Come Join the Conversation!

Each year, Wake Forest University School of Divinity’s Food, Health, and Ecological Well-being Program hosts a Summer Institute on food, faith, and ecology in western North Carolina. Here, on holy ground, faith leaders gather for four days to participate in God’s active renewal of the face of the earth and explore ways they are called to join God in that good work.
This year it will be held from June 11th-15th in Asheville, NC. I have the honor of being part of the gathering and invite you to join us as well!
https://divinity.wfu.edu/continuing-education-and-programs/food-health-ecological-well-being/education/summer-intensive/2018-gathering/

Food Justice, Faith, and the Ecological Imagination

Each year, Wake Forest University School of Divinity’s Food, Health, and Ecological Well-being Program hosts a Summer Institute on food, faith, and ecology in western North Carolina. Here, on holy ground, faith leaders gather for four days to participate in God’s active renewal of the face of the earth and explore ways they are called to join God in that good work.
This year it will be held from June 11th-15th in Asheville, NC.  I have the honor of being part of the gathering and invite you to join us as well!

I’m going to the Summer Institute because I believe God is at work bringing together people and conversations that are rising out of our collective hunger for a world that is nurturing and whole.

I have had the gift of being at a number of gatherings and events convened by the Food, Health, and Ecological Wellbeing program at Wake Div and every time, this is what I’ve found:

  • A diverse group of voices from various backgrounds, faith perspectives, areas of expertise, and ways of life.
  • Conversations curated with wisdom, curiosity, respect
  • powerful opportunities for participants to hear, speak, listen, and change.
  • A group of people who care: about the past, present, and future, about the church, about the planet, about the dignity and care of all people, and about the wellbeing of the interconnected web in which we all live.

I, like many of you, find myself walking between worlds. I walk in the world of church, where questions of “what does it mean to be church in this generation?” and “how do we respond to the changes in the world around us?” and “what does church have to do with food and farming and the environment?” are in the air. I also walk in the world of my peers, urban farmers, people striving to figure out how to be more environmentally sustainable, people fighting for a more just and generous world, and many who have left church and faith altogether because they feel that it’s become irrelevant to the deep needs of the “real world.”

At gatherings like the Summer Institute, I find others who are walking between these two worlds, and a multitude of others. And together we find words and images, connections, and distinctions that leave all of us more whole and informed and able to nurture our communities.

This February I had the honor, along with Rev. Dr. Heber Brown, of being a Practitioner in Residence at Wake Forest University Divinity. One of the things we did in our time there was to teach a course called Enlivening the Church, Repairing the World: Religious Leadership, Food Justice, and Entrepreneurial Ministry

As we worked with the students, we found a beautiful weaving together of our two stories. Dr. Brown shared about the Black Church Food Security Network and the work he is doing in Baltimore to mobilize farmers and churches, side-yard gardens, and youth camps in the church. This work has had radical implications for Christian leadership as it intersects with urban food sovereignty. His stories blended with mine as I shared about the work of founding a church literally as, and in, an urban garden in the streets of Los Angeles. I talked about how the liturgy—“the work of the people”—held and leads to communal transformation as people are not only reconnecting to the earth and their food, but also to each other and to God.

We are looking forward to expanding these conversations with the community at the Summer Institute in June, and exploring how each of your stories and areas of expertise weave together and answer questions such as: How does a renewed attunement to ecology and to food justice movements reframe ministry leadership? In this time of social upheaval and ecological crisis, what does it mean to be the church? And how can religious leaders help others join in God’s restorative work in the world?

These are some of the questions that drive me to continue to get up each morning and work in the corners of the earth where I am. And these are the questions that bring me hope when I see others gathering around to explore and act on them together.

More from Wake Forest about the gathering:

How does a renewed attunement to food justice movements reframe ministry leadership? In this time of social upheaval and ecological crisis, what does it mean to be the church? And how can religious leaders help others join in God’s restorative work in the world?

Each year, Wake Forest University School of Divinity’s Food, Health, and Ecological Well-being Program hosts a Summer Institute on food, faith, and ecology in western North Carolina. Here, on holy ground, faith leaders gather for four days to participate in God’s active renewal of the face of the earth and explore ways they are called to join God in that good work.

