A Rooted People: Church, Place, and Agriculture in an Urban World

September 29, 2010


by Chris Smith

[Ed. note: This article is part of our series of weekly reflections, called Deep Down Things, published on Wednesdays.]

Many of humanity’s problems stem from our tendency to live in such a way that we imagine ourselves—in the words of theologian Willie Jennings in his book The Christian Imagination, reviewed here—as “floating above land, landscape, animals, place and space.”

In the present age of globalization and hyper-mobility, we feel the effects of this displacement in particularly powerful ways. The places we live, or have lived, are rarely taken into account as we consider our identity and mission. And yet for us as followers of Christ, land and place play key roles in the biblical story, which both begins and ends in specific places—from the Garden of Eden to the city of the New Jerusalem. Willie Jennings has argued that reconciliation with place lies at the heart of our call to be ambassadors of Christ’s reconciliation. As we learn again to be communities of people rooted in a place, we begin to learn about reconciliation with humanity and creation by seeking the peace (from the Hebrew shalom, meaning health and well-being) of our neighbors and the fullness of the land that God has given us in this place.

I suppose that many people who read this piece will be familiar with Wendell Berry’s vision for what it means to be rooted in a rural place like Henry County, Kentucky, but in our increasingly urban world, what does it mean, for us who find ourselves called to urban and suburban places, to seek shalom with our neighbors and the land in places where the population is more dense and the landscape is largely of human origin? It seems there is a lot of good work for churches to do here in thinking in creative ways about redemptive practices of growing and distributing food, in particular. In fact, as I read Scripture, I discover that this question should be one of the primary ones around which the shared life of our church communities is based.

Thus, in about a month, on October 29-30, our church community (Englewood Christian Church on the near-eastside of Indianapolis) will be opening our doors and inviting you and others from all over the United States to join us for conversation and reflection on this question at a conference that we are calling “A Rooted People: Church, Place, and Agriculture in an Urban World.” We have invited a number of speakers whose experiences we believe will be beneficial for reflecting on this question. Fred Bahnson was not only one of the founders of likely the most prominent church-based community gardens in the U.S. (Anathoth Community Garden in Cedar Grove, N.C.), but he is also presently a Kellogg fellow whose work is focused on promoting sustainable agriculture to churches. Martin Price, the former director of Educational Concerns for Hunger Organization (ECHO), based in Ft. Meyers, Florida, has had rich experiences in helping urban communities around the globe find sustainable agricultural technologies that fit their particular contexts. Claudio Oliver, a pastor and community developer from Curitiba, Brazil, will share with us from his experiences in thinking and working with land, place and agriculture in an urban Brazilian context. Ragan Sutterfield, a farmer and writer from Little Rock, Arkansas, whose talks at our 2008 conference on church and agriculture were published as the book Farming as a Spiritual Discipline (Doulos Christou Press, 2009), will also be joining us and kicking the conference off with a brief refresher on the ideas that we discussed at our previous conference. Finally, we are delighted to announce that Sean Gladding, author of the brand new book The Story of God, The Story of Us (IVP Books, 2010), will be with us and doing some storytelling and other exercises that draw us into reflection upon the scriptural story in which we find ourselves and how that story of God’s redemption gets worked out in communities of God’s people. We are also excited to be able to serve five meals of delicious local food, which are included in the price of the conference and around which we hope conference participants will continue to share and discuss matters of church, place and sustenance.

We hope that you will be able to join us. But regardless of whether you will be able to be here or not, here are some relevant resources to get you thinking now about these questions that we hope to discuss here in late October:

  • Ragan’s Sutterfield’s Farming as a Spiritual Discipline
    (Good summary of much of what was discussed at our previous church/agriculture conference)
  • The Essential Agrarian Reader – Edited by Norman Wirzba
    (Best intro to agrarian thought, from which it is not difficult to draw theological parallels).
  • “The Beauty of Roots: On Being the People of God in a Particular Place”
    (An essay I wrote for that introduces four recent books I have found helpful in engaging our place.)

AS A SPECIAL INVITATION FOR FLOURISH READERS, WE WILL EXTEND OUR EARLY REGISTRATION RATES ($80 Regular, $65 Student) THROUGH FRIDAY, OCTOBER 22. In order to receive this discount, please mention FLOURISH in the “referred by” field our online registration form.  Of course, if you are planning to be here, the sooner you can register, the more helpful it will be to us in planning for our time together.

To learn more and register, visit www.englewoodcc.com/rooted

Chris Smith is a member of the Englewood Christian Church community in Indianapolis.  He is also an aspiring urban naturalist and editor of The Englewood Review of Books.

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