by Lisa Devine
You visit the earth and water it abundantly;
you make it very plenteous;
the river of God is full of water.
You prepare the grain,
for so you provide for the earth.
You drench the furrows and smooth out the ridges;
with heavy rain you soften the ground and bless its increase.
You crown the year with your goodness,
and your paths overflow with plenty.
I gripped the steering wheel tightly, knuckles white and stiff while hunched forward in a rather futile effort to see better while driving. The windshield wipers flew back and forth at their fastest speed, but they were no match for the rain.
The wetness seemed to be coming from every which way; it was cold and the wind was blowing fiercely as I got out of my car to unlock the farm gate. I could hardly see what I was doing and my fingers fumbled with the lock as I stood in a puddle that went midway up the calf of my boots. One of our young adult mentors arrived and together we got the gate open and managed to get indoors.
My partner in implementing this project, Rev. Julie Morris, and I had agreed that we would proceed, rain or shine, with this opening day, but as the third wave of a storm series hit hard in late January, I wasn’t so sure it was a good idea. Wouldn’t it be so much cozier and more convenient to just be at home in front of the fire with my slippers and a book? Who was going to show up on a day like this?
But this was it, the first day of our new program, Journey Together at The Abundant Table Farm (JT@theAT), and we would gather and “journey together” no matter what.
Journey Together at The Abundant Table Farm (JT@theAT) is a farm-based community for people of all ages from all churches or no church, with an emphasis in supporting youth and their families. It is meant to reach out to those without a church affiliation and to small churches needing a “critical mass” of young people for their youth groups and Sunday schools. We meet in three seasonal six-week sessions (taking summers off) on Sunday afternoons at The Abundant Table Farm in Camarillo, CA (a 5-acre organic, non-profit farm created by Episcopalians and Lutherans).
Through joyful connection on the farm with land, food, neighbor and God, participants are supported in becoming grateful, compassionate, and justice-oriented stewards of the Earth and each other. Each week, folks first arrive and begin weeding a row of crops together in service to the non-profit farm. The group then gleans their snack from the field and comes together in gratitude for the chosen vegetable that started as a tiny seed. We visualize how the land, water, sun, labor and love have contributed to the food we are about to eat and we whisper, “thank you,” in a holy hush before continuing with the theme for the day.
The community then divides into age groups for simple reflection and activities based on a foundational scripture story. In our first session, we spent much time on Genesis 1, exploring the theme, “And God saw that it was good!” This current session we are exploring some of the myriad scripture passages that focus on water, such as the Psalm excerpt presented at the beginning of this article and Amos 5:24, “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” At the end of our time together, participants return to the field to harvest produce for their family’s dinner and then we conclude as a large group for a harvest blessing. During this time, different people volunteer to share a grace, prayer or blessing that is used in their own families around the table.
This winter we added new dimensions to the program we piloted in the fall for middle and high school students by opening it up to participants of all ages. We now have a “Parent and Me” group for babies to preschool age; elementary through high school age-groups; and even an opportunity for adults to do that “contemplative weeding.” Since the theme for the winter session is WATER, so perhaps it is just perfect that on the first week, we got a front row view of this magnificent (and much needed after years of drought) element in full force.
Even though some folks needed to stay home due to the weather, we still had an amazing turnout on that first day. Since we couldn’t gather out in the fields, we met inside and created “seed bombs” together: a mixture of soil, clay and native flower seeds that can be “tossed” into urban areas, gardens, parks and the like. The rain provides the water and the seeds plant themselves, eventually becoming beautiful California Poppies that will attract beneficial bees and butterflies.
Flash forward to the second Sunday which was bright, sunny and WARM with temperatures in the high 70s. This time we met out in the fields and tried to weed some of the stinging nettle that had sprouted in abundance due to the rain. OUCH! Of course, weeding can be challenging in any number of ways. In addition to the nettle, the bending over and standing up repeatedly, trying to figure out the best position for your legs, whether squatting or kneeling; it is rigorous work indeed. In fact, we see weeding as a spiritual discipline. Just as we remove the weeds that aren’t needed and deplete nutrients from the crops, we can also reflect on the aspects of our lives that mirror this. What isn’t nourishing us? What can we carefully and mindfully remove to make way for God’s love and abundant growth? What do we need to embrace such that we burst forth like the green and glimmering rows of carrots, spreading our roots and shooting upward from the soil? The possibilities are as plenteous as the water we have been blessed with this season.
Back out in the fields, the farm carrots were particularly challenging to harvest after the rain because the wet soil had become a bit like glue, holding on to the carrots for dear life! Fortunately, we later learned that a pitchfork is a lifesaver when harvesting carrots, allowing the tasty, orange shoots to let go of the soil that nourished them through harvest-time. One Sunday, in lieu of weeding for the farm, we enjoyed a lesson from one of The Abundant Table’s Farmers, Mike Roberts. With his help, our group harvested more than 240 pounds of carrots to be delivered to the Ventury County School District schools for their lunch programs, as well as our CSA customers. It was incredibly satisfying to see how much our group could accomplish in one hour. As with the weeding, it was also incredibly humbling to keep in mind all of our farmworkers who do this work all day long each and every work. How blessed we are by their labor!
As the youth and contemplative weeding group leaves each week, the Parent and Me group is arriving, each parent, couple (or grandparent) bringing their bright eyed little one(s), ranging in age from 7 months to 4 years. Their hour on the farm is loosely structured, spent mostly enjoying the freedom and beauty of exploring the fields. After blessing the harvest with the whole group, this special community gathers for a casual check-in and introduction. The adults get to share a bit while the little ones play, often around buckets of WATER (our theme for this session) with tiny cups, a simple yet delightful activity for small hands. After this, the families spend more time in the fields and then we end with a simple song. The pace is slow, the structure is simple and the energy is absolutely magical.
Each Sunday, I look forward to the time when we gather together as one community, from babes in arms to parents and volunteers. In these moments, I cannot help but to catch my breath at the beauty of it. That first week we were dripping from the rain, shivering a bit from the chill, yet still excited to be starting something new. The next week we had hats and sunglasses and could wear short sleeves. Each time, we can see the impact of the water as we watch the tiny
sprouts turn into food we can take home and eat around the table with our families. We can relish in the beauty of creation and the fruits of this land that feeds us in so many ways, week after week.
I am excited to see what else transpires during our Journey Together at The Abundant Table Farm (JT@theAT) and I am grateful to witness these seeds of community planted and germinating, giving way to a future full of growth and making way for the magic of springtime.
Lisa Devine is a seminarian at EDS, set to graduate with the last class ever from that seminary.
image: Bishop Diane Bruce meets with participants of Journey Together, a farm-based faith formation experience for all ages at the Abundant Table Farm in Camarillo, California.