We live in an age when we can no longer ignore the ecological contexts in which all our personal and social actions play out. This age calls for the church to embrace the marriage of our religious and ecological imaginations. With this renewing of our minds, we are called to the hopeful and joyful and difficult work of food justice and social equity, so that all may experience God’s abundance.

The annual Summer Institute offers knowledge, tools, and practices that can help us all “seek the peace” of the places in which we dwell. Through workshops, lectures, shared meals, small group conversations–even wild foraging and bread baking–we will explore these questions and more. This year participants will be joined by our 2018 cohort of Re:Generate Fellows, making this an intergenerational learning experience for all.

We invite you to join us.

From June 11 – 15 we will gather on the lovely campus of Warren Wilson College in Swannanoa, NC, just ten minutes from downtown Asheville. For lodging, participants can either choose their own lodging nearby [select the “Commuter Rate”] or you can choose to stay on campus in the EcoDorm, in either a shared or single dorm room.

 

Earth Day as High-Holy Day


For the past few years, I held Earth Day as a holiday—a high-holy day. While pastoring the Garden Church, we raised Earth Day up in our church calendar and took it on as our own. It made sense, seeing that we were a church in what had been a barren lot in the middle of Los Angeles and was now an urban farm. Our mission: to reconnect people with each other, God, their food and, wait for it, the earth. It is no surprise that Earth Day was a big deal for us.

On Earth Day we’d do it up big. It would start with the Expo that filled up our lot with beekeepers and environmental activists and samples from the raw foods restaurant and everyone’s favorite: chickens to hold. This led into an interfaith worship service where we invited our Muslim, Sikh, Jewish, Baha’i, Unitarian Universalist, and various Christian neighbors to share from their traditions as we looked to the earth, to our faith, and to the earth again. After worship, we’d gather around the big picnic tables and share food from our various backgrounds and cultures and gardens and share in community together.

I know that we weren’t ending global climate change or coal plants with these gatherings, but I felt clear we were doing something. And we were doing it throughout the year too. When we paused to celebrate Earth Day, it was in keeping with the work we were doing the other 364 days of the year, the education, the growing of food, the composting of waste, the daily nurture and care of this little plot of land in our care.

This Earth Day I woke up a little out of sorts. As I saw the posts from my former church encouraging people to attend Earth Day at the Garden Church, I felt acutely the 3,000 miles between us and that I was no longer the pastor there. My husband and I got up and went to the lovely church we’ve been attending in New York. There was a table set up after worship and a few mentions of Earth Day in the program. We left right after the service and headed out to take a hike in the Adirondacks.

It was beautiful. What an appropriate way to celebrate Earth Day, right? Out enjoying Mother Nature?

Yet a part of me still felt agitated. Am I really doing my part to curb this environmental free-fall we’re in right now? Should I be enjoying this pristine mountain trail when the chances of it still being here for our great-great-grandchildren look bleak?

As I stopped to catch my breath in the crisp mountain air I thought about how most of the people on the planet are breathing polluted air. As I climbed over a stretch of boulders in the midst of the last of the snowpack, I kept seeing that haunting image of the bedraggled polar bear with skin and fur hanging on its malnourished body as it struggled for survival with its ecosystem melting around it.

And I knew, as you do, that just lamenting it all isn’t going to change it.

I do what I can, I think. As we move from apartment to apartment, with no soil to grow our food in and not enough time to root for change in the local community. We drive our gas-efficient car and walk as much as we can, use energy-saving light bulbs and turn off the overheads. And then I get on another airplane for work and we use another plastic garbage bag. And I feel caught in the insidious cycle of it all.

Maybe it’s why I am now verging on compulsive about composting wherever we are. Even risking marital peace when my spouse becomes annoyed at the freezer full of bags of food scraps that are waiting for me to take them to our friend’s farm or to the neighbor’s worm bin down the street.

“It’s one of the few things I feel like a can do for our grandchildren,” I tell my husband when he, understandably, grumbles while trying to find the ice cream.

