Tomorrow morning, on a rare day off from studying systematic theology, reading the New Testament, and parsing Hebrew nouns, I am headed to my Contextual Education site, Berea Mennonite Church, for a solid day of work. Unlike many of my peers, however, I won’t be keeping office hours or preparing a sermon for Sunday morning (though I certainly do those things). Instead, I’ll be wielding a hammer.
There’s a leaking well-head out behind the education building that needs to be fixed. I’ll build a concrete form so that someone else can pour the concrete and keep the plumbing stable. Additionally, the congregation is interested in growing its flock of chickens, so I’ll be researching and building a brooding box for the four-dozen chicks we hope to order before it gets too cold. Sheep pens need to be rotated on pastureland. Vegetables need to be harvested in the community garden. There is always work to do!
If this description of one (admittedly atypical) day doing Con. Ed. sounds a little different, it is because Berea is a different congregation. Our two simple buildings (one for education and fellowship) occupy roughly nine acres of land on the borders of East Atlanta Village and Gresham Park. Much of the land is rented to a commercial farmer who shares our ethical convictions about food (sustainable, local, organic), and the rest is used by the church for its own farm project. We maintain a flock of chickens, a herd of sheep, and a large permaculture garden out front. It is a different kind of congregation.
At first, I was nervous about how doing Con. Ed. at Berea might shape up. After all, I’m taking a degree in theology, not horticulture, and there are important ministerial skills one needs to acquire during this yearlong internship. I didn’t (and still don’t) want to function as just a theologically reflective farm hand. Thankfully, this hasn’t been the case. Instead, my time at Berea has helped me reconcile old divisions in my thinking, especially the gap between theological (read: intellectual) activity and physical labor.
I’ll begin with the theological. We typically take communion once a month at Berea. One of the things I’ve come to realize during these moments is that Jesus is mediated to us by means of a meal (I was raised in churches without much focus on the table, so it’s taken me a while to get this one). Of course, this statement is full of theological meaning. To meet with someone at the table is to share intimacy and vulnerability, and it is amazing to think of God sharing that kind of life with us in the bread and wine.
But this theological claim – that God meets with us at table – also reveals important claims about human labor. If we insist that God reveals God’s self in a meal, we come to realize that, in a profound way, God cares about food. And if God cares about food, God must also care about the way that food is grown, transported, prepared, and consumed. This is where the labor comes in. We mustn’t be content to simply claim that God cares about food. We must be willing to work at creating just food systems in the world. That’s why tomorrow is a work day. The well-head provides water for our livestock. The new chickens will be raised ethically and will provide fresh, cage-free eggs to the congregation and the neighborhood. The sheep remind us where our food actually comes from, and challenge us to remember our place as creatures in this creation.
At a deeper level than all of this, however, is the simple fact that labor can be a good and holy thing. It is not a failure for a well-off, modern, educated human being to work with his or her hands. In labor, there is a sense of accomplishment and the deep fatigue that comes from expending energy in a positive way. There is a fellowship in common labor that I have rarely encountered anywhere else. Even when working alone, there is fellowship with God, who labors with us to build a kingdom where everyone will have enough to eat.
In many ways, I am still unlearning the old division between the life of the mind and the work of the body. Join me in thanking God that communities like Berea exist, that Candler sends its students to work in those places, and that there is good work to do, wherever you are.