Tending the Flock: Soil, Soul, and the Ministry of HOPE CSA

May 2, 2011


By Zachary Hawkins

Flourish magazine, Spring 2011

Pastors in the Pasture
The day begins, like every day on the farm, with morning chores.  My father—farmer, minister—emerges from the old brick farmhouse wearing soil-stained work boots, faded denim jeans, and a blue work shirt. His name is Jeff Hawkins. Today he forgoes his usual feed cap and has instead taken a quick shower and run a comb through his hair, for there is company coming. He passes beneath a murmuration of starlings gathered in a pair of cottonwood trees and sets about his work.

The April morning is overcast. As the sun climbs behind the clouds, a car ambles down the gravel lane and parks in the barn lot. Out steps a pastor. He is dressed not in a clerical shirt but in work clothes like my dad. Soon another clergy member arrives, and then another. One by one, they find my father and join in the morning chores.

Thus begins a meeting of HOPE CSA, which stands for Hands-On Pastoral Education using Clergy Sustaining Agriculture, a ministry of continuing education and vocational renewal for clergy and other leaders of the church. At present, my dad has three groups of participants that meet once a month to spend a day on our small family farm in Wabash County, Indiana.

When describing the ministry, my father often points out that the word pastor is rooted in the Latin term for shepherd. Indeed, the Latin pascere is translated literally as one who puts to pasture. Perhaps the

When my father was serving as a parish minister, he realized that his “organic” approach on the farm was shaping his work in the church. Whether he was tending his flocks in the country or his flock in town, his ultimate hope was soteria: their health.

members of HOPE CSA keep this in mind as they walk to feed a brood of week-old chicks and turkeys housed in a portable hoop house out in a hayfield. The group follows my father through new growth of clover, alfalfa, and perennial grasses, the pale morning light collecting in beads on the dew-dropped leaves.

My family moved to North Manchester, Indiana in 1987 when my dad accepted a call to serve as pastor at the town’s Lutheran church, the congregation to which my great-grandparents once belonged. After a brief stint living within the town limits, we followed in my great-grandparents’ footsteps even further by moving to the 99-acre farm they had purchased 30 years before. It was something of a homecoming for my father. As a child he cherished trips to the farm; as an adult he amassed a collection of books about agriculture while tending a dream of one day making a home in the country.

Not long after we settled in the hundred-year-old farmhouse, my dad started dabbling in the sandy loam soil. One of his first experiments was to plant a few acres of soybeans. He began by asking a neighbor to spread composted chicken manure over a plot of land in order to fertilize it. Then he tilled the ground and drilled seeds in rows spaced evenly, seven inches apart. He prayed for rain, watched the field closely, and rejoiced when the seeds germinated and reached up through the soil. It did not take long, however, to notice that something was awry. Yes, there were seedlings lining the neat rows my dad had made. But there were plants springing up between the rows, too.  In fact, there were green sprouts everywhere. Chicken manure compost, my father learned, is full of weed seeds.

It was too late and too costly to plow it up and start over. My dad knew he’d have to let the soybeans grow alongside the weeds, hoping he’d be able to sort out the crop at harvest. As he stood at the edge of the plot, surveying the sea of green growth, he thought of Jesus’ parable of the weeds and the wheat. He chose it for the sermon text the following Sunday.

So it was during my dad’s 16-year tenure at the parish in town. He moved between the pasture and the pulpit, telling stories from the farm and stories from the Bible. But as he did this, he began to realize that his experiences on the farm were providing him with more than good illustrations for his sermons. He was learning that life on a small family farm and life in a small, family-like congregation are not so different.

Holy Health
Once the chores are finished, the HOPE CSA group heads inside for coffee, pieces of my mom’s homemade butterscotch cake, and a brief Bible study. Then it’s back to work. Today, they are building a temporary fence around a piece of pasture to house a drove of pigs.

Pre-dawn rain has made the ground soft for pounding fence posts. The farm’s herd of Jersey cattle gathers nearby to watch the pastors mark a perimeter with string and unroll the wire fencing. The task gives my dad a chance to describe the behavior of pigs, emphasizing their natural desire to root in the ground.

