Organics and Community Organizing (or the summer adventure installment 1)

What do hundreds of pounds of Bok Choy grown by Episcopal nuns and Barack Obama’s presidential campaign have in common?  I’m not exactly sure yet.  These are the constituent elements of my ruminations over the past couple of weeks, the first in my summer adventure exploring the emergent church and community organizing.  I’ll work my way back to the nuns and their bok choy.  Let’s begin with the community organizers.
Last weekend at Virginia Seminary a group from the Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) institute at Northwestern presented a conference on faith based community organizing.  Asset based community development began as a response to the kind of Community Organizing Saul Alinsky developed in Chicago in the 1970s.  Alinky’s organizing identifies community problems, works to gather voices around those issues for advocacy, and then confronts the powers that be.  Asset based community organizing looks at the other side of the equation.  Rather than starting with a problem, organizers begin by “Asset mapping” a community.  They look at what is functioning well, what resources: economic, human, and otherwise that a community already has.  They seek to help what is working to work better, and to help the individual working parts to network.  The approach was used most famously by the organizers of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, and undergirds much of the Obama view on healthy community.
The basic premise of ABCD varies on the theme of the glass-half-full metaphor.  The organizers we met with explained that in many communities where organizing happens, everyone points to the problems.  A psychological identity develops identifying the place and people as a “problem community.”  By focusing simply on emptiness, on what is broken, we fail to nurture the wholeness of a community.  The ABCD folks had thousands of stories about how this could work.  Pastor Damon Lynch, one of our trainers, told of a non-profit that moved into the building behind his Church in Cincinnati.  The office cut a window into the alley, and began handing sandwiches out.  While the desire to help was good, the methodology kept the people separated by a wall.  The people behind the wall could feel good about themselves, because they were giving away food, but they never got to know the people on the other side.  Receiving a sandwich is hardly a chance to tell your story, to be of service, to grow.  I thought of Sarah Miles’ book “Take this Bread.”  Miles talks about the food pantry she helped start at her church, St. Gregory of Nyssa in San Francisco. The brilliance of Miles’ project is that the Church people serve right alongside the homeless.  Most of the volunteers are people who came to get food and stayed to help out.  St. Gregory’s allows people not only to be served, but calls them to serve, invites them to give.  Through giving they grow.  The idea is simple.  Most good ideas are.
Which brings us to the nuns and their bok choy.
Community of the Holy Spirit nun's logo at their farm.
When I arrived at the Bluestone Farm run by the Community of the Holy Spirit in Brewster, New York, the nuns were debating what to do with the hundreds of pounds of extra bok choy they had grown.  I’d learned about the nuns, and their experiment in farming, from my blogging friend Sister Catherine Grace.  I was fascinated by her her simple and direct reflections on the spiritual realities brought about living closer to the land. I came to visit and rest for a few days.
Little did I know that I would be put to work in the garden.  Not that I was upset.  It turned out that the simple tasks of weeding, assembling cucumber towers, chasing the chickens out of the peas, and planting even more bok choy(!) helped settle me down.  After a day of physical labor, I was definitely ready for sleep.  What amazed me about the nuns’ farming was the amount of care they brought to the process.  Every bed was manured, weeded, minerals were added to the soil.  At the head of every row there was an extra chinese cabbage, because slugs love chinese cabbage more than anything else.  The nuns found that by planting the chinese cabbage, the slugs would go after it rather than the other leafy greens.  There were even little native plants that helped to keep the voles away.
The Slugs eat the cabbage, and so they leave the rest of the bed alone.
All the love and care the nuns put into their garden pays off.  The nuns get 90% of their food from an acre and a half of land.  Sometimes the crops do far better than expected.  The last day I was in town, Sister Carol Bernice started preparing all that extra bok choy to sell at the Farmer’s market.  She told me she had a dream that they would have enough excess to be able to give away vegetables to a community food pantry.  The nuns’ slow patient nurturing has produced an unexpected abundance, an opportunity to give to others.  Somehow it reminded me of the Obama campaign.  People who had never participated in any political action climbed onboard because they were invited to give an hour of their time.  People were told that their $5.00 donation mattered, and Obama raised more money than any candidate in history.
I still can’t trace the exact connection between Obama and the nuns’ bok choy.  Some quiet ancient truth is there about having faith in the goodness of creation, and the work God invites us into: nurturing creation together.  My guess is this has something to do with the emergent church, seeing God given potential in people and helping them throw off institutional trappings to grow.  I’m glad to have more time to explore, and to be around people who are figuring out what to do with abundance.

Published by Mike Angell

The Rev. Mike Angell is rector of The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in St. Louis.

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