Jun 16 2014

Forgive and Forget?

by Andrew L. Toney

Cleveland. Jackson. Laurel. McComb. Philadelphia. Clarksdale. Kosciusko. Winona. Ruleville.

These places have shaped me, in body and soul. The muddy mother river water of my family’s Mississippi homeland runs through my veins. For better and worse, I have inherited the history and identity of the open, humid Mississippi Delta. Years, miles, and long minutes spent watching rows of cotton and soybeans pass by the car window have evidently come full circle in my own discovered love of working the soil. I might even credit too much time spent in the languid Delta atmosphere with my inability to do anything—think, speak, work, write—with any measure of hurried-ness.

God must have a fine sense of humor as well. For as much as I wish I could claim to be a born and bred Delta boy, I actually grew up in Memphis, TN, the only sizeable city for at least a hundred miles in any direction of my grandparents’ home in Cleveland, MS. Nonetheless, I would like to think that I have received some of the best traits of my family’s place of origin.

Shadows tend to grow long on the Mississippi soil—a phenomenon not just attributable to the landscape. When I used to chase my sister around on Uncle T.D.’s Rose Hill homestead, he—an agrarian scholar and progressive intellectual himself—would always remind us that our feet trod on soil still soaked with blood spilled in the name of slavery, segregation, and hate. After he died, my great aunt filled his shoes, telling me stories of murder carried out at the hands of local authorities, marking the failure of those who were supposed to be the arbiters of justice. When I occasionally heard racial epithets hurled from the lips of older shoppers at small Mississippi grocery stores (and sometimes from one of my own family members), my mother was quick to remind me that such language was part of an evil and undesirable past; one that would hopefully die out with the generation that had brought it about.

White children who lived in the Delta in the sixties seemed bent on pushing past identification with the sins of their parents and grandparents. The sons and daughters of Cain, haunted by the shadow of Abel’s murder, wanted to get on with their lives—the curse wasn’t theirs to bear. Many left for Memphis, if not the other side of the country. For all of the sluggishness in the Delta spirit, folks sure were (and often still are) in a hurry to “forget” what transpired there.

In the Hebrew Bible, forgetting is a sin. That’s one of the many important things I learned from the back row of Dr. Carol Newsom’s “Exile and Restoration” course last fall.

Yahweh never forgets. In the legendary history, it is the people of God who routinely forget their own history and God’s history, which are intertwined in complex and nuanced ways. By contrast, Yahweh always remembers; accordingly, God’s remembrance serves as the genesis for God’s movement of justice and (eventually) reconciliation.

It’s easy to forget…for some. It’s easier to forget if you haven’t borne the scars of slavery or sharecropping on your own body, if you haven’t been systematically oppressed by segregation and institutional racism, if you haven’t received death threats based on the color of your skin or the way you prefer to worship. It’s easier to forget if a position of white privilege means that you don’t have to concern yourself with issues like mass incarceration, concealed-carry and “Stand Your Ground” laws, or the everyday experience of micro-aggression. Nonetheless, the Hebrew Scriptures still ring true: forgetting is a sin.

This very month, we face a particular call to remember. Fifty years ago, in mid-June, a team of over a thousand students, clergy, and seminarians traveled to Mississippi to spend ten weeks working on one of the largest voter registration initiatives in American history. The Mississippi Summer Project, part of the larger constellation of what came to be known as the “Freedom Summer,” was driven by the efforts of leaders like Fannie Lou Hamer, who was instrumental in bringing the truth to light about the abuses and violence occurring at the hands of whites in Mississippi.

Such violence threatened the Project workers daily. On June 21, 1964, James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were brutally murdered at the hands of the Mississippi White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan in Philadelphia, MS (the point man in the murder was Edgar Ray Killen, a Baptist minister, who was not convicted until 2005).  In the search for the bodies of the men, the FBI discovered the bodies of multiple other civil rights workers in surrounding areas.