“One reason that we have the pigs outside, instead of in confinement,” he says, “is they get to be pigs.” He cites the book Animals Make Us Human by Temple Grandin, one of this year’s texts for HOPE CSA. In the book, Grandin identifies four “blue ribbon emotions” experienced by both animals and people: seeking, rage, fear, and panic.

“In a confined area, the pigs have to conform their behaviors to the structure we’ve set up,” my dad continues. “They can’t root; they can’t seek. One benchmark for their health is they get to be what they are, and rooting is part of that.”

The parcel of pasture to be fenced is full of weeds. Over the course of the summer, the pigs will use their shovel-like noses to root the entire area, tearing up the unwanted growth and turning over the soil. Then my dad will spread hay over the ground and turn in the cattle. As the herd eats the hay they will tromp the soil, leveling out the ground. The cattle will also stamp in the grass seed that falls from the hay, reseeding the pasture.

“Farmers used to put rings in the noses of hogs so they wouldn’t root because it tears up the ground,” explains my dad. “So what we do is we put them in an environment where we want them to tear it up.”

While the pigs root in the soil, my dad digs at the roots of words. He has long pondered how the word health comes from the same root as hale, whole, wholesome, hallow, and holy. He looks to the New Testament, where the Greek word soteria is translated as health—and salvation.

When my father was serving as a parish minister, he realized that his “organic” approach on the farm was shaping

Life on a small family farm and life in a small, family-like congregation are not so different.

his work in the church. Whether he was tending his flocks in the country or his flock in town, his ultimate hope was soteria: their health. On the farm, this meant working within natural systems to produce food, rather than relying on outside inputs like growth hormones and chemical pesticides. In the church, it meant working to nurture the qualitative aspects of his ministry—maturity in faith, resilience in life, and balance in relationships—rather than the quantitative matters of producing more dollars for the budget, more members for the pews, more programs for the ministry, and more square feet for the building.

In discussion, the HOPE CSA group explores the relationship between their work in the pasture with their work in the church.

“Our power is providing contexts,” says my dad, drawing the connection. “In the pasture, we are setting up a context so that certain behaviors can be expressed in the animals.”

The group considers: How do we stimulate the “blue ribbon emotion” of seeking in our congregations, inhibiting negative emotions like fear and panic? As leaders, how do we create contexts where healthy behaviors can be expressed?

Living Oiko-logically
When contemplating health, the HOPE CSA groups often return to the image of a household: an ordered system of relationships in place.

“A human household is a system of relationships under one roof. But that’s not all,” says my dad.  “A household of human households we may call a neighborhood. A household of neighborhoods we may call a town. These, together with non-human households—the flocks of birds, the herds of deer, the community of plants in a pasture—make up the household we know as a bioregion.”

This notion of households-within-households describes an ecological view of the world. Again, my dad has dug to the root of the word: “eco” comes from the Greek word oikos, which means household. Therefore, to live eco-logically is to live by the logic of the household.

“This is why Paul’s analogy makes clear sense to us,” he says. “When Paul speaks of a body with many parts, he is identifying a household of members—eyes, ears, hands, and feet on one level, individuals in community on another level.”

This way of thinking resonates with many of the church leaders who come to the farm. Kurt Borgmann is a former member of HOPE CSA and pastor of the Manchester Church of the Brethren in North Manchester, Indiana. As he became familiar with the natural systems of the farm, he was surprised to see “how much the oikos of the farm is mirrored in the household of the church.” He continues, “Now I see both more in the image of something organic rather than mechanical.”

Fred Meuter, pastor of St. John Lutheran Church in Fort Wayne, Indiana, echoes this sentiment when he says, “[HOPE CSA] helps pastors to see that their congregations are living organic systems that need to be thoughtfully cared for. Through the program pastors learn to apply good farming stewardship to their congregations.”

