The holy city of Armenian Apostolic Church is located in a town called Echmiadzin located just outside the capital city, Yerevan. It's here that the catholicos resides as the leader of the church. For the sake of comparison, Armenians recognize him as a pope-like figure and Echmiadzin as a kind of Vatican. We made our first visit to this city and immediately realized how much we had to learn about the Armenian church. The central cathedral is located here as well as the seminary which trains priests for the ministry. Here are few pictures by way of introduction.
You might have noticed that pictures of bakeries and bread have been showing up here on the blog. While in South Africa I got the opportunity to work in a bakery and I felt a strong connection to it. It's enjoyable, physical work and I valued the fact that people get to enjoy good food as result of your labor. There are many theological connections to bread as well so it has been fun to meet people whose vocation is lived out in the bakery.
Here are some of the bakeries we've come across in Armenia in our short time. Anna does an amazing job getting these photos while simultaneously translating from Russian so I can be part of the conversation too!
The next set of pictures is of a lavash bakery. Lavash is one of the national foods of Armenia and it's delicious. We stumbled upon a bakery where the women were just finishing up for the day and they were glad to have us take a look. I'm hoping to see the whole lavash process from start to finish while we're in Armenia, but this was a good intro.
We arrived in Armenia last Thursday and it's been great week of being introduced to this special little country. You might be wondering where Armenia is and also why we've decided to spend time here. I'll be trying to answer that over the next few months, but let me give you a little background information. Armenia is a small country (I'm guessing about the size of West Virginia) and is located in what's called the Caucasus region which is roughly the area between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. It shares borders with Georgia to the north, Azerbaijan to the east, Iran to the south, and Turkey to the west. In other words, Armenia is a crossroads between Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. While in search of guidebooks, I found that bookstores would sometimes shelve Armenia in the Eastern Europe section while others would choose either the Central Asia or MIddle Eastern sections. Suffice it to say that Armenia is tough to categorize. There is a lot more to say about Armenia's history and its relationship to its neighbors. I'm sure I'll be learning more about that in the coming months too.
I have many reasons for choosing Armenia as one of the sites for my fellowship. This year we've been engaging questions about Christian faith, creation, land stewardship, farming, and food. In Armenia we'll be shifting gears a bit. We came to Armenia in search of an ancient Christianity. It is said that this was the first country to adopt the Christian faith in 301. Armenians take great pride in this and see a strong connection between their land and their faith. Furthermore, Armenia is a kind of forgotten Holy Land, a place where ancient churches and remote monasteries are an integral part of its geography. We are hoping to gain some understanding of this holy geography in our travels.
For now let me share some pictures of our first week here in the capital city of Yerevan.
Our flight from Jo'berg to London was through Dubai. The ticket became substantially cheaper if we stayed in Dubai for a few days, and we were happy to oblige. Anna had never been to the Middle East and we were both curious about a place made so famous for its excess. We wondered if there was more to the story.
Because Anna and I are into a little less bling than the new Dubai offers, we opted to explore some other parts of the city. This did not disappoint. Dubai is a modern day crossroads, a center of trade, and there are so many different groups coming in search of a new start. It's fascinating to walk through older parts of town with so many different nationalities represented. Here are few things we saw.
I am going to try to get caught up here and share what Anna and I have been up to the last month. After our time with the churches of the Ondini Circuit in KwaZuluNatal, we moved north to finish our trip in Johannesberg. We were hosted by Anna's cousin's wife's aunt and uncle who live there. When I write that it seems like a far flung connection, but it felt just the opposite. We were made to feel right at home and had a great few days there. We aimed to hit some of the major sites around town including the Apartheid musuem, a tour of Soweto (Jo'berg's most famous township), and 'The Cradle of Humanity,” an archaeological site famous for some of the earliest hominids. That said I didn't do a great job of getting pictures, but suffice it to say we learned a lot about South Africa's ancient history as well as it's troubles in more recent years.
Our sojourn in South Africa ended after three months. I'll be honest, it's not the easiest place we've travelled. Among other things, there's the continual question of safety and the varying advice you get about the precautions to take. But It was sad to leave South Africa, especially with the feeling that we had only scratched the surface. It's a place the defies easy summary and is fascinating for an outsider. It is a beautiful place, from the dramatic landscapes of the cape to the vibrant and unique cultural traditions of its people. We were blessed with many great experiences.
