From sweat, dirt, and enduring swarms of mosquitoes comparable to the army of locusts depicted in the book of Joel, to traveling to Princeton Theological Seminary for a conference on race and food, my partnership with Bread & Roses through the Perkins Fellowship has been an adventure. Bread & Roses, a ministry of Trinity Episcopal Church, is a non-profit which focuses on nutritional outreach. Some of the ways this is accomplished is through the community garden and cooking clinics which are hosted at the church as well as collaboration with other organizations working toward food justice in Charlottesville. One of the reasons I was attracted to Bread & Roses at Trinity Episcopal is its rich heritage as an intentional multiracial community of reconciliation. The Church is located on Preston Avenue, a stone’s throw away from my home, the Perkins House. I am grateful to be partnering with a ministry that serves, and is situated within, my neighborhood.
My time at Bread & Roses has primarily been in the garden alongside the volunteers, most of whom are Trinity Episcopal members, who gather weekly to tend to the garden. Beginning in June, I started attending garden work days and quickly realized how little I knew and how much there was to learn! I was always asking questions, taking directions, attempting to soak up the extensive knowledge of the more seasoned garden workers, like Sally and Martha. I was shown so much patience and overtime, a vibrant little community had formed as we planted, weeded, and watered. We began to share meals on a monthly basis. After we completed the garden work, we’d gather over fresh food, often prepared using produce from the Bread & Roses garden or the personal gardens of the volunteers. These meals were never lacking in laughter and gradually, the various quirks and idiosyncrasies of each volunteer became remarkably endearing. It was, and continues to be, a dynamic group with a wide range of ages, occupations, ethnicities. Our once monthly meals transitioned into a biweekly event and suddenly, there was never a gathering without fresh food and a time of fellowship. I really cannot find the words to describe my gratitude for these relationships, none of which I would have had I remained within the narrow boundaries of the University community. Seeing these friends and working alongside one another in the heat and the dirt became a rhythmic occurrence each week, an essential piece of my lived liturgy.
Another component of my involvement with Bread & Roses has been thinking deeply about our food systems—the mechanisms by which we produce, acquire, and consume our food. Bread & Roses was generous enough to send me to Princeton Theological Seminary’s “Just Food” conference on race and food where I learned a tremendous amount about our centralized, mass-producing food industry known as the Food Regime. Some of the problems of the Food Regime include the exploitation of migrant and farm workers, the degradation of the land and natural resources, gentrification which displaces the poor, unequal access to healthy and affordable food options, and an increasingly centralized system which depletes local production and small-scale, sustainable farming. What’s more, these macro problems inordinately affect women and people of color, such as Latino/a migrant workers to inner-city African-Americans. While these problems are systemic and cannot be rectified with individual actions, confronting the reality of the situation certainly gave me pause and caused me to reflect upon my role within these systems. How am I to eat justly, sustainably, in a way that is honoring of my body, my neighbors, and the land? This is where “alternative food orders” become so vitally important. What’s an alternative food order? Think operations or organizations which connect people more closely with the production of their food—locally owned supermarkets like Reid’s, buying from local farms, community gardens and other forms of community supported agriculture (CSA) like farmers markets. These operations nurture local economies and social networks, thereby strengthening communities, in addition to reducing the environmental impact of agriculture. At first blush, a plot of land upon which neighbors get together and grow vegetables may not seem a revolutionary endeavor, but in fact, it is! Think of how countercultural this act is in light of the way most people obtain their food—purchasing foods that have traveled thousands of miles, grown in lands we have little connection to, by people we don’t know, who may or may not have been fairly compensated.
It’s important to recognize that not everyone has the time, money, or luxury to be so conscientious about the origins of their food. Particularly in the case of working class individuals and families, such concerns seem remote in the face of combatting hunger and food insecurity for oneself or their children. However, as a University student, I feel that I have a responsibility, in the wake of the privilege I have been afforded, to be thoughtful about where and how I consume. Another challenge to the work of food justice, and community development more broadly, is a lack of time. As University students are acutely aware, we operate under serious time constraints. Many people who would perhaps like to participate in one of the many community gardens Charlottesville has to offer, are simply unable to because of lack of time. I feel this challenge quite poignantly because in the garden, in my scholastic work, in the spheres of racial, economic, food, and housing justice—the work is never finished. I sympathize with the exasperation of the disciples commanded to feed five thousand men, “Well Jesus, that’s a really sweet sentiment but we only have a few loaves of bread and two fish!” (Matt 14:17, IZH translation). Seemingly, I do not have enough time or money or the social capital required to be impactful. At this point, I must reckon with my own insufficiency. My doing or being “enough” is not the point. Jesus is enough. Perhaps Jesus will multiple my time and efforts like the fishes and loaves, but even if he does not, I am intimately acquainted with the heart of God through pressing into these seemingly insurmountable issues. In fact, the reality of our individual limitations is an invitation into relationship with others. I recently attended the Christian Community Development Association annual conference and was struck by the following statement, “Kingdom sized vision requires Kingdom sized collaboration.” Rather than become exhausted and embittered by our finitude, might these limits instead remind us that we are members of a larger body, working together toward a Kingdom that is both now and not yet.
As we quickly move through the fall season and pull the last of the sweet potatoes out of their beds, my role at Bread & Roses has shifted, but the community has not. In fact, the garden crew has now entered into a book study together in which we read and discuss “Wisdom Distilled from the Daily: Living the Rule of St. Benedict Today.” This book has yielded countless insights on what it means to live in community as well as what it means to monastically approach the daily grind. The author, Joan Chittister, writes, “The monastic looks for holiness in the here and now, unburdened by strange diets or esoteric devotions or damaging denials of self. The real monastic walks through life with a barefooted soul, alert, aware, grateful, and only partially at home” (10). Engaging with the practical wisdom of the Rule of St. Benedictine has been an invaluable resource for life as a resident within the Perkins House. As an eclectic Evangelical and a student of religion, I have really enjoyed exploring the Episcopal tradition, through Trinity Episcopal, and its unique expression of worship which is an integral piece of the body of Christ. As the winter season approaches, we turn toward grant writing, researching food policy, and the administrative tasks which make Bread & Roses possible.
Perhaps the greatest gift of my time at Bread & Roses, has been my relationship with Maria. Maria is the director of Bread & Roses, runs breakfast at the Haven a couple days a week, lives in Charis community, and shares my affinity for dark, caffeinated beverages. Her mentorship and friendship has been a tremendous blessing. Maria is a paragon of steadfastness and hopefulness, two virtues which are indispensable to the cause of doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with our God. My conversations with Maria remind me that it is Christ and not I who has been tasked with carrying the weight of humanity’s sin. Her very presence reminds me to be thankful and from here, I know more about what it means to follow in the footsteps of Christ.
For more information about the Perkins Fellows program, click here.