God, Too, Has A Hand in the Soil


By Fr. Michael Woods, SJ

Anyone who has ever eaten a fresh vegetable from a garden he or she cultivated knows the difference in taste. Fresh produce that one harvests and eats right away is still living, the nutrients still coursing through its cells. There is, as well, the immense satisfaction of knowing that you labored creatively with God’s abundant earth to bring forth this simple healthy goodness. Gardens, by nature, make us generous.

Author Fr. Michael Woods, SJ
Eden, a word which means “delight,” was inhabited by Adam (soil) and Eve (life). In the beginning, God gets dirty, and, with a hand in the soil, gives us the breath of life. God is intensely involved in the world. Life with and in God commences with our inseparable bond to the earth. How could it be otherwise? If one eats, one must also “tend and till” soil, gratefully receiving back the life it yields.

Ignatian spirituality could be likened to that garden. It is a spirituality that engages and delights in a world full of beauty, goodness, and justice. At the same time, it demands that one “get dirty,” laboring in places and in circumstances that are ugly, sad, evil, and unjust, that challenge people’s hope and joy.

At the core of this spirituality is Jesus who steps into the beauty and brokenness of the world. He gets his hands in dirt and spit and makes it something sacramental and healing (Jn. 9). He restores broken people to wholeness, community, and God. Jesus wraps his hands around bread—fruit of the earth, work of human hands— and blesses it, making ordinary food something more that also restores people to wholeness, community, and God. Ignatian spirituality delights in the good and does not shy away from getting dirty. One dwells and labors with God in this beautiful and fragmented world, reconciling people and creation to God. Ignatian spirituality is eminently incarnational and sacramental, and thus redemptive.

My work at Wheeling Jesuit University (WJU) enables me to engage this beautiful, broken world in many ways. I say, half jokingly, that I have my dream job: “I keep a hand in the classroom (teaching theology) and a hand in the soil (farming), I try to keep us from trashing the planet (sustainability programs), and I remain close to God’s poor.” For me, this combination of academic, pastoral, and social justice work gives concrete expression to what Pope Francis calls integral ecology and fulfills the Jesuit call to reconcile creation and people with God.

High-tunnel greenhouses, built on the former Lincoln Homes site, protect crops from cold weather and extend the growing season.
My central passion, however, relates to food justice. For the last year, I’ve worked with Grow Ohio Valley (GOV), a local non-profit founded by Danny Swan, a WJU alum and recent recipient of the Moira Erin O’Donnell Emerging Leaders for Justice award. The program reclaims abandoned city lots, grows good, healthy food, and seeks to make that food accessible to all, especially those in the struggling Ohio Valley, part of the depressed Rust Belt.

Our work is focused in East Wheeling, but it is a place indicative of other urban areas, a food-insecure neighborhood and region. At GOV, I am one of the farm hands, tending and tilling the gardens. I absolutely love this aspect of my work, being outside and working hard, close to God’s beautiful creation, cultivating good, healthy vegetables, ultimately destined for those who hunger—not only for food, but also for health and community, wholeness. This makes me rejoice. One of the great joys is being at our Mobile Farmer’s Market, a converted food truck, seeing the life and excitement on people’s faces at the abundance of God’s good earth, while knowing that we worked hard to bring that all to market. While GOV is neither religious nor Christian in its vision, I am convinced that it is a work of the Kingdom of God.

One of the four East Wheeling lots reclaimed by GOV, and on which we now grow food, was once an entire city block with a thriving ethnic community. People lived, worked, played, fought, and rejoiced there for over 150 years! In the early 1970s, eminent domain was invoked—the people relocated, their homes demolished—and a highway overpass was built. The abandoned lot became overrun with weeds and trash. It played host to all sorts of drug activity, prostitution, and the homeless.

About six years ago, Danny asked the city if he could use it to put in a few raised bed gardens. It is located on 18th Street, and so it was affectionately called “Farm 18.” Here you have this abandoned parcel of land with very little soil depth, let alone good soil, degraded in all sorts of ways. We still pull lots of rocks and debris, left over from the demolition of homes, out of the soil. You have a poor community, also degraded in too many ways.

Grow Ohio Valley’s Farm 18 sits under a highway overpass, awaiting the first plantings of spring.

You should see Farm 18 now! It is a veritable urban Eden. For six years, GOV has been rebuilding the soil through the constant task of adding organic matter, such as compost, leaves, wood chips, and chicken manure (on site). “O God, how I thank Thee for this chicken manure!” In places where there were just a few inches of topsoil, one now finds this rich, black, nutrient dense soil, more than a foot deep in some beds. Billions of microorganisms live in this soil—they too are our farm hands! What was a rather haphazard use of the irregularly shaped lot, on a slope, is now a maximized growing space of over 8,000 square feet of intensely cultivated beds. At the height of the growing season, this garden is lush and abundant. And it is shared! The creation that groaned here (Rom. 8:22) has experienced redemption, restoring health to land and people.

In addition to getting this food to market, GOV has several other programs. For eight weeks last fall, on Wednesday evenings at Northern Community College, about ten single mothers gathered for “Dinner in a SNAP.” SNAP stands for Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program and is a crucial federal program that helps low-income persons purchase food. Chef-instructor Gene Evans leads the group, teaching them to prepare simple, healthy crock-pot dishes—cut it up and throw it in the pot! Many of the vegetables come from our GOV gardens. These women not only learn to prepare good, healthy meals—countering the culture of the convenience store diet that contributes to many of their health woes—but also enjoy a sense of community, which is felt among all involved. Many of these women have suffered mightily, and so, to see them rejoice, feel encouraged and empowered, brings them, and us, a deep gladness. Food has the capacity to do this, does it not?

On Thursdays last year, our Mobile Market traveled to Health Right in South Wheeling, a medical clinic serving low-income persons. Thanks to a grant procured by Dr. Sue Greco through a program called “Farmacy,” some thirty households receive $25 per week to spend at our market. When the patron-eaters arrive, they report to the “doctor” who greets them, chats a bit, and then promptly writes them a “prescription,” which is a recipe for healthy eating. They then go to our Mobile Market truck to purchase some of the necessary vegetables and other ingredients to take home. But before they depart, and thanks to West Virginia University Extension, the dish they will prepare at home can be tasted there. It is delicious, healthy food, grown on an abandoned, degraded parcel of land, destined for the bellies of the poor, who experience a sense of belonging, care, and community. This is true health.

I have used the word “health” several times. The Latin word for health is salus, which is where we get the word salvation. This word is all encompassing, implying wholeness and healing. In my view, this makes the work of Farm 18 a salvific one, in which creation and people are redeemed and brought to a fuller life.

If this is not a Kingdom work, nothing is. Come and see for yourself and, with God, get your hands in the soil. Our salvation depends on it.

Father Mike Woods, SJ, serves as sustainability program coordinator for the Appalachian Institute. He is also a part-time faculty member at Wheeling Jesuit University, teaching religious studies, philosophy and sustainability.

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