By Rev. Jessica Stonecypher
“The Lord God took the human and settled him in the garden of Eden to farm it and to take care of it.”—Genesis 2:15
I’m a farmer. Well, really, I’m more of a community organizer seeking to bring people together around the idea of farming.
It’s an endeavor that I’ve been dreaming of for many years and I’m excited to be actively participating in a growing movement around local foods and urban agriculture in my community. When I discerned my call to environmental ministry, I knew it would be a struggle. There simply aren’t many who can wrap their brains around how or why an ordained minister would devote her life to such a vocation. But as I’ve grown into my role as a deacon, I’ve learned that I would be miserable without engaging in the work that drew me to set-apart ministry in the first place.
As a result, I landed a grant-funded gig with Muskingum Soil and Water Conservation District. I was hired to work primarily in the Putnam neighborhood of Zanesville, Ohio, to create community gardens in an effort to alleviate food insecurity.
Putnam has been deemed a “food desert” by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, meaning residents don’t easily have access to a grocery store. In addition to this injustice, the neighborhood also doesn’t have a laundromat or a pharmacy. It would be easy to conclude that the Putnam neighborhood has been neglected.
Even so, Putnam is a wonderful place. While it is deeply affected by poverty, food insecurity, and drug abuse, it is also a vibrant community where people are connected and most are striving to make it a better place. Non-profits, churches, businesses, and residents alike are working together to solve these problems. It’s simply amazing!
The place where I do much of my ministry is a local faith-based coffee shop called the Bridge Café. Yesterday, I stopped by to use the restroom and purchase an iced tea (it was a hot day in the garden). What happened during my visit provides a fitting snapshot of the ministry I madly love.
In just a few short minutes I encountered a group of fellow clergy meeting over lunch, two guests of my church’s homeless shelter, a local school administrator, a fellow community garden leader, and the owner of the coffee shop with whom I work closely on one of our garden projects. As a deacon, my love for the world and for my work in common places like gardens and coffee shops bring me the joy and energy I need to overcome the challenges of unconventional ministry.
I’ve learned that I would be miserable without engaging in the work that drew me to set apart ministry in the first place.
My work in connecting the church and the world is a tricky one that requires constant attention to what is appropriate for a clergy person who happens to work for the government. I am constantly thinking of new ways to go about it.
Some of this has been through preaching and teaching eco-theology as well as inviting parishioners into my work in the gardens. Just as exciting for me is the reality that living out my call to ministry is an act of affirmation and encouragement for lay members as they connect the church to the world in their own contexts. My hope is to offer others the freedom to think about ministry as a lifestyle rather than something one does only at church functions.
As I look to the future, I’ve been working hard to secure funding to continue my ministry after the grant period is complete in December 2017. This has required imagination and creativity about the future of my work. To date, my agency has applied for a United Way grant that would allow us to teach nutrition and gardening skills in Head Start classrooms and afterschool programs. We have also applied for a USDA Farm to School Grant in partnership with a local school district. Our largest grant application is through USA Today, which required the creation of a promotional video and a public voting period. We are now waiting to hear back about these grants in hopes that at least one of them will be awarded.
In the midst of all of the activity and hustle to make my ministry sustainable, I am learning the importance of relationships and trust in God. In a few short months I may be out of a job.
With that comes a great deal of anxiety. But it has also given me the opportunity to realize that God will not give up on me and most importantly God will not give up on the world. In return, I will not give up on my ministry as a deacon seeking to connect the church and the world around the issues of environmentalism and food justice.
Rev. Jessica Stonecypher, who will be ordained a deacon in full connection in the West Ohio Conference this spring, is Urban Agriculture Specialist at Muskingum Soil and Water Conservation District.