With this fellowship I set out to learn about land, specifically through the lens of faith. South Africa is a place that will force you to think about that at every turn. Consider a quote made famous by Desmond Tutu: “When the missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land. They said, 'Let us pray.' We closed our eyes. When we opened them we had the Bible and they had the land.” The country continues to grapple with this heritage that Tutu described so poignantly.
Last week was one of the highlights of our time in South Africa. Through my internship site in Southwestern Minnesota we were able to get connected with a group of Lutheran churches here. This global partnership of congregations was a great chance for us to get into a rural area of South Africa and learn about ministry in this context. Our hosts in the Ondini Circuit were Dean Xaba and Lee, the chairperson of the partnership. They were gracious hosts, open to all of our questions, and showed us around.The first day of our visit Dean Xaba had us accompany him to the funeral of a young man. It was held at the family's home and it was packed with people. We received a nice welcome as guests and it was a very powerful experience for us take part in. Here are a few pictures of the funeral which Dean Xaba insisted that we share.
On Sunday we were went to worship with a congregation in Ladysmith. The service was full of music and dancing and the pastor was gracious to preach his sermon in Zulu and with English mixed in so we could understand. Another powerful experience for us.
During our time we stayed in the guesthouse at the Kwazamokuhle Diaconic Center which is part of the Lutheran church here. Taisha is one of the ELCA young adults in global mission volunteering here in SA and she is based at Kwazamokuhle. She showed us around the center as well as the pre-school she works at a couple days a week.
There is a communion wafer bakery at Kwazamokuhle. It was special to see how these are made. The bakery was a nice reminder of how God comes to us in an earthy way–flour, water, and a little heat, facilitated by human hands.
Dean Xaba also gave us a tour of some other projects that Lutherans having going on in this part of KZN.
It was an amazing few days for us to be at the Kwazamokuhle center learning about ministry and community development in South Africa. A big thanks to Dean Xaba and Lee for hosting us! Also a big thanks to Taisha for showing us around and sharing about her work in SA!
Soon after we left Camphill we took a flight to Durban in KwaZuluNatal, a province in the eastern part of South Africa. After a couple days in Durban we drove inland to Pietermaritzburg where we met some folks working in South Africa through ELCA Global Mission. These are the wonderful hosts who took care of us: Tessa, Jon, Isaac, and Sophia.
Tessa and Jon lead the 'Young Adults in Global Mission' (YAGM) program of the ELCA here in South Africa . They were kind enough to show us around and give us their impressions of living and working here. One of the highlights of our time in PMB was being in worship at the Lutheran seminary.
Tessa and Jon also got us connected with Laura, one of the young adults serving as a volunteer in the program. She lives in an area of KwaZuluNatal where sugar cane fields blanket the land. We were curious to know more about the sugar industry and the work of the laborers in the cane fields. Laura's host father Joseph is a former parish pastor who now leads a ministry for the workers. Many mornings during the week he goes out into the field to have devotions before harvesting begins for the day. He also leads bible studies and other activities with the workers. It was great to chat with him and learn about his ministry.
Joseph also introduced us to Ron who owns a sugar cane farm and supports the ministry that Joseph does with the laborers. Ron gave us a tour of the sugar cane fields as well as his timber operation. Here is some of what we saw.
This was a special day of learning for us, particularly because it brought together many of the issues facing South Africa. The men we talked with on our visit to the sugar cane fields expressed deep commitment to their work that grew out of their faith. For Joseph this meant sharing good news with farm workers and bringing a word of strength amidst tiring work. Ron was committed to supporting this ministry across racial lines as well as providing employment for local people. For me they represented people trying to move forward together in a country still grappling with its past.
A special thanks to Tessa, Jon, Isaac, & Sophia for your wonderful hospitality! Also thanks to Laura for a great day!
On Wednesday we said goodbye to the many friends we made at Camphill Farm. Like the Asian Rural Institute in Japan, Camphill was a place that welcomed us and gave us a glimpse of how farming can create community and quality of life. Part of Camphill's mission is to provide meaningful work for people with developmental disabilities. This is achieved as the residents help to work the land and provide food for themselves. Some worked with herbs, some baked, some tended pastures, some gardened, some made dairy products. It's a noble and yet challenging way of farming, aimed toward caring for people and for the land above caring for profit margins. I understand that that might sound sentimental but I don't think it makes it any less worthy of a cause. I learned a lot from the people I worked with and I know Anna can say the same. Here are some pictures of the people and places we said goodbye too.
