The Transition into a New Life: Church Land into Farmland

Leilani Clark July 11, 2018

Last sum­mer, young farmer Moses Kashem broke ground on a neglect­ed 1/​2‑acre of land owned by St. Simon’s Epis­co­pal Church in Mia­mi, Flori­da. A year lat­er, the lot has been trans­formed into a diver­si­fied veg­etable farm, pro­vid­ing crops such as let­tuce, heir­loom toma­toes, herbs, and egg­plant to Whole Foods, sev­er­al local restau­rants, and a 30-mem­ber com­mu­ni­ty sup­port­ed agri­cul­ture (CSA) program.

Orig­i­nal­ly from Bangladesh, Kashem launched his farm­ing career at Flori­da Inter­na­tion­al Uni­ver­si­ty. When a lease on state-owned land didn’t pan out, he turned his atten­tion to an over­grown 4‑acre piece of land owned by the church he had attend­ed with his wife, Erin, since 2013. The 28-year-old asked the church’s vestry if he might farm the land.

At first, some of the elders balked, but they even­tu­al­ly agreed to allow Kashem to sign a three-year lease, which he hopes to extend to 10 years. In exchange, he promised the church 15 per­cent of the farm’s prof­its along with out­reach through farm-to-table din­ners and cook­ing class­es. Some of the church mem­bers even helped him pay to fence off the land.

As a much younger per­son, it was chal­leng­ing to con­vince a very old con­gre­ga­tion to see the ben­e­fits of farm­ing — a lot of them asso­ci­at­ed it with pover­ty,” says Kashem. At first, I was very upset — I mean, this is a bar­ren field, and I’m try­ing to make it prof­itable for the church. I had to do my best to show them this is what I love to do.”

Across the nation and around the world, church­es own untold mil­lions of acres of land sim­i­lar to the ones Kashem turned into St. Simons Farm. The Catholic Church alone owns an esti­mat­ed 177 mil­lion acres glob­al­ly, mak­ing it one of the largest non­govern­men­tal landown­ers in the world. One Epis­co­pal parish was revealed to own 14 acres of real estate in Man­hat­tan, worth more than $2 bil­lion, after a 2013 law­suit forced the church’s coun­cil to become finan­cial­ly transparent.

But most church land hold­ings aren’t in high-priced cities. They’re in count­less rur­al loca­tions from Maine to Cal­i­for­nia — with land deed­ed over in wills by for­mer parish­ioners or pur­chased over the years by church leaders.

Reli­gious bod­ies sit on a lot of lega­cy land,” says the Rev. Nurya Love Parish, an Epis­co­pal priest, sus­tain­able food advo­cate, and a leader of a bur­geon­ing Chris­t­ian Food Move­ment. And yet, she points to the fact that, from a reli­gious per­spec­tive, land is part of Cre­ation and needs to be man­aged with wisdom.”

In a sign that this move­ment is start­ing to gath­er steam, Parish, Kashem, and oth­er mem­bers of a diverse array of reli­gious com­mu­ni­ties gath­ered ear­li­er this year at what is believed to be the first event focused on con­nect­ing farm­ers with land, in ser­vice to their communities.

The Inter­de­nom­i­na­tion­al Move­ment to Con­nect Faith and Land

In March, 35 lead­ers from across the U.S. who are work­ing at the inter­sec­tion of faith, eco­log­i­cal stew­ard­ship, and farm­ing” gath­ered for the inau­gur­al Faith­Lands event at Paicenes Ranch in California’s Cen­tral Val­ley. With­in this ecosys­tem of faiths, the par­tic­i­pants spent three days strate­giz­ing about how to inspire faith com­mu­ni­ties to use their land in ways that pro­mote and strength­en eco­log­i­cal and human health, local and sus­tain­able food and farm­ing com­mu­ni­ties, and repar­a­tive jus­tice.

Noth­ing like this has hap­pened before,” says Steve Schwartz, exec­u­tive direc­tor of the Inter­faith Sus­tain­able Food Col­lab­o­ra­tive, and a mem­ber of FaithLand’s core orga­niz­ing com­mit­tee. Some­times when you see folks of dif­fer­ent reli­gions or denom­i­na­tions in the same room, they can’t avoid talk­ing about where they dif­fer. To lean in togeth­er to work on some­thing we all care about — land stew­ard­ship and peo­ple mak­ing a liv­ing while feed­ing their neigh­bors — was a breath of fresh air.”

Schwartz has worked on solu­tions to the prob­lem of land access since his days as the direc­tor of Cal­i­for­nia Farm­Link, which helps farm­ers — par­tic­u­lar­ly begin­ning and immi­grant farm­ers — gain access to land and financ­ing. In 2017, he start­ed to look into part­ner­ing farm­ers with faith-based orga­ni­za­tions. Schwartz reached out to a long­time ally, Sev­er­ine von Tscharn­er Flem­ing, direc­tor of The Green­horns, a sus­tain­able agri­cul­ture orga­ni­za­tion that advo­cates for young farmers.

These part­ner­ships were start­ing to form in var­i­ous places, but the move­ment was miss­ing infra­struc­ture,” Flem­ing says. We saw ben­e­fit in some sort of ori­en­ta­tion, inter­pre­ta­tion, shar­ing of sto­ries, and networking.”

Flem­ing views church­es as untrained land trusts in bib­li­cal cloth­ing,” in part because U.S. con­gre­ga­tions, parish­es, and dio­ce­ses aren’t required to pay tax­es on their land.

