The Field-work of Reconciliation: Land, Healing, and Agrarian Theology

Written by  Julia Sendor //

I am a white farmer, farming on land that was given as a gift, by a black farmer, to be a space for neighbors to come together after an unsolved murder in their community.

“Healing divisions by growing food together” – that’s the mission of our work at Anathoth Community Garden & Farm. This work comes from pain and from love. It is an honor and a challenge and, I have come to see, requires continual learning to do with integrity. I hope that by telling some of Anathoth’s story, I can pose vital questions and challenges for other white people and white-centered groups seeking to reckon with brokenness and to work for healing. 

Anathoth’s story began fourteen years ago, in the rural township of Cedar Grove, North Carolina, when a beloved store owner named Bill King was shot and killed. In a community, like many, divided by race, by ethnicity, by language, and by income, people who didn’t share much in most of life shared in mourning Bill’s death. Bill, a white man married to a black woman, represented community and connection in many ways. His store, by all accounts, had become a gathering place where neighbors from across Cedar Grove felt welcome and safe.

To respond to the shock and sadness and fear in the wake of that murder, Valee Taylor, a local black community leader and farmer, joined forces with Grace Hackney, the white pastor of Cedar Grove United Methodist Church. They hosted a prayer vigil at the store, the site of the murder. Over 100 people from across Cedar Grove showed up to be together: this was the first time most had stood together on the same piece of soil at the same time.

At that vigil, Valee’s mother, Scnobia Taylor, caught a vision. A descendant of sharecroppers and daughter of one of the largest landowners in Orange County, Scnobia envisioned creating a place where people could continue to gather across divides. She gifted five acres to the mostly-white Methodist church to become a community garden called Anathoth. The name comes from a Biblical passage where the prophet Jeremiah summons the Israelites to “plant gardens” and “seek the peace of the city” in response to violence (Jeremiah 29).

The garden project, now its own non-profit, grew to include a farm – we’re now Anathoth Community Garden & Farm. Fellow farmers, interns, students, and 200 families now share in the work and food. Over 100 varieties of fruits and vegetables, in a dazzling seasonal rainbow of flavors and colors, surge through the soil, through our hands, and into wax produce boxes that we distribute throughout the surrounding community.

Each week, we pack 200 harvest boxes to deliver through a sliding-scale CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) project. And every Saturday of the growing season, we slow the production-focused pace of farming and invite community members for a garden workday, to teach and learn gardening practices, and to share a meal together.

I love Anathoth. I love the community slowly forming around the work of tending land. I have come to love the land itself in a visceral, heart-swelling way.

But I also know we are farming on deep brokenness. The first version of this article I ever wrote, I described some ways I see that brokenness in the community: white farmers housing black and Latino farmworkers in homes with no running water or electricity, with doors that stay busted through the winter, with roofs leaking water that rots the floor. I wrote about nearby white farmers deep into debt, some in federal prison for tobacco market fraud – one who committed suicide last year. It is all true, and it is all pain.

What I didn’t write in that article, and what no one from Anathoth has actually ever written when telling our story, is about another form of brokenness. Since Anathoth’s beginning, all six of the permanent staff hired have been white. Anathoth has been staffed by one to two people at a time over the years, and all of us were hired from outside the Cedar Grove community. This includes me, too. I am white, and though I’m from the same county, I grew up in the university town of Chapel Hill – so separate from rural Cedar Grove that I didn’t even know this township was part of our county till after I graduated high school.

The vast majority of our board members have been white, as well. Most have also come from outside Cedar Grove — or, if they lived in Cedar Grove, had arrived here as adults. In a tradition-steeped community where many families have lived and farmed for generations, that distinction is significant. In other words, the brokenness we must reckon with also includes our own broken systems of power, compensation, and the culture of how we work. That’s also true, and it is also painful.

Anathoth’s inequities follow national patterns: as recent studies by the Urban Institute and D5 have found, 86 percent of nonprofit board members and 92 percent of nonprofit executive directors are non-Hispanic white people.

I write this not so much as a confessional, but as a challenge and an invitation – to ourselves at Anathoth, and to other white-centered non-profits and ministry groups. How can we honestly reckon with the ways we may perpetuate the same inequities we seek to heal? In the last decade I’ve spent working in nonprofits, on farms, and in ministry, I’ve seen how much many groups depend on projecting a shiny, benevolent image. Even efforts at equity often veer towards tokenism, focusing more on the optics of “diversity” – rather than questioning the system that led to so much brokenness.

What would it look like for those of us at Anathoth, and within other nonprofit and ministry groups, to commit to deeply examining the culture, values, relationships, assumptions, and power dynamics that shape our group? I’m eager for white-centered groups committed to healing work to share honestly, and with integrity, about our own struggles and blind spots. As we do so, we emphasize our commitment to continual learning — to living out more deeply the values that drew us to this work in the first place.