Jesus was a fellow who knew about bread. It was his go-to topic, the currency he dealt in, a medium for his message, sometimes a metaphor, sometimes the literal stuff that fills stomachs. You look at the Gospels and over and over you see this word bread, artos, along with the ingredients and actions that accompany it: wheat, yeast, baking, harvest, eating, hungering, etc. 'I am the bread life.' 'Give us this day our daily bread.' 'Taking the five loaves and two fish…' '…unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.' 'The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough.' 'This is my body given for you.' And while this is not nearly exhaustive, suffice it it to say that Jesus spoke the language of bread.
I spent two days a week in the bakery at Camphill this past month. The bakery provides all the bread for the residents of Camphill farm and Camphill school along with the bread that is sold at local markets. While my short time in the bakery doesn't make me an expert on anything bread-wise, it was a really fine opportunity to see what it's like to experience bread on a larger scale than the average home baking adventure. I was especially excited to be in the bakery with all that bread because, as a preacher who from time to time reflects out loud on Jesus and his bread-speech, I figure I ought to know a few things about it.
There was one particular detail in the bakery that I neglected to get on camera. Between each round of dough that was scaled and formed, we would scrape the table and remove any flour and sticky dough that remained. We would then take these scraps, along with anything that remained on our hands, and collect them into a bowl. By the end of the day this bowl would be full. What might have been wasted scraps could now be used to make the sourdough starter for the following day. It was a neat process to see how your leftover bits from one day could become the material to make the bread rise and give it flavor the next.
Bread is very basic stuff from the ground: flour, salt, yeast, water. It can be fancy or it can be humble. Some might use a perfectly calibrated oven, but many around the world know how to tend a simple fire for their baking. Covered in flour and hands in the dough, I sensed that making bread is an art and a science, reminding me that the two are not so easily separated, their relationship and balance so necessary for our survival and happiness.
I think part of the reason Jesus spoke the language of bread is because it's a language we can understand. 'Man cannot live by bread alone,' says Jesus. And yet in his life he goes ahead and feeds hungry people with bread anyway. In this we see a very important tension in Jesus' life and ministry. Physical bread–a means of justice for the poor and hungry, a fruit of God's creation–is essential for the world. And yet even a bakery running at full-tilt cannot provide all that is needed for life. 'I am the bread of life,' Jesus says to those who hunger. Jesus insists that we have needs beyond the rumbling of our stomachs, and yet he still longs that those same stomachs be filled with life-giving food. This is the tension we chew on: The bread of God comes down from heaven…The bread of God comes up from the earth.
So that's a few thoughts about what the bakery taught me. Special thanks to Anna for getting these pictures! It was difficult to handle the camera in the flour and fast pace of the bakery so that was a big help.
“And he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.” Deuteronomy 26:9
This is Anna, Pete's wife. Pete was kind enough to let me step in with a “guest post” about my time in Camphill, and particularly my work in the Dairy workshop and with the beehives. Throughout the Bible, imagery of milk and honey is used to describe both richness and beauty of land, people, and relationships. These past weeks have been a chance to learn more about a whole category of foods I love, but never knew much about- milk, cheese, butter, yogurt, and honey- and to learn about the ancient and rich art of their production.
Like Pete, several mornings a week begin with milking the cows whose milk I'll later work with throughout the day. Although it's early, there's something really special about standing in the milking parlor, the cows calm and a little sleepy-eyed, as the dawn comes and a new day begins.
From there, the milk goes several directions. Some is stored in churns, some in a large chiller tank. On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays we separate and distribute milk, still warm from the cows, to all of the residential houses and workshops. On Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays we make cheese, gouda and feta. On Tuesdays and Thursdays we make yogurt (we don't make cheese and yogurt on the same day, as we don't want to the two cultures to cross-contaminate). And every day we spin, press, mold, cut, weigh, and wrap butter. On Thursdays we process the orders for local shops and co-ops, and on Fridays we prepare for Camphill's Saturday farmstand at the local market. It's a full week, but I get to work with some wonderful women– together we're from South Africa, Germany, Zambia, and the USA. And it's special to think that we work with something that women, both human and animal alike, have nourished life with for generations upon generations.
