Food Poisoning

Strawberry Farm

“Food is about the relationships that join us to the earth, fellow creatures, loved ones and guests, and ultimately God. How we eat testifies to whether we value the creature we live with and depend upon. To eat is to savor and struggle with the mystery of our creatureliness.”

– Norman Wirzba, Food & Faith: A Theology of Eating

I’ve been reading Food & Faith: A Theology of Eating by Norman Wirzba and while I feel compelled to share my newfound insights into the “holy and humbling mystery” of food, the ironic reality is that I’ve recently been struck with food poisoning.[1] At the moment, I’m feeling adverse to anything ingestible and during my short hiatus from food, I have reluctantly been absent from the Abundant Table Farm. Additionally, I have been absent from shared meals and by extension one of the most ancient and essential forms of community. Wirzba describes the connective power of food in that, “Eating joins people to each other, to other creatures and the world, and to God through forms of ‘natural communion’ too complex to fathom.”[2] Food, then, is a delightful sacrament which makes tangible participation in the invisible network of aliveness which connects all organisms to each other and to God who is the “Life of all life.”[3]

This portrait strikes me as beautiful and simple in its undeniable truth. Of course, each of us “knows” in some abstract sense that all living things are linked together by some shared life-force we may consider to be “sacred” (or we may simply refer to as carbon). We “know” in the vaguest of terms that our human lives depend upon food which further depends upon flora, fauna, and some mysterious conditions that constitute healthy ecosystems. However, when the experience of food is reduced to transactional procurement, a preparation process defined by convenience, and lone consumption, the sacramental dimension of food feels stretched thin to the point of disappearance. Rather than a reminder that “we participate in a grace-saturated world, a blessed creation worthy of attention, care, celebration” I would suggest the average dining experience is a process characterized by quickness, convenience, and an ability to adapt to the individual wants and needs of any given consumer.[4] Food is conceptualized as fuel, a commodity, not a sacrament, and not even a fundamental human right.

In this way, my unfortunate and laughable food-poisoned state is a fitting analogy for the present topography of our food system. Consider Wirzba’s succinct declaration, “Despite what food markets say, there really is no such thing as ‘cheap’ or ‘convenient’ food.”[5] Instead, there are processes which transform the earth’s gifts of food into a carefully constructed product which allows for consumers to divorce themselves from the true cost of the life and death they absorb without thought or reverence. If we as consumers are not paying the true cost, I wonder where the price is being exacted. Is the weight of our irreverent eating taking a toll upon our lands? Our soil and water quality? Is the true cost being carried by the exploited laborers who harvest the nation’s food supply only to face the highest rates of food insecurities themselves? The fact is, “To eat is to be implicated in a vast, complex, interweaving set of life and death dramas in which we are only one character among many.”[6]

Here is an invitation to learn a bit more about those other characters. Recall your narratives about food—what are your cherished food rituals? When has food been a source of personal challenge? Labor over a meal with loved ones or with strangers—receive hospitality and give it away. Share the dish duties. Deviate from your old recipes. Improvise and eat playfully, creatively. Introduce yourself to a new vegetable. Acknowledge all the sanctity a pomegranate possesses. Read poetry before dining—better yet, sing poetry over your plate. Buy local and know your farmer. Strive to eat justly, without cruelty. Confront your own creatureliness. Give thanks and live!

[1] Norman Wirzba, Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 2.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Micheal Fishbane, Sacred Attunement: A Jewish Theology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), 119.

[4] Wirzba, Food and Faith, 2.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 4.

Welcome to The Abundant Table

Isabella Hall picking strawberries

Ventura, California, is a coastal city where grandmotherly mountains morph seamlessly into the seemingly infinite Pacific ocean. The water’s cool breath mitigates the heat of the ever-present sun and creates a consistently seventy degree oasis. It feels fitting to compare Ventura to Eden with its year-round growing season and nutrient rich sandy-loam soil, a product millions of years in the making as mountains gave way to erosion by winds, rains, and the slow tectonic shifts of the land. In case I have not described a place befitting of the Eden comparison, Ventura country is an agricultural epicenter known as a global supplier of strawberries. The extensive strawberry fields, their neat rows populated by teams of harvesters, are visible from the California 101 freeway and almost every other roadway in the county.

