I am a member of the Church of the Brethren—a small, Christian denomination known for its devotion to peace witness. If you ask the right person, they might say that we’re known for being a historic peace church nearly as much as we’re known for our love of potlucks and ice cream. This isn’t really true, but, on the whole, we are a denomination that finds value in the relationships created over a shared meal and the experience it creates. Growing up, I was taught that food can play a central role to our faith as it brings people together for these shared experiences, particularly during our time of Love Feast, when we gather as a congregation to share in a meal and time of foot washing much like Jesus shared with his disciples during the Last Supper.
Through this heritage, I’ve come to see the food that I eat as more than just a meal, but also as a means of expressing my faith. By choosing locally grown, organic foods, I am able to say “I support practices that discourage environmental degradation and worker exploitation;” I am able to live out God’s call to care for creation and my brothers and sisters of the world. The reality is, though, that I am not frequently afforded this choice.
I am currently living in Washington DC which means that “locally grown” options aren’t even necessarily grown within the district, and the high cost of living frequently prevents me from purchasing anything other than the generic brand at the grocery store. It often frustrates me that something I value highly as a statement of my faith isn’t something on which I can take more intentional action, as I purchase foods that I know have a large carbon footprint or that have been harvested by underpaid farm workers; it’s easy to become resigned to the belief that this is just the way it has to be, and I know I am not alone in feeling this way.
However, through my work with the Church of the Brethren’s Going to the Garden program, and through exposure to many other organizations throughout the city, I am learning that this resignation isn’t something that I need to feel. Community gardens are springing up everywhere, and it is encouraging to see the positive impact that the gardens are having on their local food systems. To me, the most valuable aspect of these gardens is that they enable us to use food as an expression of our faith once more; through gardening, we can grow truly local food that enables us to be stewards of God’s creation while inviting neighbors who may not otherwise have access to healthy foods to participate and share in the experience of growing.
Part of my work has been to establish a small “teaching garden” at our local congregation in Washington DC. In part, the two raised garden beds provides fresh vegetables to the soup kitchen that serves lunch daily out of our church, but almost more importantly, our garden is an educational space; through it, we provide an example that gardening can happen almost anywhere and on any scale while still providing meaningful community change. My best experiences when I have been working in the garden haven’t come from solitary experiences working with the plants, but through the unexpected conversations with neighbors walking by who, after asking about our purpose, get very excited about the work being done. I know that these neighbors will share their conversations about our garden, and this may be just what is needed to spark the change to get others excited about gardening as well.
Community gardens may not be a physically large presence in the faith community’s address to climate change or other challenges to creation, but the impact that these gardens can have is untold. By keeping our food local, we can cut down on carbon emissions while turning our nation’s corporate food system upside down. I was raised in a tradition that showed me how valuable food is to my faith, and I still believe that it is. However, I now realize that the value is as much in the action of growing as it is in eating; through gardening, I am able to heed God’s call to care for creation.