Many murders, bombings, and other incidents that occurred in the Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964 and in following years have yet to come to light. In the few Mississippi towns where civil rights records were kept, the tales of daily violence are harrowing. The lack of information is so enormous that private citizens established The Mississippi Truth Project in 2005 to serve as a fact-finding mission to bring to light the multitude of heinous crimes committed in Mississippi just fifty years ago. With a fiftieth year commemoration of the Mississippi Summer Project to take place in Jackson at the end of the month, the Truth Project plans to renew its call for a truth and reconciliation commission as a means of recovering, remembering, and slowly reconciling the sins of the past.

Forgetting is a sin. We must remember what happened, especially if we are to understand the injustices that still continue around us every day. This is the task of the people of the church; people for whom memory should never be stripped from the work of faith.

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Andrew is a third-year M.Div. student at Candler. Andrew is also an Interim Lay Leader with Berea Mennonite Church/Oakleaf Mennonite Farm. He will also serve as the Vice President of Candler’s Student Government Association (C3) in the 2014-15 academic year. Follow Andrew on Twitter @andrewltoney.

Sep 27 2013

Laboring for the Kingdom

Aaron CarrTomorrow morning, on a rare day off from studying systematic theology, reading the New Testament, and parsing Hebrew nouns, I am headed to my Contextual Education site, Berea Mennonite Church, for a solid day of work. Unlike many of my peers, however, I won’t be keeping office hours or preparing a sermon for Sunday morning (though I certainly do those things). Instead, I’ll be wielding a hammer.

There’s a leaking well-head out behind the education building that needs to be fixed. I’ll build a concrete form so that someone else can pour the concrete and keep the plumbing stable. Additionally, the congregation is interested in growing its flock of chickens, so I’ll be researching and building a brooding box for the four-dozen chicks we hope to order before it gets too cold. Sheep pens need to be rotated on pastureland. Vegetables need to be harvested in the community garden. There is always work to do!

If this description of one (admittedly atypical) day doing Con. Ed. sounds a little different, it is because Berea is a different congregation. Our two simple buildings (one for education and fellowship) occupy roughly nine acres of land on the borders of East Atlanta Village and Gresham Park. Much of the land is rented to a commercial farmer who shares our ethical convictions about food (sustainable, local, organic), and the rest is used by the church for its own farm project. We maintain a flock of chickens, a herd of sheep, and a large permaculture garden out front. It is a different kind of congregation.

At first, I was nervous about how doing Con. Ed. at Berea might shape up. After all, I’m taking a degree in theology, not horticulture, and there are important ministerial skills one needs to acquire during this yearlong internship. I didn’t (and still don’t) want to function as just a theologically reflective farm hand. Thankfully, this hasn’t been the case. Instead, my time at Berea has helped me reconcile old divisions in my thinking, especially the gap between theological (read: intellectual) activity and physical labor.

I’ll begin with the theological. We typically take communion once a month at Berea. One of the things I’ve come to realize during these moments is that Jesus is mediated to us by means of a meal (I was raised in churches without much focus on the table, so it’s taken me a while to get this one). Of course, this statement is full of theological meaning. To meet with someone at the table is to share intimacy and vulnerability, and it is amazing to think of God sharing that kind of life with us in the bread and wine.

But this theological claim – that God meets with us at table – also reveals important claims about human labor. If we insist that God reveals God’s self in a meal, we come to realize that, in a profound way, God cares about food. And if God cares about food, God must also care about the way that food is grown, transported, prepared, and consumed. This is where the labor comes in. We mustn’t be content to simply claim that God cares about food. We must be willing to work at creating just food systems in the world. That’s why tomorrow is a work day. The well-head provides water for our livestock. The new chickens will be raised ethically and will provide fresh, cage-free eggs to the congregation and the neighborhood. The sheep remind us where our food actually comes from, and challenge us to remember our place as creatures in this creation.

At a deeper level than all of this, however, is the simple fact that labor can be a good and holy thing. It is not a failure for a well-off, modern, educated human being to work with his or her hands. In labor, there is a sense of accomplishment and the deep fatigue that comes from expending energy in a positive way. There is a fellowship in common labor that I have rarely encountered anywhere else. Even when working alone, there is fellowship with God, who labors with us to build a kingdom where everyone will have enough to eat.