In the past week, I myself have become intimately acquainted with the process of plucking these red-ripened strawberries from their leafy habitations. My work is punctuated with pauses here and there in order to taste the warm flesh of a berry nurtured to maturation by the light of the sun and expert care by the hands of farmers Reyna and Guadalupe, the two farmers who manage The Abundant Table’s small organic farm. If I’m honest, the sublime scene I described above—standing tall in the fields with a box of freshly picked strawberries on my hip, sweat on neck, and dirt all over—was precisely the romantic vision which initially kindled my interest in farming. Can you relate to this confession? Have you ever read poetry by Wendell Berry, Mary Oliver, or Annie Dillard and then resolved to live more connected with and attentive to the land? Have you ever thought of uprooting your current constraints and pioneering a new path as a wildflower farmer, an urban agrarian, or a naturalist poet? I have a sense I’m not alone in this. The earth enchants the soul; its holiness at once both mysterious and self-evident. Wendell Berry remarks, “We did not make it. We know little about it. In fact, we don’t, and will never, know enough to make our survival sure or our lives carefree.”[1] And yet for the overwhelming majority of Americans, connectivity to the land is a remote reality.

Many live, at best, removed from and insulated against the rhythms of the natural world and, at worst, with worldviews which assert humankind’s right to dominate, commodify, and deplete the land. As someone located within the Christian tradition, it grieves me to witness how scriptures, doctrine, and tradition have been co-opted by colonialism and capitalism to perpetuate a “functional Docetism” which “has numbed Christians to the escalating horrors of both ecological and social violence, because spiritual or doctrinal matters always trump terrestrial or somatic ones.”[2] Contrastingly, the Bible and the Hebrew scriptures in particular offer “a story and a discourse about the connection of a people to a place” and ecological stewardship as “implicit in that story’s insistence upon the land’s sanctity.”[3] In this vein, Ellen Davis, Professor of Bible and Practical Theology at Duke Divinity School and author of Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture, suggests agrarianism as a hermeneutic, or in other words, a lens through which one might read the scriptures and thus distill pertinent interpretations, meaning, and wisdom. Furthermore Davis claims, “Reading the work of contemporary agrarians can make us better readers of Scripture.”[4] That is a surprising suggestion amid a historical moment when most folks have little connection to the elements, let alone the process of food production. However, I wonder if each of us is nearer to the ethics of land and food than we might imagine:

Our largest and most indispensable industry, food production entails at every stage judgments and practices that bear directly on the health of the earth and living creatures, on the emotional, economic, and physical well-being of families and communities and ultimately on their survival. Therefore, sound agricultural practices depend upon knowledge that is at one and the same time chemical and biological, economic, cultural, philosophical, and (following the understanding of most farmers in most places and times) religious. Agriculture involved questions of value and therefore moral choice, whether or not we care to admit it.[5]

Davis’ framework, which connects spiritual matters with the physical matter of land and its proper or improper usage, invites me to revisit my strawberry scene and tease out some of the unseen complexities.

For one, my experience on The Abundant Table’s farm is inextricably shaped by social location as a college-educated white woman endowed with various sorts of capital which have allowed for my educational and immersive internship experience. My willful presence is so viscerally contrasted from the overwhelming majority of farmers in Ventura County, many of whom are Latino/a and working grueling 12-hour shifts for shockingly low wages. The gravity of the realization pains me when I feel the ache of my thighs and lower back from just a few hours of farm work. Farmer Reyna has shared with me a small glimpse of her experience working within conventional agricultural operations where farmers like herself monotonously harvest hundreds of acres of monocrops dusted with chemical herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers. These conditions lead to horrendous illnesses, such as various cancers and late-onset asthma, not to mention the devastating effects upon the soil and the pollution to the surrounding air and water supply. Reyna compares these experiences to her time at The Abundant Table, where farmers are paid living wages and organic practices are used in ways that are honoring of the land and what it grants. She affirms, “It’s important that all work be dignified…My dirty clothes are my professional uniform. I believe it’s very important that youth have opportunities to work in the field and grow their own understanding of farm work, so they can begin to respect and value this work and the tremendous physical strength and earth-literacy it requires.”[6]