I keep paying attention to the despair, to the beautiful warm sun on my feet, to the banana peels and slimy spinach. Earth Day is indeed a high-holy day, one that, wherever I am, I want to honor all year long.

End of Year Letter 2017

Dear Friends,

As the days grow darker and Advent approaches, I find myself pondering the light and the dark, that which grows quietly under the soil and that which springs forth, that which gestates in a cozy womb, and that which is born. As we are anticipating the celebration of the birth of Christ, I am reflecting back on the process of birthing a church and how each one of you has been integral to that journey. You have come alongside the Garden Church at various stops along the way, and have helped us to become the beautiful and alive place that we are today. Four years ago this was just an idea, a wondering, a hope, and now each week we welcome all sorts of people from all walks of life through our gates to be fed and to feed together.

A couple of Sundays ago I was making the rounds around the dinner tables at our weekly community meal—saying hello, meeting new people, commenting on the delicious nature of the polenta that Linda had made—and I met Victoria. Victoria had come in with a friend during worship earlier and had sat intently throughout the sermon and prayers and singing. When I had shared communion with her, she looked deeply into my eyes and I watched tears form as I leaned in and said, “Beloved child of God, the bread of life, given for you.” When I introduced myself and learned her name over dinner, she looked up again and said, “I knew I was hungry, really hungry. Hungry for this…” as she pointed down at her plate loaded with food, “but what I didn’t know was that I was hungry for more. Thank you for worship Pastor, I didn’t know how much I needed to know that I was loved.”

Stories like this happen most every time we open the gates of our urban farm and outdoor sanctuary. Our motto, and the name of our newly formed non-profit, Feed and Be Fed, comes to life as people work and worship and eat together, as people see God’s light in each other’s faces, as people cultivate more peace and justice and goodness together. People are hungry and people want to feed each other. We are honored to continue to provide an opportunity for all to do both.

As my time on the pastoral staff is coming to a close, I want to personally thank you for believing in and supporting this vision in these early years. There were certainly times when I wondered and doubted along the way. Your prayers, your generosity, and your participation never waivered to keep us believing and moving forward. It is a great privilege now to invite you to continue your support of this growing and serving community under its next generation of leadership. I can think of no team I would rather hand the baton to than Rev. Jonathan, Rev. Amanda, and Rev. Asher. And I have every confidence that they, with this beautiful and vibrant congregation, will continue to feed in body, mind, and spirit.

As you consider both your end-of-year giving and look forward to your 2018 giving, we would be honored and grateful if you would continue to join us in cultivating a more just and generous world through this little plot of earth.

May the grace, the peace, and the love of God be with you all,

Rev. Anna Woofenden and the Garden Church team

Give at www.gardenchurchsp.org/donate

“Making Friends”


June 18th 2017
Rev. Anna Woofenden
The Garden Church
Scripture: Genesis 18:1-15, Matthew 9:9-13

Listen to the audio

I have a good friend Athena, who can make friends anywhere, and usually does. My first memory of her was from the first day of college, freshman year at our dorm orientation. I had traveled all the way across the country from northwest Washington, to Philadelphia, knowing only a few people and starting off by myself in this new adventure. My roommate and I, both on the shy and reserved side, were literally sitting in a corner, watching everything going on around us, when this beautiful tall young woman in overalls bounded over and said, “Hi! I’m Athena, what’s your name?!”

That was the beginning of a life-long friendship Athena, and I’ve had the privilege of watching how she makes friends and connections, literally around the world. And I’ve learned a lot from her approach to other people and to life. Her passions and work continue to take her around the world, and I’ve watched how she’s able to serve in various cultures—not as an outside colonizing force, but because she goes into the community and makes friends first. She gets to know the people and the needs and the strengths. She asks about the family and the stories and the history. She connects and gives of herself and receives what they offer. And she sees each person as a potential friend. I’ve seen this skill get us out of dicey situations, such as a late-night machine-gun armed checkpoint late at night in Conakry, Guinea. I’ve seen it introduce me to community I wouldn’t have known otherwise, like the retired Catholic women in Longmont, Colorado who she went and did centering prayer with. This talent has helped Athena get to know the withered hard-core conservative owner of the eclectic corner store down the road from her farm. She has taught me over and over, to approach people as potential friends, to look for the humanity in all kinds of people, and to see the joy, connection, and even self-preservation, that come from approaching the world with a wise and open heart.

