Food and faith lead to a new church gathering
By Kathryn Beilke | Presbyterians Today
One of my earliest memories of feeling fully spiritually alive beyond the church was in my mother’s kitchen. My family often entertained guests, and the time put into preparing meals was a gesture of hospitality and caregiving.
In my adult life, finding time to put that kind of care into cooking is rare, but the uninterrupted time I find while cooking has become my spiritual practice, especially as life becomes more digitized and we create much less with our hands.
Cooking has also been my foray into gardening. It has become my way to enrich food with love and care right from the start — from the seed.
Six years ago, when I was called to First Presbyterian Church in Hudson, New York, a church embedded in a rich agricultural landscape, I saw the opportunity to dig deeper — no pun intended — into growing my own ingredients and helping others do the same. We built 14 raised garden beds in the church yard and made them available to our community. My favorite gardener actually cooks his produce in front of the church at a falafel cart that he owns. People will often sit at a picnic table in the church yard, eating his delicious food. Even if we never see these visitors set foot inside the church, it’s a part of our ministry to enable people to take time to break bread with a friend and talk. I consider this sacred.
While the church is steeped in a wider rural context, the city of Hudson is quite urban. I have found that many of my congregants, whether lifelong residents of Hudson or transplants from New York City, have little to no experience in gardening. Two years ago, in an effort to better understand the agrarian worldview of the Bible’s first-century audience, First Presbyterian began a series of “Parable Field Trips.” These trips took us outside the walls of the church on Sunday mornings to cast nets into the Hudson River for fish or tend sheep at a local farm. We also pruned grapevines at a local vineyard, baked bread in a makeshift tannur — an ancient version of an outdoor clay oven — and planted wheat seeds in the church garden. All of this was done within the framework of worship and liturgy.
What our church discovered from these field trips is that people are hungry — not for bread alone, but spiritually hungry — and that sitting in pews is not always the best way to be fed. The field trips made me realize, too, that we can’t fully understand our covenant with God without understanding the land and how we are called to care for it.
This desire for more direct connection with the agricultural images of Scripture is what inspired a new community, which has come to be known as Earth Church. Earth Church meets seasonally at a local certified organic farm, outdoors under a covered pavilion.
We began our journey this past Ash Wednesday, with soil from the land mixed with the burnt palm ashes to mark the crosses on our foreheads. Earth Church has drawn interest from a cross section of “churched” and “unchurched” folks, all expressing the desire to be in harmony with creation.
In the years I have served First Presbyterian Church, I have found that the land provides us with Scripture lessons — if we only listen. So that’s what we do at Earth Church. We listen to the land, we draw parallels between our tradition (and others) and its care, and we seek a redeemed relationship with God.
Kathryn Beilke is the pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Hudson, New York. You can learn more about Earth Church at earthchurchhudsonvalley.org.
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