California farm project grows organic vegetables, future leaders, abundance

Episcopal Service Corps aim to revitalize ministry, change lives
March 19, 2010

Erynn Smith spends the bulk of her days in Ventura County, California's fertile farmland, helping to plant, water, weed, harvest, wash, pack and deliver as many as 85 boxes of snow peas, chard, peppers and other organic vegetables to community subscribers and local farmers markets. Other times with sponge in hand, she introduces students -- from preschool through college -- to environmental sustainability and life at the Abundant Table Farm Project (ATFP), a ministry of the Diocese of Los Angeles and a member agency of the Episcopal Service Corps. She explains that "the earth is like a sponge and it sucks up everything we put in it. When we farm organically we want to make sure we don't use materials that damage it." Her talks vary, depending on student age, but the visits are "universally transformative," said Smith, during a March 16 telephone interview from the half-century-old farmhouse she shares with four other interns from Southern California, Arizona, North Carolina and Kenya. Especially with younger students, "their experience with vegetables is usually limited to grocery stores." Smith's goal is to help them "see the connection to the earth. When we talk about roots and pull carrots out of the ground, their eyes open wide, their jaws drop and it registers, this is a carrot." Smith, 29, has both reconnected with her own roots and discerned a future vocation during a year of service and living in intentional community. And that's pretty much the goal of the Episcopal Service Corps, according to the Rev. Gary Commins, director of the ESC board and founder of the Episcopal Urban Intern Program (EUIP), one of ESC's longest-running programs. "We have programs for youth and college chaplaincies but nothing after that," said Commins during a telephone interview from his Long Beach office. "The hope is to develop the ESC to such a degree that young people growing up in the Episcopal Church will be aware of it and think of doing it as a year after college. The hope is that it will revitalize ministry." The year of living simply, intentionallyWhether sparked by the economic downturn or President Barack Obama's call to service, grass roots internships are springing up in local parishes and dioceses from New York to Los Angeles and young adults are flocking to them. The Episcopal Service Corps is a loose federation of about a dozen such programs. Interns, typically aged 21-30, spend a year in vocational discernment while engaging social justice ministries and living in intentional community. Participation is not restricted to Episcopalians, Commins said. Interns usually live rent-free and are paid a nominal salary, roughly $400 a month along with health insurance benefits. Each agency is tailored to respond to local needs, one of the program’s many strengths, says Sarah Nazimova-Baum, director of the New York Intern Project. "We're recruiting for our sixth year and have experienced convulsive growth," she said of the program, based at St. Mary's Church in West Harlem. "As of this morning, we had 86 applicants for five slots." NYIP interns have worked with disadvantaged children, people with HIV/AIDS, formerly homeless families and individuals -- doing case work, vocational counseling, teaching, administering start-up programs, and providing social support. Through considerable support from Trinity Church Wall Street in New York, the ESC network has nearly doubled in size in just a year's time. Agencies in Chicago, Newark, San Francisco and New Orleans and New Haven, as well as the Abundant Table Farm Project, are in their "zero" or first year. Trinity's support has enabled ESC to hire a half-time director, Commins said. Dioceses and parishes in Cleveland, Louisville, Kentucky and even his own church in Long Beach are interested in starting new programs. Other more-established programs are located in Washington, D.C., Omaha, Boston and EUIP, which Commins began in 1991, now located in Hollywood. Generosity and graceThrough the Abundant Table Farm Project both Smith and another intern Katerina Friesen, reconnected with their agricultural roots. Smith's great-grandfather "farmed one of the original farms on the Oxnard Plains, growing lima beans … but I had not seen plants growing and had not connected all of the agriculture around me with the food my family ate," she recalled. Similarly, Friesen, 22, said that while her grandparents grew up on farms in California's Central Valley, near Fresno, "it was seen that they were moving up by moving away from the farm, especially as it became more and more difficult to be a small farmer here in California." Along with three other young women, they have been sharing a 50-something year-old farm house, owned by Paul DeBusschere, a fourth generation farmer. He is married to the Rev. Julie Morris, a former Episcopal/Lutheran chaplain at California State University Channel Islands who now devotes her time to the farm project. Located on five acres of certified organic land not far from the famous coastal Point Mugu, the farm uses a community-supported agriculture model. Interns deliver fresh produce to about 80 local residents who have purchased seasonal subscriptions, typically for about $30 a week. Their days begin early, with 7 a.m. meetings to divvy up farming chores. After five to six hours in the fields, they wash, pack and load vegetables onto a refrigerated truck for deliveries. Fridays and Saturdays tend to be days off and on Sundays the spacious hardwood-floored farmhouse "comes alive" as interns and subscribers alike gather for worship followed by a community meal. Both Morris and project coordinator Sarah Nolan are EUIP alums and believe that experience sparked the farm project. Through ATFP, which grew out of the 10-year-old campus ministry at Cal State Channel Islands, interns learn "to appreciate how dependent we are on each other's labor," Nolan said. She originally dubbed her chaplaincy the Abundant Table Farm ministry before the “join the farm” project actually began. "We wanted to highlight what it means to be a Eucharistic community and how we live it out, not just gathered around a table, but in our lives. It made the Eucharist more relevant, not just a metaphor, but real." A $25,000 grant from Trinity Church in New York has helped ensure that interns and many others in the community "will never look at food the same way again," Morris said. "They will never be able to look at food on their plate apart from the labor required to bring it there and with their own calloused hands and the labor they now know." She said she also hopes interns gain a sense "that their Christian faith gives them the resources that are needed right at this particular time in history. They are spiritual resources the rest of the community needs to live in a way that will make this planet sustainable." "I meet people every week who say subscribing to the farm has changed their families," Morris said. "They don't eat out as much. They are eating healthy. The kids love coming to the farm to pick a carrot with their own hands, to see it grow in the earth. People who never cooked before, are cooking. It really does change people." Nolan said the ATFP serves as a reminder "that social justice and the church don't have to be mutually exclusive," she added. "That's a message too often sent to young people. These programs give us a safe space for hard questions to be asked without denying our religious affiliation." Smith, who holds a bilingual teaching credential from California State University Channel Islands, said she hopes to continue serving as a farm educator while Friesen hopes to help churches and local organizations create community gardens. "I hope to explore how the church, in particular, can unite people through food and growing food."