In many ways, I am still unlearning the old division between the life of the mind and the work of the body. Join me in thanking God that communities like Berea exist, that Candler sends its students to work in those places, and that there is good work to do, wherever you are.

–Aaron Carr

Aaron is a second-year MDiv student at Candler and a student ambassador. Originally from Cumming, GA, Aaron was a religion major as an undergraduate at Samford University.

Apr 19 2013

Getting Dirty with Theology

Krista transplantingI recently spoke at my former high school’s chapel service on the topic of vocation and faith. I started the chapel by showing the students my e-mail signature lines of recent years. A year ago at this time, I would have signed my e-mail as: Krista Showalter Ehst, MDiv student, Candler School of Theology. Right now, I sign my business e-mails as: Krista Showalter Ehst, Farmer, Valley Run CSA. Quite the jump, right?

Those high schoolers, as well as many other folks who learn about my recent transition may wonder—what’s the connection? Three years of theological education and then…farming?

I’ll admit it. Sometimes when I’m feeding our pigs or collecting eggs, Candler’s classrooms seem a world away. But I don’t, in fact, think that these two pieces of my journey are disjointed. When I consider the recent shift from theological education to farming, I often remember Dean Love’s words at my Candler orientation– “we are,” she reminded us, “called to love God with our heart, soul, mind and strength.” She went on to challenge us to consider the next three years as an opportunity to love and worship God with our minds.  That framework was helpful for my time at Candler, and it’s continued to be helpful in the current season of my life. While farming, I have the chance to worship God with my strength; with the work of my hands and of my body.

Of course, as a good non-dualist, I hope that the activity of my mind and body are connected. While at Candler, in fact, I began to discover the intersections between theology/ministry/biblical studies and the hands-on tasks of caring for our landscapes. Reading Ellen Davis’ Scripture, Culture, Agriculture in Dr. Strawn’s OT class; working on a gardening curriculum for Georgia Interfaith Power & Light during my Candler Advantage experience; taking a directed study with Dr. Ayres on Religious Ed. and Ecology; exploring my tradition’s relationship to rural identity and agriculture through my thesis paper. Each of these experiences helped me to discover that the world of Christian ministry and theological studies need not exclude my passions for sustainable farming and food justice.

But now I’m out of the classroom and into the time of weaving these worlds together on a daily basis. It’s not always easy. Now that I’m away from the context of engaged students, provocative lectures, and assigned readings, it is harder to find folks who share and support my passions. Now that I’m away from the resources of summer internships and an academic community, it’s more of a challenge to explore creative vocational pursuits.

There was a part of me that hoped that by the time I left Candler, all my vocational aspirations would crystallize and come together in some ideal job. For me at least, it’s proving to be much more of a process. I’m farming now. And some days, farming seems totally unrelated to my Candler classes. Other days, the weaving together happens. Sometimes in more explicit ways: when I serve on the board of Pennsylvania Interfaith Power & Light or advise the Mennonite World Conference planning team on how they can make the gathering more “green;” or when I work with a local church to plan a week-long “Peace and the Earth” camp. Other times, it’s in less obvious ways—attempting to nurture the diversity of the Genesis 1 creation poem by cultivating a small, interdependent and diverse farm. Attempting to heed the prophetic call to feed the orphan and the widow and the poor by offering a sliding scale program through our CSA. And then other days, the weaving together happens in dreams—dreaming of the farm as a site for youth and adults to consider their Christian discipleship through the lens of their relationship to land; dreaming of the farm as a site where our local community can find both physical and spiritual nourishment.

For now, though, morning chores beckon and I must go tend to those chickens and pigs. The journey has not been an obvious one. It has not been easy. But I am trying to trust that God is in all facets of the journey, weaving them together in her mysterious ways. And I’m trying to find ways of continuing to cultivate the love of God with all of my being—heart, mind, soul and strength.

- Krista Showalter Ehst

Krista is a 2012 graduate of the Candler School of Theology and is currently a farmer in Pennsylvania.  In addition, she serves on the board of Pennsylvania Interfaith Power & Light and acts as an adviser to the Mennonite World Conference planning team.