, plastic, and styrofoam. They may get some odd looks and chuckles, but they are not met with resistance and ridicule.
The farm community does not try force their views on others, trying to transform those who do not want to be transformed. Rather, Bethlehem Farm is a “contrast community”: they are noticeably different, based on their convictions and what works for them. They act firmly on their beliefs, but do not expect people who believe differently to act like they do.
Bethlehem Farm works towards the kind of transformation that comes about by penitence and spirituality, not coercion. Their mission statement continues: “We enable volunteers to join us in living out the Gospel cornerstones of prayer, community, simplicity and service.” The caretakers facilitate an environment allowing people to try the farm’s way of life for a little while, a way of life centered on faith and action.
These four cornerstones of their faith and action are interconnected, as Boone depicts them and the volunteers and caretakers paint them with their actions. Their prayers occur because they are a community. Their community is deeply steeped in simplicity, especially in regards to sustainability. This simplicity itself is one of a myriad of ways the Bethlehem Farm community serves the larger communities of which they are a part: the Roman Catholic community, the faith community, the local community, and the community that is this earth.
Eco-justice, social justice, economic justice are all, simply, justice. Bethlehem Farm works towards justice with God in the way that seems best to them, which is all any of us can do.
Bethlehem Farm is located in Clayton, West Virginia. To make a donation or to learn more about the community, visit their website at http://www.bethlehemfarm.net/ or consider serving with them for a while.
Tuesdays are gardening days for Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church in Charleston, WV.
The garden took shape in 2009 with a grant from the Presbytery of West Virginia’s Congregational Development Committee. With last year’s grant, the church purchased a rain barrel for watering the garden, a small tiller, and a grill for preparing communal meals once a week after gardening, among other, related purchases. When appropriate, these post-garden meals enjoy fresh fruits, vegetables, and herbs from the garden.
This year the church received a grant from the Capitol Conservation District. This money enabled the congregation to build 11 raised beds of a cedar not treated with chemicals. The raised beds give the fenced-in garden an extra beauty.
The Reverend Doug Minnerly serves as part-time pastor of Grace Covenant and McKinnon Presbyterian Church and was around when the garden began. Rev. Minnerly said the idea for the garden was suggested by a local artist who lives near the church.
Last year Minnerly recalled the idea when looking for ways the church could create more positive relationships with the surrounding community. The garden is not about getting people into church. Instead, Grace Covenant uses the community garden as a way to partner with the community and as a “tool for community,” as Minnerly puts it. People might be invited to come to church on occasion, but the garden’s purpose is not to draw people into the church, but rather to connect the church and the community with some common goods: local foods, sustainability, and fellowship.
The garden’s sophomore year is a year of new blessings and new challenges. Through a shared connection to West Virginia State University, Grace Covenant now shares VISTA worker Abby Weglarz, who is one of this year’s blessings. Weglarz works with Step by Step, Inc., a nonprofit that establishes after-school and summer programs for children.
With Grace Covenant, Weglarz now leads a youth garden program on Tuesdays. The West Virginia State University extension office in Kenawhacounty provided the group with materials from their Junior Master Gardner’s program, giving the children seeds for planting and fun, educational, and all-around healthy projects. As Weglarz notes, it is “really important to have a connection with your food and where it comes from.”
Rev. Minnerly notes the youth garden can be a hit or miss, depending on the week. Children from the community do show up, often without parents and sometimes only just in time to eat, but they are welcomed nonetheless. Minnerly recalled one week when he brought a cake from home to the meal and happened across a box of birthday-cake candles in the church. When sharing the meal that night, one boy mentioned his birthday was the previous day and the group placed the new-found candles on the cake and enjoyed a birthday celebration for the young boy who frequents their gardening and post-gardening meals.