As con­gre­ga­tions across many faiths see their mem­ber­ships get old­er — the aver­age age of mem­bers of Angli­can, Methodist, Epis­co­palian, and Pres­by­ter­ian U.S. denom­i­na­tions is between 56 and 59 — the ques­tion aris­es of what will hap­pen to land owned by the church, espe­cial­ly in pre­dom­i­nant­ly reli­gious rur­al Amer­i­ca, where the con­sol­i­da­tion of agri­cul­ture has con­tributed to a shrink­ing econ­o­my and dwin­dling populations.

As we exper­i­ment with new ways of stew­ard­ing, restor­ing, and access­ing land, church-owned prop­er­ties are a place for pos­si­bil­i­ties to unfold,” says Fleming.

The Green­horns and Schwartz were joined in this effort by Rev­erend Nurya Love Parish, Kathy Ruhf from Land for Good, Andrew Kang Bartlett from the Pres­by­ter­ian Hunger Pro­gram, and others.

As a reli­gious leader, it mat­ters to me that we care about Cre­ation,” Parish says. We can’t do that with­out the help of sci­en­tists. We can’t do that with­out the help of peo­ple in the food equi­ty, food access, and food sov­er­eign­ty move­ments. We can’t do that by our­selves. These are tables we need to be at. Yet, too often [church lead­ers] iso­late and silo our­selves from these wider robust and dynam­ic con­ver­sa­tions.”

Three years ago, Parish cre­at­ed Plain­song Farm and Min­istry with young farm­ers Mike and Bethany Edward­son on fal­low acreage in West­ern Michi­gan. The land was owned by Parish’s fam­i­ly, but is spon­sored by the church, and she’d like it to become a demon­stra­tion project for what’s pos­si­ble on a wider scale. It was 10 acres and a house,” she says. The church has land like that hun­dreds and thou­sands of times over.”

Plain­song Farm focus­es on 1 acre of bio-inten­sive and organ­ic cul­ti­va­tion of veg­eta­bles, fruits, and herbs. In addi­tion to a CSA, they host both sec­u­lar pub­lic envi­ron­men­tal edu­ca­tion work­shops and farm min­istry pro­grams. For Parish, the farm answers the ques­tion: How do we tend our land as part of our nat­ur­al growth in liv­ing into the val­ues that we pro­fess?” She’d also like to see reli­gion renewed and rein­vig­o­rat­ed by more direct engage­ment with land through food.

Our scrip­ture starts with Gen­e­sis in the gar­den and ends with Rev­e­la­tion in a gar­den in the city — with Jesus in the mid­dle invit­ing us to a meal,” Parish says. If we’re seek­ing to trans­form our food sys­tem in a way that’s going to be ben­e­fi­cial not only for our­selves, but for our great grand­chil­dren, how can the church put [its] land into service?”

Church Lands as Pub­lic Lands

Jil­lian Hishaw attend­ed Faith­Lands as an agri­cul­tur­al law expert and is the founder of Fam­i­ly Agri­cul­ture Resource Man­age­ment Ser­vices (FARMS), an orga­ni­za­tion ded­i­cat­ed to help­ing Black farm­ers stay on their land. She com­mends the gath­er­ing for unit­ing diverse voic­es from the faith and sus­tain­able food com­mu­ni­ties. She also asks why some peo­ple were left out of the con­ver­sa­tion entirely.

There weren’t any Native folks or tribes there,” Hishaw says. At the end of the day, they were the orig­i­nal land hold­ers. Is the church will­ing to gift back some of those land hold­ings that were orig­i­nal­ly owned by Native people?”

In Hishaw’s view, the church is a pub­lic ser­vice enti­ty, mean­ing church-owned land is for pub­lic use, not just for its mem­bers. So who tru­ly owns the land? Vacant church lots, land, and build­ings held tight by hier­ar­chy and doc­trine is squeez­ing the life out of the church,” wrote Hishaw in a blog post. There is an urgent need to help the church tran­si­tion to a new life. Per­son­al­ly, this is what the [Faith­Lands] con­ven­ing sym­bol­ized to me.”

At the same time, Hishaw has seen first­hand the com­plex­i­ties of work­ing with church­es. She warns that the process can be hin­dered by restric­tions and long time­frames because of pro­to­col and leadership.

Faith­Lands atten­dees left with a list of com­mit­ments to pur­sue. The Green­horns are cre­at­ing a guide to work­ing with local church­es, and they’ll present on the top­ic at upcom­ing Eco­Farm and Bio­dy­nam­ic Asso­ci­a­tion con­fer­ences. Inspired by the New York City-based 596 Acres, a group of Catholics com­mit­ted to map­ping Catholic Church-owned land that might be suit­able for sus­tain­able agri­cul­ture, a steer­ing com­mit­tee coa­lesced to artic­u­late the shared val­ues and the­o­log­i­cal prin­ci­ples (across faith groups) that inform and inspire the Faith­Lands move­ment. And farm­ers such as Moses Kashem will coach oth­er begin­ning farm­ers on form­ing fruit­ful land part­ner­ships with church­es, espe­cial­ly when it comes to secur­ing long-term leases.

Regard­less of what comes of Faith­Lands, Rev­erend Parish says she’s awed by what she’s seen so far. And she thinks the nascent move­ment could mark the begin­ning of an impor­tant set of shifts in the way faith-based groups see land use.

This is some­thing that’s wide and large,” she says. Nobody has the answers yet. It’s a discovery.”

The Move­ment to Turn Church Land into Farm­land” was orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished by Civ­il Eats, and is repost­ed from Yes! Mag­a­zine thanks to a cre­ative com­mons license. 

Leilani Clark is a food and cul­ture writer in San­ta Rosa, Cal­i­for­nia. She is also the edi­tor of Made Local Mag­a­zine, which tells sto­ries from the Sono­ma Coun­ty food sys­tem. She is a reg­u­lar con­trib­u­tor at Civ­il Eats, KQED, and The Press Democrat.
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