An Interview with Chas Edens

anathoth aerial

Chas Edens is Director and Garden Manager of Anathoth Community Garden in Cedar Grove, NC.

TWI: What makes a good farm?

The impulse for most of us modern folks is to think of land in terms of its potential (a forest for its paper, a mountain for its coal deposits) and to see a place as an object to impose our will upon; hence the long tradition of lusting after or idealizing the “perfect” farm or distorting a place towards a utopian vision. I can attest that farming is very intellectually stimulating work, as well as physically and spiritually engaging, but I also believe that as soon as a farm becomes abstracted from the particularities of its place the act of farming does violence. So reluctantly and reverently a good farm should grow out of the limits and possibilities of a place to generate the health of both land and people. A good farm is small. In fact, I think the word “garden” is preferable because it contains more of a theological connotation.

TWI: What farm—that you have either designed or helped tend—are you most proud of?

Anathoth Community Garden started in 2004 in response to the nearby murder of a man named Bill which most believe was racially motivated; Bill, a white man, was married to an African-American woman.  A community prayer vigil was held at the site of the murder and the visions of two amazing women converged. Scenobia, the descendent of a sharecropper, envisioned donating a five-acre parcel of her family’s land to a predominately white Methodist church. Grace, the first female pastor of the Methodist church had a vision of using land to foster holistic reconciliation and feed people. The gifted land was cultivated the following spring and Anathoth became a reality. The garden is named after the city in Jeremiah 29, in which the prophet charges the Israelites to “plant gardens” and “seek peace” as a politically subversive act while Israel is under the siege of Babylon. Anathoth’s mission is to cultivate peace by using regenerative agriculture to connect people with their neighbors, the land, and God.

TWI: Why are you proud of it?

I am proud of Anathoth and those involved with it because through gardening together we have attended to the root of some of the most profound issues in our culture today. To borrow a term from Wendell Berry we have sought to heal a “hidden wound.” Most other communities in America, especially those located in the rural South, share the wound of Cedar Grove. American Indians were exploited and effectively removed; African-Americans were forced from their homes and brought here to do the work that white European settlers did not want to do; and today, few small farmers remain while Latin Americans are pressured to come here to continue to do agricultural work on factory farms until, presumably, bio-tech companies can figure out ways for crops to grow and harvest themselves. Thus, stepping into the garden and rubbing shoulders with our neighbors is deeply uncomfortable, because amongst the sweat and sore muscles we confront a modern history of the desecration of people and land.

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On this small plot of land we call Anathoth, I believe we are also returning to a place where our story begins and turns as Christians: a garden, the place where humans first communed with God (Gen. 2). In the Christian drama humans were made from the soil—adammah—and given their primary vocation there, to preserve and keep the soil.  Yet, it is also in a garden where humans chose to worship their own cleverness, or as Bonheoffer wrote so well, where the boundary of our creatureliness was transgressed

Today, I think the popular conception is that we can resolve problems such a race, the environment, politics, and the economy (which derive from  this human-land-God rupture in Eden) without understanding how these complex issues are integrally tied to the ways in which we presently (fail to) live and identify ourselves in a garden. Even worse, many Christians believe these problems are something we should try to avoid or endure while we “save souls” on our journey to heaven.

I think of Anathoth as a place of at-one-ment. Those of us who are courageous enough to come and work are choosing to place ourselves within a biblical story in which we can resist the bogus contemporary stories which evaluate our worth—and the worth of all creation—in terms of utility rather than their intrinsic worth as the creation of a loving God. It amazes me that Christ taught his disciples to re-member him by eating food, and I think we miss the radical nature of this when we don’t partake of the communion meal very often or reduce it to a mere symbolic act because we have such a vague understanding of where food comes from. As Christians, I think eating the body of Jesus should challenge us to reflect more deeply on what we eat and with whom we eat around the common table—tasting what Norman Wirzba describes as “the love of God made delectable.” Hence the Eucharist meal should help us conceive of all creation as a wondrous gift to enjoy, care for, and share.

Conceiving food in this way demands the hard work of reconciliation, but it is undergirded by the promise that one day our communion with God, neighbor, and creation will be restored (Rev. 21). I am so proud of those who have faithfully participated in the hopeful task of gardening and eating together at Anathoth.

TWI: How have you developed your own sense of calling and theological language for your work? Are there any tensions or complexities that still trip you up when you think about your work being part of God’s work?

There is a fundamental garden-oriented vocation that all of us need to reclaim. I jokingly tell people that I developed my sense of call to farm by growing up on a family farm; by which I mean that I grew up in a suburban neighborhood that had been developed on top of a family farm. Despite living in the ‘burbs, my parents did expose me to many opportunities which cultivated my sense of call in other ways. For instance, my family lived and worked in a backwoods camp called Pioneer’s Plunge when I was 12, and upon graduating from high school they encouraged me to go on a cross-country bicycle trek. Each opportunity shaped the way I think about the interconnection of body, work, place, community, and Christian discipleship.

Nevertheless, as a white, American man, I have been influenced in subtle ways (through media, peer pressure, etc.) to assume that I am entitled to success—entailing how I should move from place to place, traffic in abstract ideas, separate work from exercise and beauty, assert power over those who are different and therefore inferior while still feeling emotionally and spiritually at peace. The supposition then is that as I reach the middle of my life I should remedy discontentment by transferring “success into significance”: joining a non-profit board, starting a foundation, or sponsoring a child in Africa.  I think this logic is delusional.

Yet, this dualism of career and ministry is so pervasive in American culture in part because talk of vocation is often shaded with careerist/specialist language. I don’t think that careers are bad, but too often I worship the idol of capitalism by seeking full vocational assuredness in a career. I’m a non-profit executive director. I’m a farmer. No, I’m a teacher, a pastor. As a church, we should teach people more holistic ways of resisting the dangers of capitalism, than by simply telling folks to volunteer, give money to charity, or take time for a personal Bible study. We need to offer people an alternative vision of human flourishing which begins by conceiving good work as a form of worship, while also acknowledging that careers which perpetuate the murder of creation cannot honestly be described as good work.

Teaching this truth about vocation might save those in my generation who are disillusioned by the career-ministry dichotomy and so have already taken an ironic stance in relation to their work. This isn’t really me, I’m just pretending. I can’t be defined by a job or any overarching narrative because I have exposed the hypocrisy of them all.  This running joke is despairing because we all want to be sincerely engaged with the world through the work that we do. To echo Jamie Smith, we are all liturgical creatures who need a story married to embodied practices to form our imagination toward ends that are good. Such embodied practices, I believe, extend beyond the sanctuary and include our work, which in a garden regularly requires the Christ-like act of kneeling and serving. Thus, the garden offers a vocational vision and posture which is biblical and compelling.

Chas Edens is Director and Garden Manager of Anathoth Community Garden in Cedar Grove, NC. Chas holds a BS in Horticulture from NC State and Masters from Duke Divinity School, but has received his primary education by weeding beds of strawberries and turning compost piles. He lives with his wife, Hannah, and beagle in a two-hundred year old tobacco barn which has been converted into a cabin.

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