Author transcends distraction to find deep faith

Published 12:00 am Sunday, September 29, 2013

For anyone searching to satisfy a spiritual hunger, turn to Fred Bahnson’s “Soil and Sacrament: A Spiritual Memoir of Food and Faith,” which will provide moments of revelation and deep connection.
Bahnson’s longing is to find a balance between his deep spiritual desire to feed people, especially those on the margins, and his life as a husband, father and member of a larger society.
His journey covers his experiences as the director of a church-based community garden, as a visitor to the Trappist monks of Mepkin Abbey in South Carolina, as an overly optimistic worker in Chiapas, Mexico, at the Pentecostal Tierra Nueva in Washington and at Adamah Farm, a Jewish community, in Connecticut.
Bahnson, a Duke Divinity School graduate, was asking, “What am I supposed to do with my life? What is my place in this world?” Instead of sermons, he turns to Scripture and soil. Burned out from his work at Anathoth, a church-based community garden, Bahnson visits other such experiments with land and people.
“I traveled as an immersion journalist, but also as a pilgrim. This journey was a quest to find those modern prophets who might teach all of us better ways to be at home in the world,” Bahnson writes.
He visits the Trappist monks of Mepkin Abbey in Advent, and finds their days of prayer, praise and work a way to be closer to God. “I wanted a routed spirituality; wanted to meet Jesus crouching there in the dirt, scribbling a few words.” The monks raise a variety of mushrooms to earn their keep. Bahnson hears profound advice from Abbot Stan, who tells him: “If our work is to share in the creative activity of God, then it is precisely not a dominion of power or self-aggrandizement. It is one of humility before the creative presence of God; work must serve to realize our humanity, to fulfill the calling to be a person. …”
Bahnson next describes his time in Chiapas, Mexico, in 2001, where his eagerness to help people is nearly overwhelmed by poverty and politics. He is a Community Peace Activist, but isn’t sure where to go from there, except back to the land, where he finds himself in high mountain coffee fields.
The spring after his visit to Mepkin Abbey, he ends up at The Lord’s Acre, in his native state of North Carolina. The Lord’s Acre is a modern take on an earlier experiment. This is a half-acre, and a very productive one that stocks a local food pantry for much of the year. Here he meets Susan, a woman he finds most Christlike. She works without tiring, she befriends all, from young to old, poor to rich, handicapped, mentally ill, spiritually dry. When a woman named Emma starts stealing things from that garden, Susan gives her a chance to change her life — why steal from a free garden? Why not become part of it?
Bahnson quotes Susan: “Everyone who comes here hungers for something. Some hunger for food. Others hunger for community. Or beauty. But we all hunger.”
Bahnson then goes back to 2002, when he is able to work with Harvey Harmon in his gardens, with names like Africa, Utopia and the Beautiful Garden. Harmon is known for his efforts to live off the land and on the fringe. He learned, Bahnson writes, “that you can never fully design a sustainable human environment; you can only give your spirit and mind and will to the work, laying your hands on the world with a benediction of labor, and pray that you might create something lasting and good and true.”
At Pentecost, Bahnson winds up at Tierra Nueva, in Washington, where he meets, among others, a former meth cook turned coffee roaster, the symbol of serving the people on the fringes.
The founders of Tierra Nueva seek the young, violent offenders, to ease their anger through hard work. Many have succeeded there, and stayed on to keep the dream alive. Founder Bob Ekblad “sees the higher priority as helping people deal with their underlying insecurities that drive them into consumption, or criminal behavior, or addictions.” Tierra Nueva is a new kind of Pentecostal experience — ecstasy, a high in the spirit.
The book’s final visit is during Sukkot at Adamah Farm in Connecticut, a Jewish community garden. Sukkot, also know as the Feast of the Tabernacles, is the fifth day after Yom Kippur. Bahnson experiences deep spiritual stirrings here, although he is a committed Christian. In the work, the service to others and the Jewish traditions, he finds the ancient roots of Christianity in the prophets, the holy singing and sharing at table. The workers at Adamah honor the land that feeds them and others, and Bahnson finds an ancient and modern love of God.
The celebration of the Shabbat, the Sabbath, with the Jewish community, prompts Bahnson to ask: “And we moderns, in our similarly ceaseless craving for productivity and entertainment, don’t we, too, genuflect before the altar of the Endless Economy? How we fail to recognize this insatiable beast that is devouring the world, and devouring our souls as we bow. What if, from sundown to sundown one day a week, we simply stopped — everything? … What if resting in God became our life’s goal?”
Bahnson’s beautiful journey, his spiritual discoveries are inspiring. His journey transcends religions and settles deeply into faith and a personal relationship with God. Truly, this book can be a transformative experience for many. Bahnson peels back layers of assumptions and meaningless routine to show a rooted faith that brings the reader closer to God.