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.