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When religious activists take protest to the plate, theological differences fall away

Going Rogue Ideas

A morning service ending with a vat of cheap coffee downstairs; a winter Tuesday where pancakes were dinner; a Wonder-bread tea sandwich neglected after a funeral, or devoured after a baptism. If you grew up in a Christian tradition in North America and get asked to think about “church food,” these are a few things that might jump to mind. Stretch to “church food activism,” and you might remember a basement food bank for the homeless or a bake sale to raising money for a nearby soup kitchen.

Maybe we should start to live more into the values we study in our classrooms.

Just outside Columbus at Methodist Theological School in Ohio, church leaders-in-training are approaching food a little differently. The school’s six-acre Seminary Hill Farm on campus, grows fresh produce for the dining hall 100 yards away, has also become the go-to spot where hungry graduate students can pick up produce from their community agriculture share.

Seminary spokesperson Danny Russell says the project started in 2013 when students began connecting their religious beliefs about “ecotheology”—the religious belief the humans are called to take care of the earth which they consider God’s creation—with their day-to-day lives.  “Our students asked ‘How should this affect the food we eat on campus?” Russell says. “That got us thinking, ‘Maybe we should start to live more into the values we study in our classrooms.’”

Seminary Farm has become a key supplier of the school's dining hall produce. Administrators hope students will implement similar projects on their own church grounds after they graduateCourtesy of Methodist Theological School in Ohio

Seminary Farm has become a key supplier of the school’s dining hall produce. Administrators hope students will implement similar projects on their own church grounds after they graduate

To be clear, seminary students are not regularly getting their hands dirty on the farm. The farm is maintained by apprentices who aren’t studying theology at all hours—but who do have the chance to take classes at the school. And the organic farm is also a place where locals from nearby Columbus, Ohio, can learn more about gardening and fresh food.

“One of the things we found is we’re bringing in a new kind of student with this,” says Russell. “We are finding students from other parts of the country are choosing to fly past a lot of other places…. And go to school here. And be part of a community with this kind of commitment to taking care of the earth.

We don’t understand food very well because it’s become stuff we purchase in a store, a commodity.

Methodist Theological School in Ohio isn’t alone. Other seminaries and churches, like Princeton’s Farminary in New Jersey or 31st Street Baptist Church in Virginia, are also using gardening and farming as a new kind of religious activism. And this August, the Lutheran Volunteer Corps started placing full-time volunteers in urban farms in mostly-black neighborhoods of Milwaukee.

Gardens and farms are just one way religious organizations are becoming increasingly vocal about food politics. In 2015, Pope Francis criticized the commodification of food to a United Nations committee, blaming “financial speculation” for world hunger and telling listeners, “It is a well-known fact that current levels of production are sufficient, yet millions of people are still suffering and dying of starvation.”  

Norman Wirzba, a professor of Theology and Ecology at Duke Divinity School, says it makes sense for religious groups to take a stand on these issues—because our food choices are ethical ones that we often overlook.

Everybody seems to be a foodie these days—but a lot of churches have not caught on to this.

“We don’t understand food very well because it’s become stuff we purchase in a store, a commodity,” he adds. “But eating isn’t just about consuming calories. It’s one of the ways we enact our relationships with each other and the earth.”

What we eat and how we prepare it, Wirzba says, “is one of the primary sites where we get to enact what our values are.”

Many churches already make certain types of social justice a priority—particularly on topics like migrant rights or prison reform. But Christians’ interest in the contemporary concept of “food activism” is still new, Wirzba says.

Religion is something to be afraid of; it is something to be on your guard against. If you’re going to be an ‘Earth Person,’ you’ve got to say, ‘The Patriarch isn’t my guy.

“It’s difficult to talk in general because some denominations have not yet jumped on the bandwagon,” he says. “Everybody seems to be a foodie these days—but a lot of churches have not caught on to this.”

At the same time, food and faith have some deep historical ties, notes Jennifer Herdt, who teaches Christian ethics at Yale Divinity School. “Food plays a central role in many if not all of the world’s religious traditions,” she says,  whether in the form of particular foods, “rituals and festivals surrounding planting and harvest, or sacramental meals.”

Reverend Billy Talen—a New York performance artist who preaches to his “Church of Earthalujah” and Stop Shopping Choir—has seen the power of blending spirituality and food firsthand.

William Talen, also known as "Reverend Billy," is arrested by police outside the World Food Prize. Courtesy of Reverend Billy And The Stop Shopping Choir

William Talen, also known as “Reverend Billy,” is arrested by police outside the World Food Prize.