I thought of Athena when I read this story of Abraham this week. This story of how Abraham leaps out of his sleepy afternoon nap to greet these unknown guests and give them a welcome, and then learns he was greeting “the Lord.”

Retrospect is everything isn’t it? We read this ancient story of Abraham, with the frame, with the context. The scene starts off with these words, “The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Marme, as he sat by his tent in the heat of the day.” The text we read says, “the Lord appeared,” and then that, “He, Abraham, looked up and saw three men standing near him, and he ran from his tent entrance, to meet them and bowed to the ground.”

Well, to us, reading this story now, that seems to make sense—right?—because we were just told that the Lord was going to visit Abraham and then three men show up. And maybe that’s a little odd, but then Abraham confirms to us that it must be something special like the Lord, because he ran out and greeted them and bowed to them.

But context is everything, isn’t it? I’d like to posit, to imagine, how this story might have gone down in real-time with Abraham.

Abraham was sitting at the entrance of his tent, the scorching afternoon heat was intense and he was taking a much-needed break in the shade. He was just dozing off when he saw figures in the distance, three of them. Visitors were not necessarily very common out in the desert by the oaks of Marme, and it could have as easily been lost travelers, conniving bandits, friends, or foes. Of course we don’t know what went through Abraham’s head, but I am imagining myself in that situation and it seems to me that he demonstrated a philosophy that he had chosen, over and over again to respond to visitors, and that he immediately put it into action in this story. It reminds me of Athena, making friends wherever she goes. It doesn’t say Abraham ran into his house and hid, or sent a servant out to check them out, or lazily sat and waited for them to approach him. No, he ran out to them, greeted them, bowed down. He treated these unknown people who approached him as honored guests, as welcomed friends, as the Lord, in whom it appears they were.

We’re entering a time in our liturgical calendar called “Ordinary Time.” We’ve been in the season of event after event, from Advent, to Lent, Holy Week and Easter, through Pentecost. Here at the Garden Church, we’ve added in Earth Day expos and two-year birthdays with Membership Sundays. I admit, there’s a part of me that thrives on that—the adrenaline, the hustle, the coming together, and the community that’s built when we all pitch in. This is a gift for a season. But today as we enter into it, I give thanks for ordinary time, because leaning into that right now, friends, is exactly what I believe we need.

Author and wise teacher Sister Joan Chittister wrote this about ordinary time: She says, “It’s what we do routinely, not what we do rarely, that delineates the character of a person. It is what we believe in the heart of us that determines what we do daily. It is what we bring to the nourishment of the soul that predicts the kind of soul we nurture. It’s what we do ordinarily, day by day, that gives an imitation of what we will do under stress. It is our daily actions—the way we act ordinarily, not rarely—that defines us as either kind, or angry, or faithful, or constant. No doubt about it: the daily, the normal, the regular, the common is what gives clarity to the essence of the real self.”

It’s in the ordinary time, that we focus on establishing these patterns, these practices, these ways of life that help us to respond to, and approach the world from a place of faith, of God, of love.

As we go out from communion here at the Garden Church, we pray these words, “Seeing the face of God in all we meet and engaging your love in all we do.” We pray those words after coming around this table, with people who we might otherwise have not sat with, shared with, prayed with, or eaten with. Each week, one of my favorite parts of being in this community is the honor of walking around this circle and looking into each of your eyes. Without this time, I might not have the honor of seeing that Divine Light shining out of faces, looking at the deep tanned lines or crumbling teeth, or looking deeply at the face that is usually up on stage or testifying at city council. When we gather around this table, when we greet each other in this space, I feel the truth of that thing that Abraham does, that thing that my friend does, when we approach the world with belief that the people we meet have the potential to be friends, that we have our humanity in common. Language, or culture, or class, or race, or ideology may divide us, but that there is something we share together in our shared humanity that is beyond that.

Isn’t this what we need in the world today?