Like all things in life, the garden is not just coming up roses, especially since no one has planted any … yet. Rev. Minnerly says the community garden, like all ministry, is “like building a boat while going downstream.” Last year everyone planted and reaped communally, this year families and individuals have their own garden beds. Of their eleven beds, four to five families are gardening, about half of them from the church, and less are regulars for Tuesday activities
Minnerly believes the small numbers are due to one of the garden’s biggest challenges: promotion and marketing. The congregation has advertised in the community and at the schools, but interest has not yet bloomed enough to force them to expand the garden. But they garden nonetheless, still envisioning a bigger and better experience for the rest of this year and the future.
Minnerly recalled how Abraham and Sarah had a long journey from the land of their parents to the land of God’s promise in Genesis. And that journey happened in steps, not in one, quick trip. Minnerly is not about to count his tomatoes before they have ripened, but neither is he ready to give up. New opportunities might come to fruition before too long and, even with small numbers, the community garden certainly gives off a pleasing aroma of plants and community.
Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church is located at 805 Price St. in Charleston, WV. If you live in the area and are interested in their community garden, they would love to connect with you. The youth gather to garden on Tuesday mornings and all are welcome on Tuesday evenings to garden, share a meal, and/or have a Bible study. Visit http://www.gcpcwv.org to connect with the church.
Few people fit into these two caricatures, if any. In reality, a plurality of voices engage in environmental conversations. Carol Warren is one of these people and one to confound a number of stereotypes. Warren serves with the West Virginia Council of Churches (WVCC) as the chair of the Government Concerns Program Unit. Many people will hear this affiliation and assume Warren is closer to the right side of the conversation, since stereotyped Christians can barely wait until “hallelujah, by and by, [they] fly away,” to take a good hymn out of context.
But Warren has another affiliation. She is a project coordinator and faith-based liaison for the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition (OVEC). As part of OVEC, she must be one of those extreme, tree-hugging environmentalists. How can she have these faith ties?
Warren has worked in the church in some capacity for the past twenty years and with OVEC for three years. She is an active Roman Catholic who cares about justice, particularly environmental (or eco-) justice. Her dual roles with WVCC and OVEC allow her to pursue her passions in public life.
I met Warren at the capitol building in Charleston where she was attending meetings on water, forests, and waste disposal. She said her voice and the voice of other Christians are particularly potent in these situations, because she sees environmental issues as ethical issues and, therefore, issues for ethical religions like Christianity.
According to Warren, “the faith community is the only voice accepted as … an ethical, moral voice.” Warren’s voice doesn’t differ greatly from environmentalists in terms of solutions–she works with an environmental group, after all–but she carries the ethical, moral weight people do not readily give to the environmental community, because of stereotypes. Warren wonders who speaks for ethics, morals, and religion in these situations “If the faith community is not there”?
Warren is not only surprising in her passions, but also in her role with OVEC. Although much of OVEC concerns itself with coal-related issues, especially mountaintop removal, Warren spends much of her time lobbying about natural gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale. Warren predicts, “what coal has been … natural gas will be in the twenty-first century.” If the way we tap into natural resources is an ethical issue, then we need to develop our morals alongside of our methodology. OVEC and Warren want to be involved in the early stages of developing appropriate ethics and methodology for natural gas drilling.
One such developmental concern for Warren is West Virginia property owners. “When you buy land in Appalachia,” Warren says, “all you have is the air” and the surface. Only when property owners have mineral rights do they have a say in what happens under their land. And what happens under their land can be a justice issue beyond the environment. The hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking”) involved in drilling in the Marcellus Shale poses environmental issues, one being the process uses millions of gallons of water. The waste water causes a health concern, thus moving the issue to justice concerning health and children. Drilling and water treatment would create many jobs, but Warren predicts these jobs would be filled by out-of-state employees, causing a labor issue for West Virginians.
Although Warren works with environmental issues with OVEC, she says, “the justice issues are so interrelated.” What she does with OVEC is not only about the environment, but also about many other justice issues, which is a large part of her position with WVCC.
Warren’s knowledge, faith and environmental affiliations enable her voice to be respected by legislators and the faith community. She says people know she is “not a ‘whacko’ who goes off on them” and that “they can talk to me.” She promotes dialogue with all, whether they agree with her views or not: “not talking to somebody never does any good.”