Talen performs frequently in churches and to religious groups, but he’s best known for more secular activities. Wearing a bright white suit and coiffing his hair into a pompadour, he’s often shouting progressive mantras above the din of the protest in the style of 20th-century televangelists. While Talen’s group isn’t technically a church, he’s officiated weddings, comforted the ill, and performed baptisms all the same. But Talen is deeply suspicious of the church from which his performance borrows, calling himself a “recovering Calvinist” and talking about the importance of “rejecting the Patriarch.” For him, growing up in a strict fundamentalist home, Christianity carries a lot of baggage. He likes to speak of a new faith, rooted in celebrating the earth, instead.

“Religion is something to be afraid of; it is something to be on your guard against,” he says. “If you’re going to be an ‘Earth Person,’ you’ve got to say, ‘The Patriarch isn’t my guy.”

What Monsanto and these big corporations are doing, that’s a complete sellout of any kind of moral or spiritual obligation for people to be defenders of life.

On a recent trip back to his home state of Iowa, though, Talen had what he called a “prodigal son moment,” returning to the state where he’d grown up and spending time with people of faith. He’d visited an urban garden at a Christian college before continuing to Des Moines for a protest against the World Food Prize (sometimes referred to as “The Nobel Prize of Agriculture”)—an international award given annually in recognition of contributions made in any field involved in the world food supply, which Talen called “Monsanto’s Oscars.” Activists with an international leftist group called the Catholic Worker speak out against the event, held at the Iowa State Capitol, each year.

“The ecumenicism of the whole thing is startling,” he said, in an email almost a week before the October 13 protest, where he and others would get arrested. “They are inviting these earth-worshipping weirdos to lead their protest…. Unitarians, Catholic Workers, Dutch Calvinists of the Reformed Church, and Methodists.”

William Talen, also known as "Reverend Billy," is escorted by police away from the Iowa State Capitol, which was the grounds of the World Food Prize.Courtesy of Reverend Billy And The Stop Shopping Choir

“Reverend Billy” is escorted by police away from the Iowa State Capitol, which hosted the World Food Prize ceremony

Courtesy of Reverend Billy And The Stop Shopping Choir “Reverend Billy” is escorted by police away from the Iowa State Capitol, which hosted the World Food Prize ceremony

Robert Fraley, Monsanto’s chief technology officer, and Liam Condon, president of Bayer AG’s crop science division, both spoke during the World Food Prize ceremony. Their appearance followed the announcement of a controversial proposed merger with pharmaceutical giant Bayer, which they say will allow research into new solutions to global hunger. American farmers and politicians have said they’re nervous the proposed merger will raise prices of seeds and other agricultural technology, reports the Des Moines Register.

It makes sense for that moment of protest to happen in Iowa, in the heart of the so-called “bread basket of the world.” This is a state where the number of farms is shrinking , while farms under 50 acres and over 1,000 acres both increased from 2007 to 2012. Farming here has become increasingly polarized–between large-scale agricultural producers and small farms–and with that polarization has come politicization. Meanwhile, Monsanto’s spectre looms constantly in a state where agriculture and food play an outsize role. While secular activism aimed at economic issues, abortion rights, or global warming may lead to some uncomfortable disagreements from people who come from different theological backgrounds, food is a touchpoint that seems to cross political lines.

If that’s not a religious concern then religion’s irrelevant.

“We’re talking about the health of creatures,” says Norman Wirzba. “What Monsanto and these big corporations are doing, that’s a complete sellout of any kind of moral or spiritual obligation for people claiming to be defenders of life…. They’re claiming to own life forms. They’re claiming to own seed—which is the very basis of life. That’s a desecration.”

The company’s Roundup-brand pesticide has been blamed for the disappearance of Monarch butterflies, of increasing the risk of certain cancers, and of creating pesticide-resistant “Superweeds” that choke out other Midwestern crops. But perhaps the most religiously-rooted concern, says Wirzba, lies in the lawsuits the company has filed against farmers who grow Monsanto seeds on their property without purchasing them–even if the seeds merely blow onto their fields by accident.

“We’ve got to a point where farmers cannot share seed, where they have to buy very expensive inputs just to create food,” he explains. “If that’s not a religious concern then religion’s irrelevant.” For religious types to invite the Earthalujah-hailing Talen, who describes Monsanto as “The Devil,” to preach outside the Capitol, might seem like a surprising move. But, Talen expects these alliances will only continue. “I think there’s an ecumenism because the situation right now is so urgent,” says Talen. “I think it’s all adding up to a sort of revelation we all share…. The theological differences fall away because of the state of the emergency.”

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Katie Toth

Katie Toth is a freelance reporter who has contributed to VICE, NPR, and the Village Voice. Follow her on Twitter.