In the world of dairy, it is all about a balance between preservation and spoilage. By allowing the milk to “spoil” in a particular way, either by souring the buttermilk, or adding a bacteria culture to the yogurt or cheese, it is preserved for much longer. How ironic that by allowing this very thing we would want to prevent– the milk to “go bad”– we are actually helping the milk to last much longer, and creating the cheese, yogurt, and butter we love. But we have to put a lot of trust on many other hands, that those who were milking checked diligently for mastitis… that every bucket, pipe, churn, and tank used at every step of the process was kept absolutely sterile… that no one jostled the milk too much (or the protein will begin to break down)… and so on. It takes many hands all along the way, doing their job carefully, to allow the dairy products to reach their final goal.
And what about the bees? Camphill's honey production is just at it's beginning. Shortly before we came, they had harvested their first batch of honey from about a half-dozen hives. In our time here, Duncan generously shared his knowledge with me as he prepped the hives for their rebuilding for a new harvest. I look forward to learning more about these tiny creatures in all their intricacy, complex social organization, and resiliency. Not to mention, delicious honey!
Gustav, 1999-2013, a dog who appreciated a lengthy sit on a willing lap, an ardent sniffer at the oven when Thanksgiving turkey was roasting, a boisterous greeter who remembered me even if I'd been away for months, a backyard low rider who could get high-centered if the grass was too long or snow too deep, a very good friend who could be a little bossy at times, and a beloved member of our family.
Pets are a blessing in our lives and not to be taken for granted. Sometimes we think of Easter and all this resurrection stuff as just something having to do with us human beings. Too rarely do we imagine the empty tomb as the hope for all creation and its creatures, even our pet dogs or horses or hamsters. God is the author and artist of all life who also promises that death will be no more. In the sadness over losing Gustav as our family pet, I am consoled in the confidence that such an Easter promise is also for him as one created in love by the God who has knit all life together. I am thankful he was knit so lovingly into our little family.
There has been a lot of experiential learning in this journey on the Graduate Preaching Fellowship. Today in the milking parlor, for instance, I was pooped upon. Twice. First by a Brown Swiss. Then by a Jersey. If that's not experiential, I'm not sure what is. And while I have not yet discovered any immediatly discernible theological insight from being crapped on by a cow whose teets I happened to be greasing with udder cream, I'm not going to count out the possibility either.
Anna and I have been curious to learn about the intersection of faith and the stewardship of the land, and we have been fortunate to be hosted at a number of farms to volunteer and learn how theory and practice meet. Camphill Farm where we are now has made an effort to provide quality of life for those with developmental disabilities through its agricultural enterprises. Only by entering into the work of the community have we been able to find out what this looks like 'on the ground' (or as the name of this blog suggests, 'From the Ground Up').
In addition to the experiential learning over the course of the year, we've also been reading a variety of things that touch on themes that I proposed to seek out in this fellowship. I thought I'd share a few of the books we've enjoyed.
'Food and Faith' by Norman Wirzba is one I picked up early on in our travels. Through the lens of farming and eating practices, Wirzba offers a down to earth way of imagining how God is active in our lives. One refrain in the book relates how death leads into life drawing connections between eating and the communion of all things. This is one I'll be coming back to for insight and inspiration.
In a very different direction, I've been working through a book on fighting poverty called 'More Than Good Intentions.' It focuses on micro-finance programs in developing countries and discusses their successes and shortcomings. The chapters on agriculture have been helpful to imagine what farming looks like for those with both limited resources and limited access to markets.
A professor of Anna's at Dartmouth has written a book called 'Fresh: A Perishable History.' It traces cultural conceptions of freshness in western countries over the past few hundred years, paying particular attention to the role of refridgeration in changing both agricultural practices as well as consumer attitudes about meat, eggs, milk, vegetables and fruit. One point she brings up throughout the book that we hadn't thought about a lot before was how we have come to imagine fresh food as beautiful food. So, for instance, fruit at the supermarket is grown and displayed to be completely unblemished and standardized. Odd because this does not often lead to better flavor nor is such conformist meat, veg or fruit convincingly a product of nature. This relates to a conversation we had with a citrus farmer in South Africa who lamented using certain chemicals on his trees which only improved the appearance of the fruit so that it could be sold in the European market. Anyway, 'Fresh' is a good read both as history and as a diagnosis of the current food culture in the U.S.