The earth-literacy Reyna describes is a lexicon I am continuously cultivating. As I explore and experience the uniqueness of this bioregion—where mountains dissipate into ocean and an intricate network of estuaries and waterways form a living, breathing watershed—I simultaneously encounter the historical, cultural, and religious narratives which have grown over these lands, and in the midst of all this newness I, a visitor, ask, what does this place and its people have to teach me about encountering the Triune God? What does it mean to join The Abundant Table community in the work of doing justice and loving mercy by transforming existing food systems? How can I live into the divine calling to recognize my location within creation and my responsibility to it, and to grow into a disciple of this particular watershed?

[1] Wendell Berry, foreword to Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible, by Ellen F. David (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), ix.

[2] Ched Myers, introduction to Watershed Discipleship: Reinhabiting Bioregional Faith and Practice, edited by Ched Myers (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2016), 5.

[3] Berry, foreword to Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture, xi.

[4] Ellen F. Davis, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 22.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Sarah Nolan, Erynn Smith, and Reyna Ortega in “Growing from the Edges” from Watershed Discipleship: Reinhabiting Bioregional Faith and Practice, edited by Ched Myers (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2016), 151.

It’s more than statistics, and it’s deeper than the system

Washington Monument

This week, as I settled into the nation’s capital and began my work with the Wesley Theological Seminary’s Center for Public Theology, I launched into my first project with a non-profit called New Baptist Covenant. One of my main projects during my time there was to compile statistics reflecting the racial disparity in the United States. As my research got deeper I began to struggle to categorize statistics due to the complex intersectionality that undergirds issues of racial disparity. This complexity pushed me to research more specific locations and more specific issues. As I’d been walking around D.C. for most of my day prior to that, I had been perplexed at the dichotomy between the eccentric wealth and striking poverty in the city. I began to concentrate my research on the effects of gentrification in D.C to try and understand.

If you walk around the city of Washington, D.C., you will see a multitude of different styles: different types of architecture, restaurants, homes, people, statues, etc. Diversity is abundant here. It’s easy to be lulled into a sense of wonder and amazement at the beauty of a city like this. The ambience that surrounds you depends on what part of the District you’re in. For instance, if you go to the Federal Triangle area or the National Mall you will be surrounded by suits and ties, the sound of dress shoes clicking on the sidewalks, horns from the seemingly-always-agitated taxi drivers, and camera clicks from crowded tourist groups. If you go to the Columbia Heights area, you’ll encounter neighborhoods with colorful row homes alongside hipster coffee shops and sidewalk cafés strung with bistro lights playing some band that you’ve probably never heard of. The point is, D.C. is comprised of many different pockets of community, and it would be easy to paint this diversity in some harmonious light of progressive development.

Amidst all of this seeming benevolence, however, there lies a deep brokenness that the city is built upon. It is a brokenness that begins in parts of the city that are so often celebrated and politically supported. Take the hipster coffee shops and sidewalk cafés in Columbia Heights, for example. The moment that these started popping up, the surrounding neighborhoods began to change. Rent prices began to rise. Eviction notices became more frequent. Suddenly, the neighborhood caught the eye of high-end developers, and people’s lifelong homes were being bought and sold like monopoly pieces. Gentrification happened. But how were we supposed to know? It was always presented to us as “cleaning the streets up” or “revivifying an abandoned neighborhood,” and all we saw were fancy pictures of new ultra-modern apartments and redesigned row homes. We never saw the pictures of the families and the people who were displaced because of all this. We never heard the stories of Ernest Peterson or Virginia Lee or Harold Valentine. We just saw new coffee shops with single-origin roasts and Instagram-worthy latte art without thinking about the $7 price tag that pushed the residents out of their own neighborhood and eviscerated a once-flourishing community.

