Oakleaf Mennonite FarmSometimes discerning a call can be like a game of connect the dots.

When Andrew Toney, now a 2nd-year MDiv student, came to Candler, he knew he wanted to focus on peacebuilding and food justice, but hadn’t yet found a way to join the two into a vocation.

“In undergrad I studied asset-based community development, which helps people in a community develop their own resources. But I came to Candler to find a deeper connection between food systems and nonviolent conflict resolution,” he says.

It was in Jennifer Ayres’ Religious Education and Ecological Context class where Toney started to see that connection.

Ayres, assistant professor of religious education and director of the Religious Education program, focuses much of her work on the theology surrounding food. Her new book, Good Food: Grounded Practical Theology (Baylor University Press, 2013), delves into matters of theologically sound practices in farming, environmental responsibility and sustainability and the ways they can deepen the Christian faith.

Ayres says she sees a growing involvement in these food justice issues at Candler.

“Many students here are deeply interested in urban farming, intentional communities and other ways of life that are fulfilling, environmentally sustainable and deeply faithful.”

This interest has led Toney and other students to Oakleaf Mennonite Farm at Berea Mennonite Church, a nine-acre working farm only six miles from Candler’s campus. There, nestled in the heart of the urban landscape, they help work the farm, tend to livestock and harvest produce.

“The Mennonites have this phrase about ‘being the quiet in the land,’ which really applies here,” Toney says.

Hoping to help address local concerns about gun violence in the farm’s surrounding neighborhoods, Toney worked with Ayres to create a curriculum for a three-week summer camp called “Peace and Carrots.” Over 50 children joined Toney and others to work side-by-side with farmers planting and harvesting, taking care of animals, and enjoying the work of the farm.

“It’s been a way to come into a community to focus on what’s good and help discover the resources that are already around them. It’s helping combine peace an ecology in a sustainable, livable way,” he says.

And a transformation is happening in him as well, Toney says.

“The slow, steady work of putting hands in the ground, the mystery of what happens underneath the soil, the curious surprise of discovering a bright red tomato on the vine … these things are conditioning me, forming me into a particular type of person. I’m learning to see the bits of divinity dripping from these small gifts, wonderful and awesome in their complexity.”

Related story: Ayres’ Good Food Brings Theology to the Table