There’s another story that has been very present with me this week— agitating and disturbing me—it’s a hard story, and a painful story, it’s a story that I believe needs to be told alongside the story of Abraham, and our stories here.

On July 6, 2016, Philando Castile was fatally shot by Jeronimo Yanez, a St. Anthony, Minnesota police officer, after being pulled over in Falcon Heights, a suburb of St. Paul. Castile was driving a car with his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, and her four-year-old daughter as passengers when he was pulled over by Yanez and another officer.[1][2] According to Reynolds, after being asked for his license and registration, Castile told the officer he was licensed to carry a weapon, and had one in his pants pocket.[3] Reynolds said Castile was shot while reaching for his ID after telling Yanez he had a gun permit and was armed. The officer shot at Castile seven times.

Diamond Reynolds live-streamed a video on Facebook in the immediate aftermath of the shooting.[4] It shows her interacting with the armed officer as a mortally injured Castile lies slumped over, moaning slightly and his left arm and side bloody.[5] The Hennepin County Medical Examiner’s office ruled Castile’s death a homicide and said he had sustained multiple gunshot wounds. The office reported that Castile died at 9:37 p.m. CDT in the emergency room of the Hennepin County Medical Center, about 20 minutes after being shot.[6]

On November 16, 2016, John Choi, the Ramsey County Attorney, announced that Yanez was being charged with three felonies: one count of second-degree manslaughter and two counts of dangerous discharge of a firearm. Choi said, “I would submit that no reasonable officer knowing, seeing, and hearing what Officer Yanez did at the time would have used deadly force under these circumstances.”[7]

Yanez was acquitted of all charges on June 16, 2017.[8][9] The same day, he was offered a voluntary separation agreement by the City of St. Anthony.[10]

I have been struggling with these two stories, the story of Abraham and the story of Philando Castile and Jeronimo Yanez, the past few days. And I’ve been replaying both of them in my head. It was yesterday morning as I was lying in bed feeling so agitated that yet another police officer, after murdering an innocent black man, was let free, that I began to see the parallel with our text for today.

There are so many things that need to change in our justice system, in the way that laws and sentencing happen, with who we elect, etc.—that is overwhelming in itself. We see this locally, we see this nationally, we see this globally. And alongside the intertwined work that needs to happen, there is also a deeper layer that is true—our hearts and minds need to change. The way each of us have been formed in ways of and prejudice—be it white supremacy or against immigrants or Muslims, all those who are “other” than who we are, of fear of what we don’t know and assumption about the hearts and motivations of others before seeing them as a precious human being—need to change.

What if Officer Yanez had approached Philando Castile as our ancestor Abraham approached his unknown guests? What if we all saw the face of God first and foremost in others?

I know, I know, this is tricky, because yes, in each of us humans there is both the face of God and the potential for evil and harm. And please hear me, I am not suggesting that we stop being wise and discerning, trusting our gut when we feel something might be dangerous to ourselves or our loved-ones. But don’t you think, don’t you think the world would be a better place if we could move our minds and hearts from a primary place of suspicion, and fear and defense to a place of offering wise and open-hearted trust? To move our hearts from the place where our first reaction is to differentiate ourselves from other people—sorting in our heads how we are not like them—to a place where we first look for how they too are beloved children of God?

This is deep work, friends, and work that we are each called to over and over and over again. It’s one of the reasons I believe it is so crucial that we keep coming around this table, because we keep getting changed as we share the sacrament and the meal with each other, with people that maybe in the past we would be quick to classify. That guy in a suit who walks quickly by the corner, that woman who clutches her purse when she walks by me in the alley, that rich person who drives the fancy car, that conservative with the Trump sign in their front yard, that homeless person, that black person, that Hispanic person, that white person, that straight white male, that big black man, you finish this list for yourself.

Ordinary time is the spiritual invitation to cultivate in ourselves and in our community not just the big exciting things, but the deeper things, the everyday things, the things that sustain us and keep us strong and together. To notice and cultivate as Sister Joan invites us to, “the kind of soul we nurture.” How is it that we are nurturing our souls, individually and collectively, to be people that respond to the world around us with compassion and justice and the good of all people in mind?

