To grow and share food with others in a garden is to enter a holy country. As I’ve discovered in the course of my travels, American spirituality is discovering itself anew as people of faith reconnect with the land.
My own journey into this holy country began in divinity school, where I encountered the writings of Wendell Berry, Vandana Shiva, Wes Jackson, and other agrarians. It then led me to Chiapas, Mexico, where I saw the agrarian vision lived out among a group of Mayan coffee farmers. In 2005, I co-founded a community garden project for a small Methodist church, and over the next four years helped build that garden into a model teaching and learning center about the connections between food, faith, and health. That led to a Kellogg Food & Society fellowship (now called Food & Community) from 2009-2010, and with that generous gift I was able to begin my writing career. I am now the founding director of the Food, Faith, and Religious Leadership Initiative at Wake Forest University School of Divinity, where my journey continues.
I recount much of this story in my new book Soil and Sacrament: A Spiritual Memoir of Food and Faith, a work of literary nonfiction, due out August 6th with Simon & Schuster. In alternating chapters, I recount the story of my own faith-infused agrarian journey while also telling stories of others who’ve devoted their lives to the care of soil and the cultivation of the spirit.
Over the course of a year I spent time at four different faith communities, one for each season, who embodied the multilayered connections between spiritual and physical nourishment. From Trappist monks who pursue a life of contemplation while harvesting mushrooms to a Jewish organic farm in the Berkshires, my book tells the hopeful story of a new food and faith movement taking root across the land.
Beginning in August and continuing through the Fall, I’ll be traveling around the country speaking at universities, book fairs, divinity schools, churches, and conferences. I’ve spent years crafting this book, and I have high hopes that it will reach a wide audience. I look back fondly on my two year Kellogg fellowship, which both gave me time to research this book and to meet others doing similar work.
Though I miss the days of feeding people at a community garden, I now I feed them stories, and the stories I tell in this book are perhaps my most prized crop. In an age of data-overload, we’re not short on good information. We are short on compelling stories, especially stories that help us face our current challenges. “Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive,” wrote Barry Lopez. If my book can fill that need, it will have been worth writing.