Permaculture and the Church

When I first learned about permaculture, I couldn’t help but think of the church.  Particularly missions, but even just the campus of the church has enormous potential for being activated as a place of learning and development of life skills.  To give them credit, the churches do have lots of great programs for these things.  What I started to envision, however, once I started learning about and visiting ecovillages, is that the many kinds of intentional communities out there are really trying to create something that the church already has – community.  Participation, people, a campus, a budget, and a whole world that can be created by those people, all centered around their faith.

I know this well, as I was very much a part of just such a community, growing up.  My dad was a minister of recreation, youth and singles until I was ten, and during my middle and high school years I was very involved in the youth group.  We were a community, and we had tons of fun. The church was the ultimate ecovillage experience, minus the eco.  And though we were like a village, we all lived in suburban dwellings within twenty or thirty miles from San Antonio.  People came from a long way out to be part of the community at First Baptist San Antonio, yet few people lived near the church, downtown, and nobody lived at the church. 

Once I started studying community outside the church, I really started wondering why that is.  Shouldn’t we be making much more use of the campus?  For one and a half day per week, things were really happening.  And programs like sports, crafts and other organized activities would happen from time to time, but for most of the time, the church is mostly empty.  The staff are there, mostly in the offices, five days a week, but on those days, everything is very quiet.  I spent so many hours of my early lifeat that campus, and I have a good sense of how underutilized it is. 

You can imagine the response I got when I first started bringing this idea up with people at the church.  I didn’t even bother making a proposal officially, after the feedback I got.  It’s just too radical for an institution that is pretty set in its ways.  Not to mention they already keeps themselvs busy with full time, year-round programming.  Anything I had in mind would take lots of work to undertake, and who would do it?  And live at the church?  That’s crazy.  It’s not designed for housing.  Putting in a park and little residences all around it on one of the parking lots?  Goodness, no! 

Anyhow, it was clear to me that what I wanted to see was too radical for the church.  Yet I felt like our interests were totally aligned - we are all striving to be part of a community of service-oriented fellowship, a larger community of diverse people of all generations - but I got that the church didn’t really think that cleaning up our messes here on Earth was our work.  Reducing our impact, cleansing our own lives of excesses and waste, and creating a better way for people to live seemed to me like a goal that anyone could get behind.  Even if people in the church agree with the importance of all those things, they don’t usually see it as being the church’s business to become an ecovillage or start these home-economic permaculture programs.  It’s just not what they do.

So my question is, why not?  My question was, that is.  I got my answer from Sarah Robinson of Audubon Park Covenant Church.  At Audubon Park, they’re already well onto the fact that permaculture is very in-line with the mission of the church. 

The campus of their church is gradually becoming a permaculture project, so to speak.  It will remain, of course, a church with a Christian Congregation, whose regular church program will not be affected.  Their walk from the car to the church is what will be affected, along with their desire to come early and stroll about the grounds more than they are ever drawn to with most of it being a lawn.  Restoring our world is not just about cleaning up toxic waste and ending wars.  It is also about turning more and more spaces into beautiful, productive gardens.  Making our places beautiful, in the way God did.  All the messes of the world, all of the biggest problems, are mankind’s doing.  God created a paradise, and we screwed it up. 

Christians agree with this.  But they get into original sin, the curse God supposedly put on his first children for disobeying him.  I don’t go for it, honestly.  I’ve always understood God (nature, creation and creator) to be loving and forgiving.  Jesus saw him this way too, and his parable of the prodigal son, to me, makes the curse of an angry Yahweh seem absurd.  That’s not how God is. 

But anyhow, I won’t go down that path right now.  We are focusing on a living example of how churches and local permaculture groups can create a mutually advantageous relationship.  It’s way simpler than my grand vision of the church members moving to the church and homesteading there (more appropriate for a church of FBC’s size than Audubon Park), and it’s a first step in a symbiosis that will surely grow as the two groups cross-pollinate.

I have seen some things similar to this before, though not to the degree that I found in Orlando.  In Bend, OR I visited a church which had opened up its grounds to some young permaculture minded gardeners who set up some really nice gardens on the church campus.  (Pictures here are in a slide carousel.)

The first step in the case of Orlando was when Sarah offered the church campus as a venue for the monthly permaculture potlucks that were happening on undeveloped land.  Camping and fires are great, but for meetings and presentations, a hall with seating, a stage, sound and projection is better.

It was only natural that the church campus became an obvious and juicy pallet for a bunch of permies.  It helped that the Fleet Farming program was already established in the area.  There church was in a neighborhood, and many of the front yards in the area have been converted to gardens, which were installed and are harvested by a fleet of bicyclists who come around and keep an eye on the gardens, taking things to market when the time is right.  The residents get to eat from the garden too, and they have do none of the work, though I’m sure they can.

Audubon Park Covenant also made the campus available as a location for compost bins in the compost collection program, where more bicycle fleets of earth re-greeners come around and collect kitchen scraps from homes and restaurants, compost it, and return with good soil for the land there.  Being in the middle of a neighborhood with lots of accounts, the church is a perfect fit.

Sarah even tells me that she’s gotten the go ahead from the congregation to let the permaculture group put in a more complete design.  Redo the whole grounds, which are currently mostly a lawn.  Food Not Lawns is a program growing in popularity, and I consider churches like Audubon Park Covenant to be ahead of the curve by getting involved in these programs, which benefit all of us, and the Earth.  Sarah considers Earth-care to be something central to the Christian life.  And I agree!

Care of Earth is also central ethic of permaculture, along with care of people, which happens to also be a big aspect of church ministries.  I met Sarah at the permaculture meeting that took place at the church, and arranged with her to come back the next day to talk a bit more about the whole idea.

She was kind enough to do a video interview with me, which also includes John Erik, a young man from Canada who had come all the way to Orlando because of what Audubon Park was doing with these permaculture programs.  Someone else who thinks it makes perfect sense for the church to start doing this kind of stuff.  John Erik not only grew up attending Covenant churches, but his father is a pastor, so he is in a great position to be a bridge between these worlds and help make some stuff get real.

For my Christian friends, I really hope you’ll watch this discussion, which we only really began on the video.  It will take many more discussions, and I hope to have Sarah on Permagora again via the web so we can continue the conversation.

I too feel like I could help to be bridge between the church and the permaculture world, and I still hope to be, to whatever degree I can.  For now, simply to be putting these kinds of stories out there is what I can do.  Perhaps in the future I’ll be able to do more.

The thing is though, we could all be doing more.  Be we church-goers or not, we could all be organizing locally around the idea of cleaning up our neighborhoods and towns.  Creating beauty and productivity, creating habitat for animals, creating jobs and a way of life for those who would live it… this is our potential.  It takes organization, and it takes faith, but it can be done.  So regardless of what creed we espouse, let’s all look to working together to solve some simple problems and start taking steps in the right direction.