As for her views, she believes people should treat the planet like God would treat it, which, she pointed out, God called good before people were in it, according to the story in Genesis 1. Warren sees “creation … as good in itself, rather than good depending on how people can use it.”
It is with these views that Warren lobbies in Charleston and interacts with her own community in Webster Springs, “try[ing] to engage to the extent [that] she can.” Her engagement is admirable and encouraging. If we believe humans should have dominion over the earth (Gen 1:26), we need to determine what sort of dominion we have and what sort of dominion we should have, hopefully making it look like dressers and keepers of the earth (Gen 2:15).
Although Warren currently focuses on oil and gas drilling, she has worked with cemetery preservation and election reform issues, both which resulted in passing successful legislation last year.
The weekend began on Friday, May 21, with a marvelous dinner provided by Cheryl Miller and her crew at Bluestone. Miller and Bluestone went an extra mile to procure food items for the weekend that were local and/or organic. After dinner, the meetings commenced with an introduction of the Eco-Stewards program whose weeklong event concluded with the conference on earth care. Rev. Kate McGregor Mosley then led a liturgy, complete with Taizé, Scripture, and prayers with a bent on humanity’s relationship with God as creator and sustainer.
Saturday morning opened with the first of three sessions, all centered on faith and environmentalism, be it for the individual or the community. Some topics included “Food and Hunger Issues in West Virginia,” “Eco-Crafts for Children of All Ages,” “Churches as Guardians of Creation: Take 10 Steps in 2010,” and “Just Living: Making Consumer Choices with People and the Planet in Mind.”
The highlight of the weekend gathering was keynote speaker Joel Salatin, a sustainable farmer popularized by his homestead Polyface Farms, his publications, and a spotlight in the book The Omnivore’s Dilemma by MIchael Pollan and the documentaries Food, Inc. and Fresh: The Movie. Salatin’s talk was a story about why he does what he does, a story about vocation.
Salatin said vocation is about creating vision and hope to answer the many problems in life from marriage and employment problems to environmental issues. At Polyface Farms, “whether they eat or drink,” they want “to do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31). Since people can glorify God in the mundane, Salatin’s vocation responds to the question, “Is there a godly way to farm?” and bringing order out of the chaos that is the “Wall-Street-ification” of farming, which hurts the land and animals it uses for production.
Salatin maintains that how we treat the physical world translates to how we treat other humans, since they are part of that physical world. Animals work the same, cannibalizing and treating each other poorly when their essence is suppressed. Large chicken farms cut of the beaks off chickens, because the chickens are harming each other with their beaks. Salatin believes this cannibalization happens because the chickens are not allowed to be chickens. Salatin’s chickens express their “chicken-ness” freely, what the farm calls “pastured broilers.”
When we recognize life’s intrinsic value, “we create sacred place and ministry,” as Salatin put it. Salatin desires humans to respect the land and the animals we eat (if we are omnivores) and simultaneously respect humanity and ourselves. With this respect for life’s intrinsic value, we are healing our relationships with each other, with the land on which we live, and with the animals who share that land. Better yet, we are also healing that land and the animals. As a “land healer,” Salatin works with his God “in the redemption business,” as Polyface Farms’ website puts it: “healing the land, healing the food, healing the economy, and healing the culture.”
May 16-23, I joined a group of eight twenty-somethings as we attemped to combine our faith and environmentalism for the fourth annual Eco-Stewards program, which happened this year in “almost heaven, West Virginia.” The theme of their week was “Tending the Garden: A Faith Response to Protecting and Restoring Mountains, Communities, and Relationships.” Hailing from all over the US, the participants included Bolton Kirchner from Mississippi, Amber Scheid from Minnesota, Joanna Rittmann and Rebekah Epling from
West Virginia, Sabrina Jurey from Washington, Daniel Portice from Michigan, Allison Goodwell from Indiana, and me, Trevar Simmons from Maine. Besides joining our faith and environmentalism, the Eco-Stewards strengthened and encouraged each other, giving everyone something to take home to their local faith communities. We did not just gather as a group of twenty-somethings, but as representatives of the Church worldwide, taking a stand on (eco-)justice and faith.