This is the story that broke through the pages of statistics that I pored over this week bit by bit. My site mentor–Irene DeMaris, the Center for Public Theology’s associate director–and I began to talk about this story and the statistics. It’s easy to hide behind numbers and graphs, but when it becomes real people it suddenly becomes infinitely more terrifying. She gave me a sermon co-preached by Dr. Darryl Aaron and Rev. Alan Sherouse titled “It’s in the Water” to watch as part of my assignment for the week. In it, they discuss racism as something that is deeper than we know. They use the analogy of water to say that events like the countless incidents of police brutality across the country or the events of Charlottesville last summer are the waves and storms that make us pay attention to racism, but they are indicative of something more—something deeper. The evil is not just in the waves or the winds or the rains, according to these two; it’s in the water. Referring to the events in Charlottesville on August 11 and 12, Rev. Sherouse says, “We saw racism illuminated by white supremacist torch light on that day when too often it’s just hiding in the shadows. We heard white nationalists chanting their slogans instead of whispering them in the crowds.” This hit me hard. The statistics that I was looking at were revelatory of this exact thing. It wasn’t an isolated phenomenon at all. It’s systemic. And not only is it systemic, but further, it’s foundational to our understanding of the system itself. Racial disparity is deep in the water of the “not-yet-United States,” and gentrification is just one of the heads of this hidden beast.

I look forward to diving deeper into these questions over the course of the summer.

Patricia Hampl’s The Art of the Wasted Day offers “literary sabbatical” in her visit to UVA

On April 24, the Project on Lived Theology welcomed Patricia Hampl to UVA Grounds to speak on her new book, The Art of the Wasted Day (Viking, 2018).

Hampl spoke in Project director Charles Marsh’s afternoon class about nonfiction personal narrative writing, and in the early evening, she read from her book at the Bonhoeffer House. Both events were open to the public.

Students in Marsh’s class, God and the Mystery of the World, read Hampl’s book and wrote reflections on it in preparation for her visit. Students called the book “a literary sabbatical” and “an inner rebellion against the notion of daydreaming as a sin.”

Hampl spoke of the origins of personal narrative writing, referencing Michel de Montaigne, often considered the father of the essay genre. But she clarified that when Montaigne spoke of the essay, he wasn’t thinking of a rigidly structured, five-paragraph composition by a high school freshman. “By ‘essay,’ Montagne meant, ‘my thingamajig.’ ‘My whatever.'” An essay, to Montaigne, was a “portrayal of consciousness.”

In our own time and place, Hampl reflected, Americans love the personal voice. We trust it against all the evidence that it is unreliable: people lie, plain and simple. Still, we sense an authority in the first person voice because it connects to our experience of the world.

Hampl reminded us that nonfiction personal narrative writing is treacherous. You can get in trouble on all sides. Readers inevitably raise questions of veracity–“Are you telling the truth?”–and of decency–“Does your mom know that?” And of course, as Hampl has written in her book, I Could Tell You Stories, you can hurt those whose stories you tell along the way. But there is an upside to the treachery: nonfiction can have an particular electricity that fiction often does not have.

You can listen to or watch Patricia’s talk here. Her reading is available here. Hungry for more? Read more about her visit in this Cavalier Daily article. And of course, enjoy your own “literary sabbatical” by purchasing her book.

Watch the entire lecture through its resource page here.

Patricia Hampl is a Regents Professor and the McKnight Distinguished Professor in the English department at the University of Minnesota, where she teaches creative writing.

For more event details and up-to-date event listings please click here to visit the PLT Events page. We also post updates online using #PLTevents. To get these and other news updates, please like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter @LivedTheology. To sign up for the Lived Theology monthly newsletter, click here.

