“To grow and share food with others in a garden is to enter into a holy country, Fred Bahnson writes in his book Soil and Sacrament: A Spiritual Memoir of Food and Faith. For the next couple hundred pages then, Bahnson brings us on pilgrimage through that holy country. He invites us to experience with him the presence of God as manifested through diverse communities learning to care for the soil and for one another. The result is a series of moving and inspiring encounters with the Holy in the mundane and unexpected, exploring the power of land as a means of God’s freely given, healing, rooting, shalom-making grace.
Bahnson’s story begins at the end – namely, the end of himself. After four years of directing Anathoth, a faith-based community food garden in Cedar Grove, North Carolina, he is worn down. Responsibilities with the garden have sucked him dry, kept him from his family, and led him to question a once-assured calling. His longing to encounter the living Christ again leads him to visit four separate gardens throughout the country, each during a different liturgical holiday. He visits a Trappist monastery growing mushrooms; a faith-inspired community garden called the Lord’s Acre; a Pentecostal ministry in Washington state combining organic farming and work with migrants and prisoners; and a Jewish organic farm in Connecticut. Interspersed between narrations of his brief times with these communities, Bahnson reflects on his earlier journey: from nonviolent activism in Chiapas, Mexico, to experiencing a call to feed people, to beginning Anathoth along with many of the twists and turns along the way. He closes his book with a few examples of other faith communities renewing their relationships to land, as well as some practical tips for people hoping to start their own community garden. In the end, he says, “working with the soil opens us inward where we find a God eager to lavish upon us God’s mercy and compassion and love. Soil also opens us outward [it] reveals the joyful messiness of human life where we find others who need us, and whom we need in return.
I found so much inspiration in this book. The stories Bahnson tells of hospitality and transformation through the soil are lit from the same flame that burns in me, the longing to see outcasts welcomed, divisions broken down, a place at the table (and in the garden!) for everyone. At Tierra Nueva in Washington, Bahnson introduces us to Zach, former drug addict, lover of heavy metal and Jesus, now brewing coffee from fair trade Honduran coffee beans. I began to weep as I read Zach declare, “The church needs to say we need you to people like me. We’ve been missing something and it’s you. This is what I long for in the hospitality I and others in the Servants community practice every week, rooted within the marginalized community of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. It’s the sort of welcome I hope Red Clover Farm can offer, in its own small way.
We also meet Emma, a reclusive, eccentric woman who consistently stole watermelons from a garden growing food for the local food pantry. Instead of retaliating, members of the Lord’s Acre offered to help her start her own garden, and Emma slowly became a vital part of the community. I’ve seen a fair share of thefts happen in the urban farms I work with here in Vancouver, and though I have often prayed for a redemptive resolution, most of the time the culprit has remained at large, or a relationship has been strained beyond seeming repair. Bahnson’s story gives me hope that loving community, where everyone is treated as someone worth knowing, really is a stronger force than fear, which grows like weeds in neglected fields of anonymity and isolation. As the author demonstrates again and again, there’s something about the land which makes it possible for people of every background to meet one another genuinely, as equals, and in so doing to meet God in one another.
Not only does Soil and Sacrament delight its readers with its colourful cast of characters, though; the book is also rich with spiritual wisdom, drawn often from the created world. I felt compelled to pause and savour one such deep insight in the midst of Bahnson’¢s visit to Mepkin Abbey. After joining in the abbey’s work growing mushrooms, then exploring the prayer landings constructed throughout the property, the author begins to speak of prayer: “Let the mind’s fields lie fallow, such places tell us, let the mycelial strands of prayer run in the dark and see what fruit may come. And when you leave, those same strands will follow under your feet, undergirding everything you do. Later, Bahnson relates spending time with a severely disabled friend, marking out spacing for kale, although he had a million other pressing things to do. He takes this moment to reflect on the value of giving back to the soil, and the “soil people”, more than one takes, just as “the bread and wine give far more than we take into our bodies through the lifted elements of Communion. Just like the numerous prayer landings Bahnson finds strewn throughout the abbey grounds, his writing offers no shortage of similar opportunities to contemplate the heavenly.
Here, however, it is the heavenly within us and around us and beneath our feet. As Bahnson writes, language of prayer and sacrament, church and God, loses any awkwardness – as if it were imposed upon reality – and becomes utterly natural, returned to its intended meaning. So we too, his readers, are invited to return to the roots of our created humanity. Adam to adamah, human to humus, soul to soil. It is undoubtedly because of this that one finishes the book with a joyful sense that the world all its messiness, contradictions, adversity, and diversity – is good. It’s worth returning to, again and again.
And that’s a truth of which I’m glad to be reminded.
This blog post was offered by EcoFaith Intern, Jason Wood, whose internship project is to develop and run Red Clover Farm, a small urban farm re-connecting people to their food sources and to one another. Jason organizes with Earthkeepers: Christians for Climate Justice and participates in Anglican-based Salal and Cedar, a watershed discipleship community.
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