I do not lament getting to travel and engage theology like this for a year. It's a dream come true. There are days, though, that traveling just wears you out. Packing the suitcase, finding lodging, planning other logistics. Sometimes you wish you could just sleep in your bed. As an antidote to this feeling, I've been reading a collection called, 'The Best American Travel Writing of 2012' edited by the author William Vollmann. There are essays here about all kinds of travel adventures and lessons learned on the journey. It's great reading when I'm sick of looking at maps or browsing for the cheapeast flights.
With all of the non-fiction reading, we've also had a chance to delve into some fiction reading as well. The Whale Caller, by Zakes Mda, is a novel that is set in Hermanus, a seaside town just 4 kilometers from Camphill that is most famous for the Southern Right whales which take refuge in Hermanus' cove each winter. Some say Hermanus is the best place for onshore whale watching in the world! The Whale Caller centers on a tension-filled love triangle between a man, a woman, and, in a great bit of magical realism, a Southern Right whale. Together they wrestle with the ways that the outside world– both the beauty and wonder, but also the violence and cruelty– impact even our most beloved relationships. It's a teary-eyed read from a wonderful modern South African writer, and a fun story for us as we live just outside of Hermanus.
Last but not least we've been reading a new Lonely Planet, this time for our next destination…Georgia and Armenia!
One of the joys of being at Camphill Farm has been experiencing the value of meaningful work. I'm on a team of about 10 farm workers here. Some in the group are older and some are younger. Some are black and some are white. Some in the group have developmental disabilities and others don't. Some speak Afrikaans or Xhosa or English or German as their first lanuage. Point is, there are quite a few differences between us in our little farm team, but what we share in common is that at the beginning of the day there is work to be done and we are the ones tasked to do it. We don't have the same skills, nor the same level of fitness, nor the same attention span. What unites us is the the fact that we have stuff to do and it's up to us to do that stuff.
But this 'stuff to do' is not meaningless. Its not hard labor for its own sake. It's not busy work. Now there are some days when that is very difficult to see. In the past week we have been taking down fence and clearing invasive trees. It's hot outside and the barbs are sharp and the trees are heavy when you pull them through the brush. Some in the group work quickly, others work slowly. Some can use the pliers at the fence posts while others wind wire. At times there are arguments among the members of the group. Sometimes people just keep their grievances to themselves. Sometimes the team is working efficiently and everyone has a task that suits them. Other times it's not rosy and things aren't running smoothly. And yet we are united by the fact that things must get done. The fences and the trees are coming down to make space for pasture for the growing dairy herd. This work is meaningful but not glamorous, just as the people doing this work are full of life but not especially flashy. I have been struck by the pride and energy that the residents of Camphill put into their farm work. This is especially apparent in doing an arduous task like taking down fence.
It's no secret that in the past societies have generally done a pretty poor job of caring for or about people with developmental disabilities. Part of this injustice is the view that such people could not do meaningful work because they lacked something physically, cognitively, or emotionally to be a full-fledged contributor. Such people were understood primarily in terms of what they could not do rather than what they could. As I say, it's no secret that this has a been a view that has dominated lots of our thinking and continues to do so.
Problem with viewing people in that way is that there is plenty of work to be done around us and plenty of people who can contribute to that work whether they happen to have a disability or not. Camphill Farm has adopted the outlook that what is most meaningful is that each person contribute with his or her own gifts and skills to the work that must be done for our lives together. Like many things, in theory that sounds great, but in practice it's a lot harder. It is a human tendency to find reasons why things can't be done rather than ways of possibility. So often we want to put up fences where there just don't need to be any.
Taking down fences is something of a strange activity to be doing South Africa. If you've been here you know what I'm talking about. Barbed or razor wire surround just about everything. Bars cover the outside of doors and windows. Security systems are installed in even modest homes. Theft is incredibly common. At least in my experience so far, rare is the South African who can't tell you of the time they were robbed. Crime is a huge challenge here. Fences and walls and all manner of high tech devices are designed to keep people out (or in as the case may be). So it is has been all the more poignant to be taking down fence these past few days amongst a South African community that is also striving to break down barriers placed in front of those with developmental disabilities.