Fingers on the Same Hand
By the Rev. Jill Staton Bullard
In 1975, I planted a garden in the middle of the Kansas plains. It was my very first garden, my very first attempt at growing food. Farmer Fred, our landlord and one of the great heroes in my life, asked me how much ground he should till for me. He did not know this was to be my first attempt at gardening. I considered for a moment, then replied, “About an acre, okay?”
He laughed and said “Ok, if that is what you want.” Then he took his mighty tractor and plowed up an acre of land for me. I went to the seed store he suggested, purchased a serious amount of seeds and plugs, and went back to plant my first garden. I thought I could plant that garden in a day or two, but I quickly learned farming and gardening are hard work. I had not planned how to water the newly planted field, so I ended up carrying water out by the bucketful. By the end of the first month, I was exhausted and realized how foolish I had been in my naivety! Farmer Fred was right to laugh because I had not planned well at all - perhaps not planned at all, if I am truly honest.
I was done and undone. I quickly recognized that I had overestimated the time and effort it took to keep plants and crops alive. Then the weeds started. I left it to nature and took refuge inside the little house we were renting, spending the next five months watching the garden grow wild.
The amazing things was I fell in love with the wildness. I fell in love with the rich Kansas soil first, then the seeds and emerging green sprouts bursting through the earth, then the wildness of the garden - how the plants became shrubs attracting all kinds of birds and animals. I watched the effects of the changing weather on the land. I spent hours each day walking the plains with my little one in a carrier on my back, calling out to each other the names of the animals we were seeing: rabbit, deer, coyote, hawk, wild turkey and swallow. Even today, I dream about the beauty of that land and still prayerfully contemplate the lessons I learned there.
It was 44 years ago I met Farmer Fred and his wife, Delores, when I lived for a time in Wakefield, Kansas. I am ashamed to say I do not remember their last name. They changed my life forever. I can honestly say they even saved our lives. My firstborn was just six months old when we arrived, and almost everything I have done since then has been influenced by the two of them in some way. They helped me to see what it was like to depend on the land, to live in harmony with the land, to respect the land. When we were short on food, they shared their harvest, leaving baskets of vegetables, eggs and scrumptious pies. They never judged, never made me feel inadequate and never felt sorry for me.
When we started Inter-Faith Food Shuttle in 1989, it was their example I tried to emulate. In truth, I think of that whole mission as way to thank them for all they taught me about stewardship of creation and love of neighbor. Most importantly, they taught me those two things - care of creation and love of neighbor – never can be separated. “They are fingers on the same hand,” I remember Farmer Fred saying. When I have prayed about that phrase through the years, as when I first heard him say it, I am reminded of what it says in First Corinthians: The body has many parts, but there is only one body.
Here’s the truth: The health of the environment, the issues of local hunger, the crippling harm of racism, the problems of global poverty and the threat of losing the very existence of life on this planet are all interconnected. They are not separate issues; they are part of the same body, and we must address them together. The steps we take to do so might be individual, incremental steps because we each have to use our own set of skills and talents, but we do one thing, then another and then advance to the next. Or even better, we share the effort, each doing what we can with what we have; I water the garden as you clear the trail, each using the skills we were given and have developed.
For example, once the food recovery and distribution system of Inter-Faith Food Shuttle was established, we could study and then address the lack of access and lack of income issues that caused people to rely on soup kitchens and outreach pantries in the first place. We started to make deliveries directly into the neighborhoods that did not have grocery stores, using the knowledge of the folks in those neighborhoods to tell us where and when to distribute fresh produce and other needed foods. After establishing mobile markets and grocery bag deliveries, we added backpack buddies programs in school and then created school pantry programs. Nutrition matters, so we started nutrition education programs. To address income disparities, we started job training programs. Finally, we started a training farm for folks who needed land to learn how to grow for commercial production and for community gardens in food deserts to help families have safe places to grow their own food. I learned as they learned: Healthy soil is critically important. Compost matters. Water is essential. More than any other lesson, I watched as that basic connection to growing food, truly putting hands in the good earth itself, helped heal folks.
None of this was huge; we did what we could with what we had, all with help from members of the communities we were (and are) serving. The biggest life lesson we learned was that we are all in this together and dependent on each other to make it work. That is the key. We each do our part, and every part matters.
As I write this, the fires in the Amazon rainforest are just becoming headline news. I find it particularly distressing news because I have witnessed firsthand the backbreaking hard work thousands of Haitians do every day to plant trees in the mountains of Haiti, reforesting their island with fruit trees and hardwoods, planted for food and to stabilize the soil in order to remediate the flooding they experienced for years. For several years, I flew in and out of Haiti almost weekly, helping to raise awareness of their perseverance amidst the incredible challenges the country faces. As I learned about international reforestation projects, I realized how essential our environment is to life on this planet. I know it sounds ridiculous but it is true; finally, I stopped taking the environment for granted. I started to pay real attention, and I got scared. We really are so fragile. We (and I) have damaged our environment so thoroughly and blamed “others” for it.
That phrase in Eucharistic Prayer C that I on occasion have laughingly called the Star Wars prayer has become my daily heartfelt discipline:
At your command all things came to be: the vast expanse of interstellar space, galaxies, suns, the planets in their courses, and this fragile earth, our island home.
By your will they were created and have their being.
According to most sources, there are now more than 2,500 active fires in the Amazon rainforest, that beautiful mysterious place often called “the lungs of the earth.” Like you, my heart is broken, and my sense of concern is reaching red-alert urgency. I write this now as a means of expressing shared sorrow and a way to reflect on God’s call to each of us, the call to show up and pay attention, the call to lift our voices in prayer to God but also to leaders and politicians across the globe who are making decisions that affect us all. I cannot idly sit by because I truly believe the next line of Prayer C:
From the primal elements you brought forth the human race, and blessed us with memory, reason ad skill. You made us rulers of creation. But we turned against you, and betrayed your trust: and we turned against one another.
Have mercy, Lord, for we are sinners in your sight.
What can we do? Ah, that is the hard, hard, hard question. I have no answer, but I know from experience that we must start taking steps, one step in front of another - together when we can, by ourselves if necessary - because we are all one body.
Here is what I have done and am going to do:
I am going to write the White House, our senators and members of Congress again, insisting we rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement, and requesting we do something to support the Brazilian government as it deals with the crisis in the Amazon.
I am going to send donations to The Rainforest Trust, the League of Conservation Voters, and any other legitimate NGO that is working on this particular crisis or on climate change.
I am going to participate in the Climate Strike on September 20-27 to demand an end to the age of fossil fuels and climate justice for everyone.
I am going to join the Interfaith Creation Care of the Triangle advocacy group and attend events, listening, learning and participating. I am also going to pay attention to everything that The Episcopal Church, the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina, my community and my church are doing, joining when appropriate.
Finally, I am going to serve faithfully the environment in my care: the trees, the animals, the water, the soil, the compost and the air.
I ask that you continue to pray, that you share your thoughts and actions with me, that we work together when and if possible. I want to be able to say truly we answered God’s commandment to care for this great gift that was put into our care, this fragile earth, our island home.