Decatur conference looks at food and faith
By Dena Mellick, Associate editor
Christians concerned about the environment congregated in Decatur over the weekend to discuss food and how it intersects with faith.
About 120 people met at Decatur First United Methodist Church Friday, Apr. 8 through Sunday, Apr. 10 for the ninth annual National United Methodist Church (UMC) Caring for Creation Conference.
It’s the second consecutive year that the conference has taken place in Decatur. Next year, the conference moves to Western Ohio.
In 2015, the conference focused on environmental justice. The 2016 theme was “Sowing Seeds – Where Food and Faith Meet.” Discussions centered on topics like food cultivation, origins, sustainability, and justice.
“Eating is perhaps the most intimate thing that you do in your life,” said Norman Wirzba, Professor of Theology, Ecology, and Agrarian Studies at Duke Divinity School and one of Friday’s keynote speakers.
“When you eat you take the life and death of another creature into your body,” Wirzba told conference participants. “And this is a tricky thing for us to get our heads around because we live in a food culture where food has been reduced to a commodity. And as a commodity, you don’t find traces of life or death. You just have stuff, and it comes really neatly packaged. There is not a trace of feather or fur.”
Wirzba, who has written a book called “Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating,” said eating has become an act of ignorance and often, finding out from where our food originates has been complicated by major food companies.
Jennifer Ayres, Associate Professor of Religious Education at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, shared the stage with Wirzba as part of the keynote presentation.
Ayres, who has written a book called, “Good Food: Grounded Practical Theology,” said it is easy to feel overwhelmed and even despair over the current food system and its issues of hunger, exploited labor, and abused animals.
But she told the conference audience that just as the Eucharist, or communion, is an action grounded in hope and faith, so can our daily food practices be acts of faith and hope.
“In part, food practices work on us in the same way that the Eucharist does – they demand our whole selves, encountering God with our minds, hearts, and our bodies,” Ayres said.
The simple acts of education, awareness, and mindfulness were highlighted during the conference as good starting places for people of faith and congregations that may be in the dark about harmful practices.
Conference participants took part in tours and workshops looking at many of the positive environmental projects happening in and around Decatur and Atlanta. One group went on a tour of the BeltLine project and the Historic Fourth Ward Park, while another learned how to make bread. Another group visited the Truly Living Well Center for Natural Urban Agriculture which works to connect people with the land and their food.
Chef Tamie Cook led a workshop for the conference on Friday afternoon. The author and food stylist was the culinary director for Alton Brown’s Food Network show “Good Eats.” She talked to participants about being mindful in their own kitchens – from creating a grocery shopping list to setting the scene in the kitchen with music and lighting. She asked participants to ask themselves, “How is your practice of eating connected to or disconnected from your philosophy, theology, or spirituality?”
Other workshops were on topics like “Why Your Church Should Go Fairtrade and Organic” and “What Front Yard Farming Can Teach Us about Creation Care.”
Decatur Mayor Patti Garrett attended the conference Saturday and said she had both a professional and personal interest in the topics being discussed. Garrett said she has taught nutrition at Georgia State University, and the Decatur website notes she was “a Clinical Dietitian at Emory University Health Services.” Garrett said having the Caring for Creation conference in Decatur was a good fit.
“A lot of things being brought out in the conference are important underlying things that we all need to think about as citizens of our community and citizens of the world and how we live in a sustainable manner,” Garrett said.
Garrett said she is excited about a lot of the work Decatur has already been doing in that arena.
“It makes me proud of some of the things that we are doing – with the support of Global Growers – we have a partnership with Global Growers, we have a partnership with the Wylde Center,” Garrett said. “I think we are one of the first cities to have community gardening guidelines for people that want to garden on city-owned property.” Garrett said those initiatives were recognized by the Atlanta Regional Commission, which certified Decatur as a “Platinum” level green community.
In a town known for its restaurants, Garrett said helping businesses continue to use sustainable products and local food will be important.
“I think anything we can do to encourage the restaurants – and I think it’s also a great selling point for restaurants too that we use sustainable produce or we partner with places like White Oak [Pastures] or sustainable farms for their dairy products or meat products,” Garrett said. White Oak Pastures is the largest organic farm in Georgia and was featured in The New York Times in 2015.
Garrett said as new condominium and developments move into Decatur, it will be important to ask, “What can we do to make sure we are preserving and taking care of the environment for generations to come?”
Conference speakers encouraged attendees to continue asking questions and taking on issues of food origin and environmental care with their own communities and congregations.
“The membership of creation is the context by which we make sense of our lives. We don’t live as individuals. We couldn’t,” Wirzba told the audience Friday. “And so I think our primary work as church folks is to understand the wide reach of the gospel – a wide reach that is founded upon God’s creation of a world full of a diversity of creatures, all of which are intimately loved by God. And here’s the good news: when we do it well, rather than having to face pain and suffering and deprivation and loss, you get to have a good meal with people you love. What could be better than that?”