It’s a time to consider your prayer practice, a time to explore what it means to pray together as a family. It’s a time to commit to going on that daily walk, or getting a spiritual director, or finally going to therapy to give yourself space to sort through the things you need to sort through. It’s a time for us to consider how we nurture one another in this spiritual community, to notice how our practices and our time together is spent, to pay attention to how God is at work through us together and how we are fed as we feed each other.

Ordinary time is a time to see, and feel, and believe, that this is actually exactly where we find God, in the ordinary, in the every day, in the face of the people we interact with and meet. The thing about the ordinary is, that within it we find the most sacred. The bread, the cup. The faces around this circle, the interaction on the sidewalk. In our deep breaths, in our prayers too deep to utter.

We focus and remember in ordinary time how these simple acts are deeply profound. Sabine and Avila serving communion. The grubby hands reaching out for a blessing. The depth of pain in those who are experiencing loss. The inner churning as we yearn for justice. The tender look between parent and child, or between lovers. The simple touch. God is in the ordinary. God is in the day to day. God is here. And so, in this ordinary time, may we practice our faith, seeing God’s face in each we meet, and engaging God’s love in all we do. Amen.

A Meal That Tasted of Freedom

April 13th 2017 Maundy Thursday
The Garden Church
Rev. Anna Woofenden

Listen to the audio

“On the night in which he was betrayed, our Lord Jesus gathered with his faltering friends for a meal that tasted of freedom.” These words from a communion liturgy have been haunting me.

A meal that tasted of freedom. Faltering friends gathered, for a meal that tasted of freedom. This evening we gather to remember the Last Supper, that Passover meal that Jesus shared with his disciples before he was crucified the next day. This evening we gather to mark the next movement in the unfolding story of Holy Week, to touch the dust, the feet, to break the bread, and pour the water, to take the towel and bend down and wash each other’s feet.

When we were last together, we gathered with Jesus on Palm Sunday, this triumphal entry, as the people who were struggling and oppressed flooded to the streets crying out “Hosanna! Lord save us!” We walked these steps, praying and longing for the coming of justice and compassion, seeking the peace of the city, calling for people to be fed, and for mourning to be turned into joy. We held our palm branches high and claimed the promises of a kingdom that is beyond the brokenness of this world, while directly embedded in it. And as the people in Jerusalem longed for Jesus to come and save and change it all, we cried out for a king to save us, while knowing that the story has a twist coming.

I wonder by the time the disciples got to this Thursday Passover if they might have started getting wind of the plot twist. That this king, this savior, would not be rescuing them in the way they had thought and that the freedom he was offering was something beyond the economic bondage of empire they were stuck in. As they sat down to share the Passover Meal together, gathered in that upper room, I wonder if that longing for freedom was still lingering in the room as they celebrated the Passover that their ancestors had been cerebrating since the exodus so many generations ago, and that they desired now.

And here, again, Jesus doesn’t give them what they are looking for in the way they were looking for it. Instead, he tells them that the bread is his body, the cup his blood, and that if they really love each other, to wash each other’s feet.

And here’s the thing that slays me: As he shared these poignant moments and gave these acts of love, not only did he know he was going to be crucified, he knew that some of them would betray him. He knew that people were still fallible, fickle, human people, and even while knowing that, he loved them. And shared a meal with them. And washed their feet. He knew that he wasn’t going to change everything about their economics or the systems that oppressed them. And yet he knew that the freedom he offered—the resurrection, the love, the new life he pointed to—was beyond that, and right there in it.

He knew that right there in the bread, the wine, the dirty feet and the warm water, there is a freedom beyond their comprehension. Freedom that doesn’t come from dropping bombs or inciting violence, a freedom that isn’t won by building walls or removing “those people” from our community. No, it is the freedom to share a meal, and love and forgive and wash the feet of the very people that may betray you. The freedom to not be afraid. A freedom that comes in the messy, in the confusion, and even to the very death. A freedom in which we participate fully in the revolutionary acts of love and forgiveness. Jesus shows us, gives us, and invites us to participate in this freedom with him, and with each other.

“On the night in which he was betrayed, our Lord Jesus gathered with his faltering friends for a meal that tasted of freedom.” May it be.