Preaching Gardening from the Pulpit


A few weeks ago, Dave Thier wrote about God coming into the garden. Well, I recently had the chance to bring the garden into a house of God.

I am from the Deep South. I have an appreciation for blues music and fried okra. And, because my great-grandfather, all of his sons, and my mother are preachers, I also have an appreciation for a good sermon. Given my family's long history of going into the clergy, I've always felt a bit traitorous not following in their footsteps. So, when the Unitarian Universalist congregation of Danbury sent us a line to see if one of us could give a guest "sermon" on sustainable food, I jumped at the bait.

These days, more and more Americans are beginning to acknowledge that beliefs about food are an important part of our nation's value system.

Growing up, my mother would often remind me that the pulpit has long been a powerful platform from which to speak about social justice. Perhaps this is especially true in the Protestant South, where networks of churches were immensely important during the Civil Rights Movement (perhaps the most famous example of this is Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose position as a minister aided his efforts to mobilize activists). Churches form the center of many small communities across the U.S., so it's not too surprising that they often become focal points for social action.

When I spoke in Danbury, I used that pulpit the way I've always been taught a pulpit should be used: as something around which to organize. I talked about gardening, and about how important it is that children grow up with a close relationship to the land. I talked about nutrition, and how produce is infinitely more nutritious when it's fresh.

And I talked about farmers, their increasing age, and the fast-shrinking number of mid-sized farms in the United States. Finally and most importantly, I pointed to how powerful individual, personal choices are to this movement. We can choose to support farmers through buying shares in a CSA; we can work with our children's schools to develop gardening programs; we can support local farmers' markets.

I was greeted by a service built entirely around food issues. As a hymn, we sang "The Garden Song." At the end of the service, we ate homemade, local snacks and talked about building urban gardens. It was then that I realized something really important, an understanding prompted by the feeling of comfort one finds in a church congregation.

Churches are constructed communities, formed around shared values. These days, more and more Americans are beginning to acknowledge that beliefs about food are an important part of our nation's value system. Because of that, farms and gardens are often just as much a community focal point as churches are. I love farming because it connects me to the ecosystem around me, but preaching this sermon reminded me that it also connects me to the community of people who care about food as much as I do.

At the end of the day, as I was walking back to my car, someone ran after me to ask me out on a date. "Man," I thought, "this movement rocks."

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Hannah Eisler Burnett

Hannah Eisler Burnett designs and organizes programs for the Yale Sustainable Food Project. She was an intern at the Yale Farm in 2005, has farmed in North Carolina and Mississippi, and, as an undergraduate, led the student group of the Sustainable Food Project.
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