Due to a work conflict, I was unable to join the group until Tuesday afternoon. The rest of the group met in Montgomery, WV where they joined the leaders and began to learn about how God’s creation interacts with itself. For the first few days, the lessons were about the land and the coal industry, mining, and mountaintop removal.
In Montgomery, the Eco-Stewards met with some leadership for the Morris Creek Watershed Association. The watershed association is working to restore Morris Creek, which has been declining in animal and plant diversity. Due to the community’s continued efforts, the creek now supports three different species of trout.
Wondering why the association works so hard, the Eco-Stewards asked one of the leaders, Mike King, why he is so involved. He explained, it is because he lives in the watershed and his grandchildren live in the watershed. King did not want to imagine his grandchildren growing up in the hollow (pronounced “holler”) without their own bit of forest in which to play.
Currently, Japanese knot weed flourishes in deforested parts of the watershed. This invasive species was introduced to the area by the mining companies to coverup the damage they were doing to the local flora and fauna. Japanese knot weed grows faster than the average plant and although it covers up the baron landscape, it also slows (and prevents) native plants from growing.
For the group’s first service project, the Eco-Stewards became human weed whackers. They were slotted to get into the creek and work on the k-dams that regulate the water flow. However, a large amount of rain prevented them from getting into the creek and the group instead fought the knot weeds, helping provide light for the young chestnut trees the watershed association had planted.
Eco-Steward Sabrina Jurey says she expected “to be pulling weeds, on hands and knees. This was not the case. This knot weed was at least up to our knees, and in some cases shoulder high.” The weed will come back, as invasive species tend to do, especially the fast-growing, hardy ones like this knot weed. However, those chestnut trees will have a little bit more of a chance to make it after the Eco-Stewards put their muscles and faith to work, showing a little bit of light to God’s earth. What more do Christians want to do than show light to those and that which God loves, both God’s earth and God’s people?
Monday night, the group heard the personal story of Lorelei Scarboro, a community organizer for Coal River Mountain Watch and of potential for wind power on Coal River Mountain. Tuesday the group traveled from Colcord to Racine to tour a mountaintop removal site and an “intact hollow” led by Robin Blakeman a West Virginia Stewardship of Creation Enabler whose family settled in the area in the 1700s. This tour was made possible by the Ohio Valley Enviornmental Coalition, who also rented a van to transport half the group while on the tour. After touring and learning about the environmental impact of the mountaintop removal, the group gathered at John Slack Park for a service to bless the mountains with Blakeman and Allen Johnson, co-founder of Christians for the Mountains.
I met the group just before this service began that rainy, Tuesday afternoon. During this service, we reflected on our relation to the kingdom of God and the kingdom of humanity. Blakeman asked to think about where we had seen light that day and where and how should the church be involved? We thought about God’s relationship to the earth and all that is in it–including the people who rely on money, coal, and the ecosystem to live. Above all, we praised God, the God of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebekah, Jacob, Leah, and Rachel–the God of gods, and the God over all lands. We praised God despite the murky issues of faith, technological progress, and the stewardship of creation.
On Wednesday, we were set to work on a garden for the McGraws/Ravencliffe Food Bank, but the rain again had other plans, as the garden plot was under a few feet of water. Instead, the group went to the Mullens Opportunity Center (MOC) in Mullens, WV. An Eco-Steward intern will spend her summer as an intern working with this garden, making sure the economically less fortunate people in the community can eat healthy, fresh foods instead of the cheap, less-healthy alternatives.
At the MOC, we enjoyed some tea made from herbs we picked from the woods across and a feast prepared by the Friends of Milam Fork. Local historian Jack Feller spoke to us that evening about the Mullens area and its relationship to the coal industry–the good, the bad, the indifferent. Politician David “Bugs” Stover shared a bit of his history and an entertaining monster story “told as true.”