To understand why a commitment to equity is so vital, and to better understand the depth of inequity that shapes our lives, it’s important to clearly see history of race in America – the parts of this history we all should have been taught more fully, our whole lives. In every field of work — from religion to medicine, education, banking, real estate, the justice system – you will find the same patterns:

Since arriving on this continent’s soil, white Americans created a definition of race to assert power, gain wealth, and exploit others. Colonial Virginia’s lawmakers concocted the first complicated legal definitions of “black” and “white.” This invention enabled whites to cherry-pick their favorite parts of being human. They could amass status and wealth from owning land, stolen from indigenous groups, without having to work the land – while still being allowed to tout values of equality and justice. Those who were forced into the injustice simply didn’t count, in the white rationale. Whites’ comfort, power, and even sense of virtue could continue unscathed.

As I have worked with a commitment to healing relationships between people and the land, I’ve learned some of the continuing, horrific history of race-based land theft. For example, between 1920 and 1993, African-American land ownership dropped 96 percent. The networks of “good old boys” in the USDA and Farmers Home Administration discriminated against black farmers by delaying and refusing their loans. Blocked from legal access to writing wills, many black farmers also couldn’t will their land to one heir. Land, in a racist system, became a burden, rather than a blessing, for people of color.

The more I learn this painfully warped history of white supremacy and how it relates to every aspect of our lives — from land and food to ministry, medicine, and more — the more deeply I understand the short-sightedness of knee-jerk efforts to “diversify” the work. If our work is founded in systems and cultures, ways of relating to people and land, that are unhealthy at the core, then simply “including” more “diversity” will not alone fundamentally re-shape the core.

The more I learn our history, too, the more I realize the power of Anathoth’s “origin story” of Scnobia Taylor’s gift. A black woman, a rare landowner, she chose to give her land to the community – via a white church. Her gift turns every convention of ownership and dominance upside down. Her gift took visionary love and placed it on five earthly acres.

Now committed to tend this land, how can we at Anathoth honor her gift? And how can all of us who are white, who are committed to the work of tending and healing, continue to see, mourn, and begin to re-shape the brokenness still shaping our present day?

The working of farming itself offers some answers. Anathoth, for example, was founded within the vision of agrarian theology: in essence, a call to see the humble experience of being human on earth as a sacrament. It’s a call to reclaim and redeem the work of tending land from its wrongful place as a shameful and painful chore, one to be avoided however possible until the  heavenly afterlife. Agrarian theology calls us to re-tune the body and soul to each other and to the tasks of earthly life. Listen to the soil. Delight in the holy sugar of the sun-kissed blueberry. By calling us to embrace our humble place as humans on earth, agrarian theology calls us to reckon with reality. In order to begin healing our relationship with the land, we must be willing to be transformed, physically, spiritually, and as a community, by real human work. Agrarian theology tells us that this transformation, this attuning to reality, can be a sacrament.

But how can we honestly enter that work, how can it truly be transformative in the ways it needs to be, unless we reckon with the damage done and ongoing, from a dominant white culture that has viewed land as a commodity to steal? How can we reckon with the damage from a culture that has viewed the work of tending that same stolen land as a burden to be forced upon others — a culture that invented racial definitions to excuse that stealing and forcing?

Here’s where I hope to deepen and extend that agrarian vision of a sacred, necessary reckoning with reality. Faithful farmers attune their work to respond to the land. We commit to staying with the whole of the work, rather than running away from the parts that are less comfortable and convenient. What if we also attuned our work to respond not only to the land, but also to our painful and racist history with the land? For those of us who are white, what if we also commit to this work, rather than running away from what seems uncomfortable and inconvenient?

At Anathoth, we’re still learning how to respond to this history. We’re still learning to see how it shapes our present. We are learning how to begin to talk honestly about how our way of working is embedded a culture founded in racism, in white supremacy, in colonizing. We are committing to continual learning. We can seek ways to remake broken patterns of how we form relationships, what kinds of wisdom and experience are valued, who makes the decisions, who is entrusted with the work. As we shape our work around the values of those in our community most impacted by racism and injustice, we can better understand how to form the relationships and structures that center around the voices, visions, and practices most needed for healing.

As in farming, there is no one right answer for the way to do this work – that’s both the challenge and the opening for faith, joy, growth, and love. Like farming, the work of reconciliation requires paying close attention to the place we are, and to the people we are working alongside. As with farming, though, we can approach the shifting landscapes and dynamics with an inner compass that values loving, reciprocal relationships. And like faithful farmers, we are called to look honestly, listen humbly — and to get to work.


Full day photo shoot at the Anathoth Community Garden and Farm in Cedar Grove, NC for The Duke Endowment Friday, July 7, 2017.

Julia Sendor is the Director and farmer at Anathoth Community Garden & Farm. Now in her eighth year of full-time farming, she is grateful for the chance to have circled back to her home county in North Carolina. Her commitment to nurture a place where people and land can nourish each other is grounded in the perspectives and stories learned from previous work as a newspaper reporter, community organizer, and student of Environmental Studies, as well as family and community members whose own lives have centered around storytelling, land-loving, and truth-seeking. Julia lives in Hillsborough, NC, with her husband Andrew.

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