The Good Earth Hunger Mission

“I don’t write for people who farm. I write for people who eat.”–Wendell Berry

“We tend a small piece of dirt for our brothers and sisters in need. In the process we look to Christ to take shallow, compacted, or thorny ground and make it a deep, fruitful soil.”—Paul Clever

All of them look to you

To give them their food in due season.

You give it to them, they gather it;

You open your hand, and they are filled with good things.–Psalm 104:28-29

By R. William Carroll

I ruined some trousers and a pair of shoes the other day, and I’ve never been happier. Allow me to explain.

With other Christians, assorted friends from the surrounding community, and passersby on a local, public bike path, I spent the better part of the afternoon working on an organic farm. I helped plant broccoli, onions, and cabbage, and I lay down smelly raked leaves from a parishioner’s home between the rows as mulch. Others, including our former junior warden, put up a fence to keep the deer out. We are in Appalachia, the far southeastern corner of Ohio, closer to Parkersburg, West Virginia than we are to Columbus. And, unlike what you may have seen on Diane Sawyer (don’t get us started!), we have a positive story to tell about what people are doing in our community.

Athens is at the hub of many interesting experiments in sustainable agriculture. It has one of the best farmers’ markets in the country. It has several nonprofits that are working in sustainable economic development, environmental justice and remediation, and strengthening local food systems, including Rural Action, where some of our parishioners have been deeply involved as staff members, board members, and volunteers over the years, and where I currently serve as a board member.

More recently, two parishioners in their twenties, Paul and Sarah Clever, have begun renting and rehabilitating a 170-year-old farmhouse from a local farmer, who is generously sharing his time and equipment and letting them have access to unused fields with top quality soil. Lately, they’ve been joined by another parishioner, A. J. Stack, who’s the chair of our outreach committee. A.J.’s roots in Athens County go back generations. With wonderful support from our bishop and his staff, they and some others are thinking about forming an intentional community, and I have been charged with providing local pastoral support. Paul and Sarah have worked on organic farms before. Sarah is a faculty member at a local community college. A.J. is a social worker. All three are part of the leadership team for our Shepherd’s Alternative campus and young adult community. Our parish, the Church of the Good Shepherd, sits right on the Ohio University campus.

With support from our vestry and the diocese (we recently passed a sustainable agriculture resolution inspired by his work), Paul has been establishing a ministry called the Good Earth Hunger Mission (no website yet, but they do have a Facebook page). The purpose of this ministry is to grow food (they also glean excess produce for local farmers) and help God feed the poor. Making use of an existing distribution network run by another local nonprofit, they contribute food to local free meals, food pantries, and domestic violence shelters. In their first year, with a shortened growing season and a limited number of acres in production, they managed to grow or glean 5,000 pounds of food. This year, Paul tells me that a conservative estimate is 25,000 pounds. That’s twelve and a half tons of food!

But that’s not the most exciting thing about the ministry to me. One thing that excites me is the way that it transforms our outreach, which has always had a focus on feeding the hungry, in a sustainable and socially transformative direction. I think about it in terms of the Millennium Development Goals. One of the easiest ones to effect through local action is number seven, “ensure environmental sustainability.” We have always been strong supporters of our local food pantry. Three parishioners are board members, and we make substantial financial contribution every month, along with shopping and packing. In addition, four teams of parishioners and friends from the community (many of them in their eighties) routinely feed a free nutritious lunch to over a hundred people each week. The Good Earth Hunger mission is now supplying food to these and other ministries. More importantly, they are trying to involve those who are served, working side by side with our parishioners and other community volunteers, in producing their own food. There is considerable interest by the other parishes in our deanery (we’re having a deanery work day on May 2), and the ecumenical community. Paul is inviting youth groups and young adults to come to the farm on pilgrimage (youth groups must bring an adequate number of adult chaperones), and has a growing e-mail list and Facebook group to promote weekly volunteer opportunities.

Another thing that excites me is the way this ministry connects the Gospel to some of the fundamental ethical concerns in our community. In his recent address to the Diocese of Washington, “the Episcopal moment,” Brian McLaren speaks about how people, especially youth and young adults, are looking for ways to serve God without hating other people. I see the work of the Good Earth Hunger Mission as being on the front lines of our ministry of evangelism with students and young adults. We are not so much concerned with building up the Church, though I think that will happen. Churches can grow when they have a clear sense of mission and purpose. We are focused on doing the work of discipleship, “getting in on what God is doing” or “engaging God’s mission,” and trusting that God will bless those efforts that are responding to the Holy Spirit.

As chaplain, I intend to do work in spiritual formation on the farm as part of their exploration of life in intentional community and the development of a rule of life. We already have a plan to do some of this work and an exciting bibliography that we hope to work through in the next couple of years, along with a provisional rule with some balance, to guide the initial experiment. I am hoping that as the community develops, worship and Christian formation will always be an integral part of working on the farm. I believe that this community, if it endures, will combine Franciscan and Benedictine charisms, as well as the central insight of the new monasticism: “inhabiting the abandoned spaces of empire.” (Appalachian communities find it hard to forget how American prosperity comes at great price to the land and people of our region. Rather than focus on these deficits, we choose to focus on assets like family, faith, community, a rich artistic heritage, and the land.) I believe that the Good Earth Hunger Mission and the associated community may evolve into something like the early Catholic Worker farms, “agronomic universities” as Peter Maurin called them. We need to reintegrate faith, learning, and practice, prayer and work as the Benedictines would say. The farm will also be, in addition to a place of hard work, a place of peace and profound hospitality, without for a moment leaving the brokenness of this age behind, becoming an eschatological sign that another world is possible.

This charism for Benedictine hospitality (“receive all visitors as Christ”) was confirmed for me, when clothes still filthy and funky, barely able to wash the dirt of my hands, we sat down for evening prayer and a simple meal of rice and beans. Paul, Sarah, A.J., and I, gathered round the table, together with my wife Tracey, our two children, and two Quaker friends. I have had other close experiences with Christ in the past couple of years, but none closer. I believe that the Holy Spirit is doing something wonderful in our midst.

For more information about the Good Earth Hunger Mission, please feel free to visit their Facebook page (website forthcoming) or to call me at our parish office (740-593-6877). Just ask for Bill! I’ll be happy to put you in touch with Paul by e-mail or phone. He welcomes all inquiries and is also available to consult about setting up similar ministries in your local area. He would also welcome contact with existing ministries of this kind. He has studied several rural and urban models, but it’s always helpful to know what’s out there.

The Rev. R. William Carroll serves as rector of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Athens, Ohio (Diocese of Southern Ohio). He received his Ph.D. in Christian theology from the University of Chicago Divinity School. His sermons appear on his parish blog. He is a member of the Third Order of the Society of Saint Francis.

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