Soil and Sacrament: A Spiritual Memoir of Food and Faith by Fred Bahnson
Whew! After reading this book you might want to check your hate of all things gardening at the door. Fred Bahnson, Director of the Food, Faith and Religious Initiative at Wake Forest Divinity School tells his story of traveling to four different areas of the country where a rare combination of work alongside faith is taken into consideration. His new book, Soil and Sacrament, is a welcome addition to the growing number of books on the relationship of the soil we till and the faith we profess. Not content with painting the soil and sacrament movement as a modern agenda, Bahnson delves deep into the past to reveal the nature of God’s work in creating the good earth and having his followers tend to his creation.
The first place Bahnson heads to is Mepkin Abbey in South Carolina. The Trappist monks who inhabit this Abbey revel in the movements of prayer, study, and work. At the 3:30 a.m. prayer vigil, Bahnson writes, “To his right was Brother Theophilus, whose name meant “friend of God.” He was a loquacious, cigar-smoking monk who would teach me about Mepkin’s mushroom operation” (17). The amazing fact about mushrooms that Fred relates to the reader is that mycelium, the organism that produces mushrooms, runs out into the soil forming relationships with other plant species (19-20). After getting out of the egg business, these monks got into the mushroom business and were quite surprised at the rapid growth that came about. This commitment to cultivate mushrooms was one way the monks could give back to the community, not wishing to hoard every single piece.
Instead of monasteries being a retreat from the world and a rejection of God’s good creation, Fred indicates that monasteries allow one to go deeper into the heart of God and to let go of the things calling our attention otherwise (21). Further down, Bahnson hits a chord with me as he said, “Far from leaving our bodies behind, prayer leads us to engage more fully with them, for God cannot be separated from the things of this world” (21). The rhythm of prayer and manual labor leads inextricably to a strengthening of both the body and the spirit, faith and the mind, for God has made each practice for our good. The shitake and oyster mushroom business is no clean task to engage in, but it brings about a sense of pride in one’s work and definitely brings the community of monks together in their effort. Working with rather outdated and primitive equipment, the Abbey makes do with its materials even if they look like MacGyer was helping them (38).
The spring following Fred’s visit to Mepkin Abbey, he ventured to the Lord’s Acre, a community garden in North Carolina. ½ an acre in size but producing 8 tons of vegetables for a food pantry called Food for Fairview, which feeds 75 families each week, the Lord’s Acre garden is resourceful and abundant (87). Bringing his experience at Anathoth, Fred was more than willing to help with Susan, the garden manager. There is deep wisdom here in the garden at the Lord’s Acre, especially when you read these words from Susan, “Everyone who comes here hungers for something. Some hunger for food. Others hunger for community. Or beauty. But we all hunger” (91). The Lord’s Acre brings together Christians and Non-Christians of all stripes to provide food for the community, providing a solution to their hunger in many different ways. The beauty of this garden is that it brings people who are very broken and bruised by choices and society, and yet, this garden gives them an opportunity to give back to others, including the garden.
Fred’s first year at Anathoth , the community garden of Cedar Grove UMC, he was met with cheerleaders and browbeaters, even some in the same congregation. For most of his farming methods were done in a place with red soil, a clay kind of soil that was harder to grow crop in. Whether it was Mr. Rimmer or Vaughn, there was certainly a lively bunch of people who were not quick to encourage Fred’s efforts (174-175). From potlucks to passive-solar greenhouses, Fred began to see how even the hardest of soils couldn’t prevent him from growing bountiful vegetables.
In the end, this book is a wonderful display of learning about how faith and food entangles itself. Fred Bahnson has given us a glimpse into his passion for working in the soil, feeding a community, but even more, seeing God at work in the soil of our hearts as we seek to serve him in every area of life. I heartily recommend this book alongside Norman Wirzba’s book, Food and Faith.
Thanks to Speak Easy and Simon and Schuster for the complimentary review copy of the book in exchange for a review.