Farminaries and Ecoseminaries

By Kendall Vanderslice, originally published at Christianity Today.

For Tapiwa Mucherera, professor of pastoral counseling at Asbury Theological Seminary, care for creation has always been integral to faith. Growing up in Zimbabwe, Mucherera learned from his aunt the Shona African practices passed down from generation to generation. “When we properly plant crops in their season, we do it according to what God intended in nurturing the earth,” he says. As a child, Mucherera observed that certain years some fields remain fallow. His aunt explained that it was to “give the land a breather and rejuvenate it.”

Once in high school, Mucherera learned the Genesis story of creation. His pastor taught him that “humans are not to dominate the earth, but to use it in such a way that it will continue to reproduce life—food, oxygen, plants, and minerals.” The call for humans to care for the earth exists from the very beginning of the gospel story—as do the consequences of ignoring God’s initial command. “If the earth suffers, all of creation will suffer,” says Mucherera.

Asbury’s commitment to creation care and food production is central to its Kentucky and Florida campuses. A community garden at the Kentucky site is a gathering place for seminary students and their families as well as local residents. Explaining their decision to attend Asbury, one student said, “I want to come to the kind of community that would plant a garden.”

“The original vision for the garden was that it might be a kind of ecoseminary,” says Marilyn Elliott, Asbury’s vice president of community formation, a place that could “bridge racial divides, teach children about nutrition, provide organic food cheaply or free for students,” as well as create a safe and restful place for the whole community.

Three years after its opening, the garden has done all that and more. Incorporating conversations around creation care into Old Testament, theology, and leadership coursework, Asbury creates a strong theological framework for the action that takes place in the field. In addition to providing food and a gathering space for students, the garden provided the seedbed for Asbury’s Small Business Incubator, a program thriving on both the Kentucky and Florida campuses.

By offering students stipends to start small food businesses, Asbury’s Office of Faith, Work, and Economics (OFWE) aspires to simultaneously teach creation care and “a theology of work that sees the business of gardening and farming as blessed work,” says Mucherera. “We want students to appreciate and understand that gardening and farming is ‘kingdom work’ and can actually benefit our ministries.” Looking to the apostle Paul’s life as a tentmaker, the OFWE encourages students to use food to build community and support their ministry. If churches have the resources to produce their own food, they are well-equipped to support themselves, to care for their members, and to steward the land they own.

This same commitment to faithful stewardship is at the root of Methodist Theological Seminary’s community farm initiative. In his course on place-based education, Tim VanMeter, associate professor of Christian education, leads his class on a walk around campus to ask how they might be more responsible in their land use. “How do we live as full creatures created to be in relationship with all that surrounds us?” he asks. “How do we live in relationship to our place that supports the thriving of all life?”

As ecological challenges like shifts in soil and water quality bring despair to many rural communities, VanMeter fears that it is primarily pastors and denominational leaders who fail to see the Christian call to respond: “As people of faith, our call is to seek thriving for all that God has created and loves.”

Through the seminary farm and coursework in ecotheology, VanMeter hopes to see “rural, urban, and suburban churches rethink what their land can be when thought of as places for constructing abundance.”

As a result of the school’s community farm, VanMeter has observed students increasing pride in and celebration of their food service program. “We are more deeply aware of how we sit on our land and how deeply we are rooted in this region of the country. We have a grounding that allows us to pursue justice more rigorously.”

Practicing Hospitality

Through teaching courses at the Farminary, Stucky has discovered additional benefits to including creation care into coursework. Farminary courses are taught in six-hour blocks, including a lecture, a small-group discussion, time in the garden, and a potluck meal. The courses are steeped in the practice of hospitality toward one another and the earth.

“In the center of my being,” says Stucky, “I’m convinced that the quality of education is utterly inseparable from the shared meals and time in the garden.” While the meal does not necessarily connect with the content of the course, “it has everything to do with the role of teacher, learner, and the ways students engage with the material.”

One popular course Stucky teaches is Ecologies of Faith Formation. Studying the ecosystem of the farm as an example, the class questions what kind of ecosystem helps faith to grow. Through studying intricacies of a pile of compost, Pearl Quick, a second-year master of divinity student, has learned the importance of “letting things die inside of us so new roots can take hold.”

Clearly the overlap is not simply metaphorical; as students see their own lives formed by the soil in their hands, they discover the beauty of Christianity as a tactile faith. “To dig in the soil, to see the successes and failures of small-scale farming, to understand the cycle of life, death, and resurrection,” says Chu, “has given my theological education a depth and angle that I did not expect when I enrolled at seminary, and I couldn’t be more thankful.”

More than 100 students have taken farminary courses at Princeton, and a dozen faculty are involved in teaching courses on site. The school is preparing to launch a certificate in theology, ecology, and faith formation for students taking 12 credits of food-based classes, including coursework in biblical studies, history, and practical theology.

Every fall, the farminary also hosts the Just Food conference, bringing together pastors, lay leaders, students, and young scholars to discuss the intersection of faith and food justice. It is a time for support, collaboration, and creative inspiration for faith practitioners, whether preparing for ministry or decades into a pastoral career.

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, and is partially reproduced here without the permission of the author, who is not affiliated with this website or its views.

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