Thursday we took a slight break from learning and rafted down the Upper New River, whose white water was a little more rapid than usual, due to large amounts of rain. For this participant, the river trek with North American River Runners (NARR) was more than just a fun trip. The experience was spiritual. We spent much of the week learning about some not-so-friendly interactions between human creations and God’s creation.
On the river, we were nestled inside the bosom of creation, with mountains surrounding us. Throughout the tumultuous rapids, we were safe inside of human invention. In some of the calmer waters, many chose to swim in the river. Those who did not get in the river were nevertheless baptized as one with creation in such an intimate setting with nature.
Halfway through our float down the river, we stopped to break bread together with a meal provided by NARR CEO Frank Lukacs, father of Eco-Steward leader Heather Lukacs. Amidst the baptismal experience, the group shared a eucharistic experience, becoming one with each other as they were recognizing their unity and solidarity with the earth. To whatever humans subject the earth to, humans subject themselves. The dominion over creation is a dominion exercised over humanity, too. Human fate is intertwined with each other and creation. Human sins against the land are sins against humanity, sins against ourselves. Our redemption of the land is a redemption of ourselves, just as the salvation for which we long is the salvation for which creation groans (Romans 8:22).
Our next move was from the New River to Bluestone Camp and Retreat just outside of Hinton, WV, which served as home base for the rest of our time together. On Friday, we made a quick trip to Bethlehem Farms, witnessing how yet another community lives with and from the land.
Bethlehem Farms took over the property that once was a Catholic Worker community, land that came with a large house, garden, and some livestock. When we arrived, each of us were greeted like every group: with hugs and the words “Welcome Home.” In the midst of hugs, the group observed a large, retreat-like cabin. Inside, clothes drying on lines strung between the upstairs and downstairs, which Eco-Steward Amber Scheid describes as “bird-poop protection.”
We were fortunate to share an organic, vegetarian, homemade—and scrumptious—lunch including two kinds of soup, bread, jams, peanut butter, apple butter, hummus, and veggies. The little that was not grown at the farm was purchased locally. After lunch, sustainability coordinator and communications director, Ashley Boone, introduced us to the farm and then Bethlehem Farms co-founder Eric Fitts lead a tour of the farm, from the herb garden, bees, pond, chickens, vegetable garden, and the beginnings of an orchard. Fitts shared the reasoning behind each and every part of the farm, sharing another perspective of how to live with and from the land, with an emphasis on the ethics of eating.
Bethlehem Farms concluded the Eco-Stewards touring. That evening we joined a larger group for Stewardship of the Land: A Christian Community Gathering. During this conference, we introduced ourselves, presented a video compiled by one of our leaders, Becky Evans, and were commissioned to live what we had gleaned from God, each other, and the people we met that week—commissioned to be Eco-Stewards in West Virginia and anywhere else we might roam.
To end our time together, leader Rev. Rob Mark had the group gather in a circle. He took out his notebook, wrapped in camping rope. He tossed the notebook across the circle, letting the rope unravel between him and the next participant. This person then took hold of the rope and tossed the notebook to another person. This process went on until the rope had reached its limit and each of us held onto a piece of the rope.
Rev. Mark told us we were a connected community now, represented by the interweaving rope in the center of their circle. Every member had part of the rope and as long as each member held tight to their piece, then the community would stand. If one member let go, then the community began to fall.
And thus our whole week had gone. Gardens need tending, a truism expressed in both creation stories of Genesis. As Eco-Steward Bolton Kirchner says, “the more I acknowledge these connections with people and the environment around me, the bonds seem to grow.” We learned about many responses to mountains and living with and from the land, but in the end most of us left West Virginia.
It was the community that helped us cultivate what the title of the week called “A Faith Response to Protecting and Restoring Mountains, Communities, and Relationships” and it is the community which they now are turning to serve. Four of us–Kirchner, Rittmann, Jurey, and me–are serving as summer interns in West Virginia and our journeys can be followed on their cooperative blog. The rest have returned to their homes to put their faith in action in their usual environment.