“I have provided all kinds of grain and all kinds of fruit for you to eat; but for all the wild animals and for all the birds I have provided grass and leafy plants for food” – and it was done. Genesis 1:29-30
Meet the Rev. Nicole Janelle, executive director of The Abundant Table, which is a grant recipient through The Episcopal Church Office of Creation Care.
Share a little bit about yourself. Tell us about your relationship with The Abundant Table.
I’m an Episcopal priest who found The Episcopal Church when I was in college studying religion. I was raised Roman Catholic in a wonderful, progressive community, but was thinking pretty seriously about ordained leadership and found TEC through that journey. And then kind of, somewhat classically, I went on to do what is now a recognized Episcopal Service Corps program in Los Angeles, the Episcopal Urban Program, and then went to seminary after that in NYC at Union. Then, I landed back in the Diocese of Los Angeles, where I really wanted to serve.
The Abundant Table (AT) was initially founded as a campus ministry to California State University, Channel Islands (CSUCI). It was looking to connect to its local community in a profound way, and the local context in Ventura County, where the university is located, is agriculture. It is some of the most expensive and fertile farmland in the world, and the food grown there is shipped worldwide. So, The Abundant Table (which it wasn’t yet called) was created through the help of startup grants through The Episcopal Church Center. The Abundant Table was looking for an executive director, and I had been at University of California, Santa Barbara for eight years, so it seemed like the right time for me. I was also looking at pursuing a master of public of health degree. AT offered these really exciting opportunities, including with public health and the ministry component. I was really excited to be part of this church-based organization that was reaching out to the community in different and varied ways.
Share a story in your current ministry or studies about a time when you felt blessed.
I know that I am blessed for the better by eating the products of the land week in and week out with my family. I receive the love that the farmers have poured into the land on a weekly basis, and I’m eating this amazing nutritious food that God has provided.
I am being changed by the conversations that our farmers are pushing us to have around equity on the farm. We have been very successful at getting grant funding at AT, and that’s been stabilizing for the organization and for our program-based offerings but has not shifted the financial reality for our farmers. I’m being pushed to have that conversation, and it’s a gift our farmers are giving us to have it.
This community is deeply ecumenical and lay-led and clergy supported. Many churches are clinging to a 1950s model of doing ministry, and Abundant Table pushes me to think outside that box. It helps me think about what new models of ministry are possible. Abundant Table is making an imprint upon me and I hope upon the greater Church.
Blessing is about being part of the cycle of giving and receiving, and practicing generosity and compassion. In what ways are you called to pass on blessings to others? There’s this deep sense, when it comes to the land, that it really blesses us through its natural beauty and with its produce, and we bless it back through our tender love and care of it, but it almost seems inadequate in the cycle of giving and receiving when we receive so much! I really hope we can be a model and an inspiration to churches to take back even just a piece of what we’re doing and put it in their own context.
How has The Abundant Table impacted you and your community?
We see more and more people across The Episcopal Church doing something similar. We started farming around 2008-2009, so I think we were among the first of what you might call a “model.” We’re a church plant and operate with a three-pronged approach: farm to table, farm to school/institution, and what we call farm to faith. Under the farm to faith umbrella, we have “Farm Church,” which is a church plant that evolved out of the campus ministry model. I would describe it as an ecumenically based community that is lay-led and clergy supported that meets weekly in locations around Ventura County, with the majority of attendees young adults and young families. Eucharist is a part of every service but not always as we would understand it in an Episcopal context. Then, we end with a larger breaking of bread, such as a potluck dinner that includes vegetables grown on our farm because we have a community-supported agriculture program (CSA) at the farm, so many Farm Church members are subscribers. The other piece under farm to faith is our continued commitment to working with young adults at a number of local college campuses, onsite but also inviting them to the farm where the transformation really happens. We also have an internship program through which local young adults learn from farmers about the land and leadership and sustainability.
Part of our mission is also giving CSA boxes to local farm families and providing education in immigrant and lower-income communities. A mission-piece that is close to our heart is being in community with these populations.
What about the Way of Love or the Jesus Movement gives you hope for the Church?
One biblical snapshot that we often hold up at The Abundant Table is Jesus’ feeding of the 5,000. There’s this idea that Jesus fed people, and that’s one way he expressed his love for the world is through this food, this nutrition. Our name, “The Abundant Table,” was dreamed up a few years into the life of the campus ministry piece, and we just fell in love with that image. We want to build this long table that is full of nutritious food, and we want that food to have a connection to the land. We want it to be grown with respect for the earth, and we want to participate in this act of sharing food with our community, just as Jesus shared food with his tribe. And projects like The Abundant Table really give me hope for the Church. The wide range of people we’re connecting to in our communities, whether that’s through a farm project or a simple encounter in a public square or an education effort or Rural and Migrant Ministries, that’s what gives me hope.
Are there any other thoughts about the practice of Bless that you’d like to share?
I try to be really open with people that have these dreams of marrying agricultural work with church-based work. We (Abundant Table) like to say that we try to spark conversations in the Church and the world around issues of caring for the land, equity, and food growing and sharing. We very much see that as a part of our ministry, and ultimately, we see ourselves as offering the Church this outdoor sanctuary where they can come and have an encounter with the “Divine,” have an encounter with one another, have an encounter with a number of The Abundant Table staff and really be transformed and inspired and moved by it.
TEC as a whole has been incredibly generous and helpful to The Abundant Table. If TEC had not be been behind The Abundant Table since its inception, we simply wouldn’t be here today. It’s because of your funding through various pathways and Church connections that we’re here, so thank you!