Let Us Keep the Feast, then Keep Going

James Jenkins

I decided to go to divinity school because of the witness of writer/farmer Wendell Berry and “The Gift of Good Land,” his essay about the Christian tradition’s care for the earth. After some years of aspiring to stewardship quietly on my own, I have learned “right livelihood” is fruitless if it is merely a personal obsession.

Berry models how to cultivate integrity within a particular place, and with the people of that place. Yale Divinity School – its mission and opportunities – affirmed that promise. Our school’s annual local food justice and sustainability conference, Nourish New Haven, helped me understand that wellness, health, justice, and sustainability come in the form of radical hospitality, of stretching together to give and receive.

Friends and Teachers

Berry’s stress on humility, discipline, and membership – I see now – is rooted in the Sermon on the Mount, which offers great hope for what communities, particularly churches, can be.

In that spirit, community relationships have taught me much.

One new friend, Stacey Spell, a retired homicide detective, has worked to restore his West River neighborhood in New Haven partly through a community garden. During Nourish New Haven last year, he stated: “When people learn that by taking control of your communities, by taking control of your lives, by collaboration – because when we work together, it’s ours – you make a difference.”

Local food activist Tagan Engel suggested one solution for community health is congregations partnering with others in dozens of ways. The church must be tied to the neighborhood, to the city, to the watershed.

“Food has replaced wilderness as the beating heart of the environmental movement,” my friend and teacher John Elder declared at last year’s Nourish New Haven.

Food has given me concrete ways to address abstract challenges like poverty, climate change, economic injustice, spiritual hunger. Food helps me imagine a religious life that responds to the needs of the world, the needs of the neighborhood. Churches wither when they become too inward. The same goes for personal faith.

Food As Medicine

Other revelations – skills, gifts, good examples – emerge when we work with others.

They compel me to modify my consumption paradigm in order to work harder for a just communion. I must learn the long-term impact of land use, particularly industrial agriculture focused on profit and yields. I must become more aware of the systemic policies that favor big business, unhealthy food, and the patenting of nature. Spiritual integrity requires learning how chronic illnesses are threatening the next generation and stressing our healthcare system – and how they can be mitigated by regarding our eating, cooking, and growing food as primary care, preventive medicine.

More people are realizing we live in a world of privileged extremity. Exploitation, exclusion, and ignorance are often matters of oblivious privilege, and they’re doing violence to ideals of community.

These damaged community relationships inevitably extend beyond local conditions. It’s no longer possible to ignore them. I think about the underpaid vegetable pickers in south Florida … the tumorous Parisian rats fed on Roundup Ready Corn … the 300 people who line up every week at the Loaves and Fishes food pantry at New Haven’s Episcopal Church of St. Paul & St. James … the Delaware farmland where I once lived replaced by strip malls … our fossil-fueled food system releasing one-third of the human-caused greenhouse gases … chickens that never see the sunshine before slaughter … rivers poisoned with pesticides … the fish that we are too distracted to notice, dying … the mangroves in Ecuador, destroyed for shrimp cocktails … the 93-percent loss of biodiversity in American seed varieties between 1903 and 1983 … the burning traffic of long commutes … the fervor of right-to-life issues and yet the creatures, neighborhoods, and watersheds we ignore amid all the debates.

What can we do to change the story?

Jesus uses food to make all his good points. He deploys meals to enact his greatest miracles. But he says more than take, eat, and feed my people. “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me,” he tells his disciples. Christ’s family or kingdom, his invitation “into eternal life,” is not built on exploitation, exclusion, or ignorance. It is not about only caring for our own but also restoring our estranged ecologies, our fractured homes. Our churches and our food choices could aspire to greater things, beginning with a simple call to hospitality and openness within the Great Commandment to love God and neighbor.

Agrarian Galilean

It is essential to reconnect Jesus’ life as a Jew and recover his agrarian outlook. He changes some practices, but his core message comes out of his Jewish heritage of Passover, sabbath, and manna. His teaching is rooted in the rural and household culture of ancient Israel. Like most of us, he wasn’t a farmer, and he didn’t seem to be much of a cook – but his life was a sacrament to God, or better yet from God.

Concepts like food justice and sustainability, I’ve discovered, have limited impact when they are treated separately. Churches shouldn’t regard food ministry as a simple giveaway. Better to learn about the neighborhoods where we live and serve. Define health in larger ways – what Thomas Berry describes as the Earth Community.

As a Christian, I find such a vision symbolized best in the communion meal, the Eucharistic feast, the thanksgiving, which Paul calls us to keep – to serve and preserve. In my weekly church experience, after the priest breaks the bread, we practice this shared responsibility by saying, “Let us keep the feast.”

What happens next? Recognizing that our longings for justice and sustainability are wrapped in communion, we join a rite rooted in the practical, holy, ecumenical, inclusive, universal call to careful and common action. We experience sacrament. The Last Supper was food for the disciples to get to work. There I find enough nourishment to keep going.

Keep Going

During a visit to Yale last December, Wendell Berry was the guest at a dinner that several faculty and students attended. I remember his one piece of advice after we shared our various endeavors: “Keep going.” I realized this too is Jesus’ message to us. Keep going. It’s not going to be easy. Keep going. You might find yourself wanting to give up. Keep going. I support you, but you also have to rely on this imperfect community around you. Keep going.

And yet – we can’t keep going like this. We must seek transformation within ourselves, not just blame our food system. Come together, release our differences, and seek a new direction together. See Christ calling us to the sustaining life of God’s will – a shared communion with all creation.

And we need to know when to stop: Become less wasteful, less ignorant, less passive about what this calling demands. Exploit people less, the planet less. Stop acting as if to take and eat everything were our one cherished commandment. We do not live in an abundant garden to abuse without limits.

It’s time to be realistic about the catastrophe facing our planet. Acknowledging the deep damage done to our earth is a first step towards healing. In the shared meal of Christ, as nowhere else, we find possibility despite these great challenges. The hope for this world – for the natural universe and the human community – finds completion in the transcendent God coming to us amid our insecurities. When we find our voice and action in the sacramental life, we find a correction to the harm we have caused. We become healed. We receive the gift to keep going.

James Jenkins ’15 M.Div. is a Berkeley Divinity School senior at YDS, where he has coordinated various sustainability efforts, along with Nourish New Haven, a community food conference with Yale and Greater New Haven partners.