Q&A: The church’s role in restoring creation

Fred Bahnson is co-author of Making Peace with the Land: God’s Call to Reconcile with Creation (InterVarsity Press, 2012). In 2005 Mr. Bahnson co-founded Anathoth Community Garden, a ministry of Cedar Grove United Methodist Church in Cedar Grove, N.C., which he directed until 2009. He now speaks and writes full time about the intersection of food, faith and agriculture.

On July 1, Mr. Bahnson became founding director of the Food & Faith Initiative at Wake Forest University’s School of Divinity. He spoke by phone with staff writer Mary Jacobs; here are excerpts.

Americans have a big problem with obesity. Have churches contributed?

I think unfortunately churches in America have fostered this heretical idea that the body is something to be shunned or ignored, something that will one day be left behind. But if we believe in the resurrection of our bodies, then how we treat our bodies now matters. It matters when, on the one hand, we preach the resurrection of the body and then go to the church potluck and put down gallons of soda, a known cause of obesity. Soft drinks are a huge health hazard. But go to any church potluck, and this poison is sitting on the table waiting for people to consume it.

Right next to the soda, I think we should put cartons of free cigarettes, because it will get people to think that this is along the same lines as smoking. The amount of sugary drinks we consume is directly linked to the rise in type 2 diabetes. And that’s just soda. We are all in this collective denial about the fact that the food that we eat is really killing us.

Fred Bahnson

How can churches help turn this around?

The first thing is for church leadership to begin taking a role. I think pastors have to start preaching this in the pulpit. There’s the pastor in Mississippi who banned fried chicken in his church. He’s naming the problem. I’d like to see pastors ban soft drinks and other empty calories. But the larger issue is that pastors and church leadership really need to be preaching the whole gospel.

Starting a church garden is the best way that you can retrain people how to eat well. It works because you’re doing physical exercise and you are using your body as God created it to be used, rather than being a passive consumer of food. You’re taking an active role in growing your own food and food for others. Also, you’re learning how food is actually grown. Hopefully, that garden will be an organic garden, so you’re learning that you don’t need pesticides, chemical fertilizers, fossil fuels and big tractors to grow food.

At our community garden there was a woman who was morbidly obese. After coming and working in the garden for a year or so, she announced she had lost 75 lbs. We weren’t doing anything in particular. She would just come to work in the garden. Gradually she was giving up fried foods and learning how to eat steamed greens and sautéed kale instead. Just being around the culture of healthy food, she was learning new habits.

So what’s the church’s role in the battle against obesity?

To me, there has to be a communal aspect to healthier eating. It’s not just about individual food choices and it’s not just learning how to shop better. We need a community that will teach us healthier ways to live. The great thing about a garden is, you’re eating food that’s fresher than you can get from the grocery or even a farmers market. At Anathoth, we did biweekly potlucks, and people would bring vegetables or a fresh salad cut from the garden that night. Children had a hand in growing the vegetables and that made them want to eat them more. It’s the culture of the table connected to the culture of growing food. We’re really talking about a church trying to reclaim a holistic way of eating. There’s a great hunger for this.

Can you talk a little about why obesity is something that the church should help address?

It’s a huge problem. One in three children born after 2000 will develop type 2 diabetes in their lifetime. That’s a CDC statistic. Church leadership really needs to take the lead, to be creative about how the church is going to address this. You can’t just leave obesity in the hands of health officials.

Why not?

Because we’ve done that and look where we are. We have turned the health of our bodies over to industries—the medical industry and the food industry. The medical industry is mostly focused on fixing the problems the food industry causes. The Western diet is proven to be an unhealthy diet all around. Rather than putting band-aids on the problem and doing liposuction and heart transplants and finding better diabetes drugs and so on, we need to fix the root of the problem, which is the way that we eat and our lack of exercise.

How does a community garden act as a “ministry”?

One of the gardens I mentioned in the book is The Lord’s Acre in Fairview, N.C., a collaboration of a Presbyterian and a nondenominational church. They started with the idea that they wanted to provide fresh, organic produce for the food pantry. That’s one form of ministry. But what they found was—and this is true at every one of the dozens of gardens I’ve visited—all kinds of other benefits start to accrue. They’re also growing community. There are very few places you can go and have a conversation with strangers. Go to a church garden, you start working with strangers, you get to know them and suddenly they’re not strangers. You’re welcoming the stranger, people who wouldn’t set foot in a church but would come to your garden.

Many of our churches aren’t in rural areas. Can they still get involved?

Absolutely. We don’t really need a lawn but we do need good food, and so I think urban people might need to make sacrifices as to where the garden could go. Even in a church with no land—it doesn’t take much land to have a garden and begin to get the benefits. Even a 10×20 foot lot will begin to get people thinking in a way they hadn’t before. Beyond that, some churches are starting to partner with farms, doing buying clubs, or buying shares of a local farm in exchange for boxes of produce or meat. That’s a good way to begin building relationships with farmers.

I think we can also talk about how we need to get past the idea of hunger relief as pulling all the cans of creamed corn and Chef Boyardee out of your pantry and dropping it off at the food pantry. That’s a pretty paltry way to feed Jesus. The gospel picture we’re given of feeding the hungry is about throwing a lavish feast. So why aren’t churches doing that?

In Black Mountain, North Carolina, there’s a five-star chef named John Crognale who started a feeding ministry called The Welcome Table. Once a week, he and his volunteers throw a lavish feast for anyone who comes to eat. It’s really good food, some of it donated from local farms. It’s a multicourse, white tablecloth affair with real silverware and real plates. They start with a big salad bar, so they’re modeling healthy eating. Guys from a local prison are coming there to train as chefs under John Crognale.

What is so beautiful—and this is true for church community gardens, too—is that you have people who are millionaires sitting next to people who don’t know where their next meal is coming from. They’re on equal ground, at the same table, sharing conversation. Where else can that happen?

Tell me about the Food & Faith Initiative.

I’m teaching divinity students about the intersection of food and faith. Food is a nexus point for a lot of different major issues: climate change, sustainable agriculture, health, energy use. Food also has a lot of cultural and spiritual significance for Christians. The Lord’s Supper is our central metaphor. Food is rich ground for thinking about how we can deepen our faith and how we can become better stewards of God’s creation. With this initiative we will also be doing weekend workshops, daylong symposiums, and continuing education for clergy and laity, both in Winston-Salem and in the Asheville area.

Looking at the title of your book—what would it mean to “make peace with the land”?

As we read in Colossians, “through Christ, God has reconciled all things.” If Christ has reconciled not just human souls and human beings, but the land that we live on, then that has profound implications for how we live on, and eat from, the land. We won’t see the full fruits of Christ’s redemption until he returns, but as agents of Christ’s reconciliation, as reconcilers, we need to foster not only reconciliation between people but between people and the land. We can’t pursue reconciliation with our neighbor while we’re degrading our neighbor’s watershed. We can’t preach reconciliation and ignore the fact that one in three adults are obese. Christ came to reconcile the whole person, and the whole creation.

It’s pretty clear from any number of sources and studies that we’re destroying the creation that God gave us to steward. You can point to the Gulf oil spill, the nuclear meltdown in Japan, the fact that we are in the sixth great species extinction event, climate disruption, top soil loss. The list is long. You look at any area in which humans impact the environment—the impact is almost always negative.

On the one hand that’s very depressing. But what we try to do in the book, rather than focus on the depressing news, is to look toward the biblical image we’re given in Revelation of the New Jerusalem. If we’re headed toward an earth that will be restored, redeemed and reconciled, then we have a role to play. We can align our lives with God’s reconciliation that’s taking place even now.


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