The intersection of food and faith

Aug. 21, 2013 @ 02:53 PM

In “Soil and Sacrament: A Spiritual Memoir of Food and Faith,” Fred Bahnson writes about his experience running the Anathoth Community Garden in Orange County as well as time spent seeing how others bring together spiritual and agrarian sustenance.

On a Kellogg Food & Community fellowship, Bahnson went to see Catholic monks grow mushrooms in South Carolina, Pentecostals brew coffee in Washington state, Jews farm organically in Connecticut, and, in his home state, Protestants work a garden called the Lord’s Acre.
“There were so many amazing projects I wanted to visit. This food and faith movement is all over,” Bahnson said in a phone interview this week. He left Orange County in 2009 and now lives in Brevard. He is director of the Food, Faith and Religious Leadership Initiative at Wake Forest University School of Divinity. Bahnson and his wife Elizabeth are both graduates of Duke Divinity School and have three young sons. They have what he described as a permaculture mini-farm, with year-round vegetables and a wide variety of fruits. “Soil and Sacrament” was published this month by Simon & Schuster.
For the monks Bahnson visited, the food and faith movement is an old one.
“They’re really the oldest Christian agrarian tradition in the world,” he said. Bahnson was attracted to their way of live that included ties to the land and rigorous prayer, so he began with them. He spent a week in each community, and longer at the Lord’s Acre in Western North Carolina because he lived nearby and his wife’s great-grandfather started the community garden in the 1930s and it lasted until 1959, then was revived in 2008 by Fairview residents.
In “Soil and Sacrament,” Bahnson wrote of its revival: “Like Anathoth, it was a garden started by a church, in this case several churches, with a mission of feeding the hungry; it had grown quickly from the seed of an idea to a full-blown community gathering place that produced enormous amounts of food; and it made room for all people of all beliefs or no belief, offering them a place to thrive.”
Bahnson originally thought his memoir would be just about his four years at the helm of Anathoth Community Garden, which was started by Cedar Grove United Methodist Church, and why a divinity graduate would go to work in a garden. But he needed to tell more about the food and faith movement, and the people involved.
“To me, the book is in a way about gardening, and in a way a metaphor to a lot of interrelated stories,” he said. In the chapter about the Pentecostals in Washington, a coffee roaster is a former crystal methamphetamine cook. The coffee project is part of a ministry to “repair the soil of people’s lives.”
Bahnson didn’t want to write another how-to book on community gardening, he said, but to share stories of lives, including his own.
The idea of a church starting a community garden sounds really quaint and folksy, Bahnson said. He prefers the phrase communal food garden, with all people working the land in common rather than having individual plots. Combining food and faith also means inviting outsiders into the garden, and not putting up any fencing. If someone takes from the garden, let them, is one of the lessons Bahnson shares in “Soil and Sacrament.”
“There are plenty of times we work with people we don’t want to, and in that way it’s like church. … That’s the challenge and beauty,” Bahnson said.
He wants the stories he shares to convey a “sacramental view of the world that’s missing in Christian churches. I think we have a reductionistic view of Christian faith as between me and Jesus.” God is part of the food we grow and share, Bahnson said, and it’s not just a vertical relationship, but sharing with others.
Bahnson himself is an introvert, and not currently part of any communal food growing project. He’s drawn to the vision of community, but finds it challenging, and writes about that in his book.
In September, Bahnson will visit Anathoth Garden again, now being run by a former intern, and teach a workshop at “Summoned Toward Wholeness: A Conference on Food, Farming and the Life of Faith” at Duke University. For a full list of Bahnson’s upcoming events, visit


WHAT: Fred Bahnson reading from “Soil and Sacrament: A Spiritual Memoir of Food and Faith”

WHEN: 7 p.m. tonight [Thursday]

WHERE: Flyleaf Books, 752 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., Chapel Hill