It’s time for lunch. On the way in, the group stops to pick spring greens from the farm’s high tunnel. They give them to Katie Van—friend of the family, local food advocate, and a maven in the kitchen—who tosses them with heirloom tomatoes, locally produced goat cheese, and a homemade fig-orange vinaigrette. She also serves up baked macaroni and cheese with sundried tomato cream sauce, smoked turkey, and bacon bread crumbs (all the meat was raised on the farm). For dessert, chocolate-cinnamon bread pudding with freshly whipped cream.

For many HOPE CSA participants, the noon meal is a highlight. Not only is the food delicious, but many people note how the experience of eating changes when you’ve helped to produce the food yourself. Pastor Phyllis Smoot was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois. However, for the past two-and-a-half years she has served a two-point parish in rural Indiana. Her monthly visits to the farm have changed the way she looks at food.

Remembering the first time she worked with the chickens, she says, “Pretty much, I freaked out.  The chickens were pecking at my feet!”

Then she ate eggs from the farm.

“When I used the eggs for the first time, I said, ‘I really cannot go back to store-bought eggs.’  It just changed everything.”

The group takes time to enjoy the food. My sister and brother-in-law join them around the table, and Katie has brought along her four young children, making the meal feel akin to a family holiday gathering.

As the last bites of bread pudding are savored and the conversation quiets, the pastors leave the table to spend time in personal meditation. Some find a comfortable chair in the house; others take a walk around the farm. Then the group convenes for the final piece of the day, an afternoon course of study. In addition to the Grandin book, they are discussing Wendell Berry’s essay, “Money Versus Goods,” and a chapter from The Abundant Community by John McKnight and Peter Block.

“The texts in some way seem so far afield of my life in pastoral ministry,” says one of today’s participants, Pastor

“Eco” comes from the Greek word oikos, which means household. Therefore, to live eco-logically is to live by the logic of the household.

Jerry O’Neal of Calvary Lutheran Church in Bluffton, Indiana. “Yet it’s maybe precisely because they are so far from a different place that it sparks insights that I wouldn’t have thought of otherwise. That I find useful.”

He continues, “Last month we somehow got on to the following Sunday’s lectionary and within five minutes I had more useful ideas for my sermon than I did in hours of study. Coming out of a more reflected pace, things can come to you differently.”

The sky is still overcast, but occasionally the sun streams through a break in the clouds. The day has grown noticeably warmer. Signs of spring are everywhere: birdsong, blossoms, baby chicks.  My dad sends the participants on their way with freshly picked spinach and the eggs they helped to gather. They return to their home congregations to prepare for Holy Week—to shepherd their flocks into the Easter season. My father waves as they depart and turns his thoughts to the evening chores.

Zachary Hawkins's head shot.Zachary Hawkins grew up on a small farm in Wabash County, Indiana. His writing has appeared in The Wapsipincon Almanac and Edible Twin Cities and is forthcoming in Flyway: Journal of Writing and Environment. He makes music as one-half of the indie folk duo Jayber Crow, and currently lives with his wife in central Pennsylvania.

For more information about HOPE CSA, visit www.hopecsa.org.

At right, Pastor Martin Gehring of Risen Savior Lutheran Church in Fort Wayne, Indiana, holds a chicken at HOPE CSA. Image courtesy Zacharay Hawkins.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Lauren Bradley May 3, 2011 at 7:20 am

Zach, this is beautiful. I was able to be at the farm for just a few minutes last week at the begining of a HOPE CSA day. The pastors were teaching the new chicks how to drink, and I was just as thrilled as Simon and Oli when they asked if we wanted to give it a try. I left the farm envious that I wasn’t staying for the day, and so grateful to your father and other farmers like him, who devote their life to the health of those they serve. Katie brought me some Hawkins chicken and beef on her last visit to Virginia and I think of the Hawkins and the beautiful farm and farmers who raised it while cooking and while enjoying the meal. I will have my first day working at my local CSA this week and I couldn’t be more excited. Thank you for sharing, Zach!

Sara Sample June 2, 2011 at 5:21 pm

A girlfriend and I were wandering down memory road today when the name “Hawkins” came up. It was wonderful to find you all doing amazing things still almost 15 years after we worked with your family at Outlaw Ranch! Glad to see that some things don’t change!

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