Thoughts After Reading Mitch Landrieu’s, In the Shadow of Statues: A White Southerner Confronts History

Peter Slade

A Tale of Two Surprises

Thoughts after reading Mitch Landrieu’s, In the Shadow of Statues: A White Southerner Confronts History, Viking, 2018.

by Peter Slade

Mitch Landrieu’s book, In the Shadow of Statues, is the backstory of the speech he gave as mayor of New Orleans on May 19, 2017, following his removal of three Confederate statues—Lee, Davis, and Beauregard—from the city. Pulling down statues symbolizes regime change. Statues of Lenin fell across Eastern Europe during the revolutions of 1989 and statues of Saddam Hussein tumbled in Iraq after the US invasion in 2003. It seems reasonable, then, to consider that the current struggle to remove Confederate monuments is symbolic of a struggle to change a regime here in the United States of America. But this outgoing regime—unlike the communists in East Berlin or the baathists in Baghdad—is one that is hidden in plain sight and may not be outgoing at all. Viewed from this perspective, Landrieu’s book is above all an account of the surprise of discovery: his surprise at discovering this hidden regime’s history and his surprise at its continuing political power.

Landrieu is surprised to see the history he did not know celebrated in a landscape he did not see. Challenged by his friend, none other than the jazz great Wynton Marsalis, to remove the Confederate statues from New Orleans’s streets, Landrieu details his awakening to the meaning of the statues he had driven past thousands of times. He presents his personal testimony of “learning to see what’s in front of me” in the hope that his readers will also see these symbols and their American history with the veil torn away. This is a book written in the easy voice of a man with the common touch: the voice of a successful politician who expects to bring you along with him. For those familiar with the development of the religion of the Lost Cause and the history of race in America, there is nothing new here. But there is something depressingly instructive for historians and activists in Landrieu’s naive story of personal awakening. How is it, we need to ask ourselves, that a well-educated, intelligent, and humane white man who had spent his professional political career studying the motivations of his constituents was so surprised by this at all? How did he miss it?

Landrieu’s second great surprise is at the power and persistence of white supremacy. He opens the book with his shock that, despite the support of the city’s government and all his office’s money and connections, he could not hire a crane to take down the statues. He returns to his quandary again near the end of the book: as the mayor of New Orleans, “[after] all the billions of dollars we’d spent on contractors,” “I still can’t get anyone to lease me a damned crane: This still eats at me.” Again, the surprise of a powerful white man at the political center of his world should be instructive. How did the intimidation of contractors with death threats and arson come as a surprise to Landrieu?

With his awakened hindsight, Landrieu gives an account of race and the regime of white supremacy running through his life from his earliest memories of his Catholic upbringing as the son of a mayor of New Orleans to his own assumption of that office. For Landrieu, “[race] is like a song that you cannot get out of your head.” With this song in heavy rotation by the summer of 2015 when he announced the removal of the statues, Landrieu was not surprised by the popular appeal of Donald Trump: he had seen it all before in Louisiana in the political success of the Klansman David Duke. “When I look back today,” Landrieu writes, “David Duke’s demagoguery stands like a dress rehearsal for the rise of Donald Trump.”

In the interviews Landrieu has given to promote the book, he has been asked repeatedly if he will throw his hat in the ring as a challenger to Trump. It’s clear that Landrieu constructs his narrative with the intention of introducing himself to a national electorate. He interlaces his stories with extraneous reflections on his current policy positions on race, gentrification, education, guns, police, mass incarceration, and urban crime, and makes a case for his skills and experience at running a political administration and in beating politicians like Trump. Whether or not he does run in 2020, Landrieu should bear in mind that he will be faced with a white America that, by-and-large, does not like surprises: certainly not the ones that force us to confront the power and persistence of white supremacy in America.

Fellow travelers are scholars, activists, and practitioners that embody the ideals and commitments of the Project on Lived Theology. We admire their work and are grateful to be walking alongside them in the development and dissemination of Lived Theology.

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