Preserving the Environment

How Church-Owned Property Can Help Communities ‘Grow’

August 29, 2018
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How Church-Owned Property Can Help Communities ‘Grow’
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Saddleback Church in California uses its land to grow produce for local food pantries. Photo courtesy of Saddleback Church
Churches own thousands of acres of land across the U.S., and some see that as an opportunity for farming projects to help feed students and families.

Over the past decade, there has been a push for ecological conservation within the Christian faith, motivated by concerns over how climate change might impact human welfare.

That movement has coincided with an uptick in the number of faith-based farms, many of which equate divinity with sweat equity and its bountiful results.

Where those two movements intersect sits Plainsong Farm & Ministry, a community-supported agriculture farm and ministry, located outside of Rockford, Michigan. Plainsong runs its own CSA program, solely with produce it grows on church-owned property. “How we take care of our land is an expression of our religious values,” says Nurya Love Parish, one of Plainsong’s co-founders. “Our land is an opportunity to create partnerships and relations toward greater ecological sustainability.”

Plainsong is part of a trend of the faithful growing food on unused church land. And since the church owns so much land — after centuries of buying up property and being gifted land by the worshipful, the church is certainly one of the largest landowners in the world — this represents untold acres that could potentially be used to grow food, scaled to parishes around the world.

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Members of Saddleback Church volunteer at the church’s “Peace Farm.”Photo courtesy of Saddleback Church

But there’s a hitch: No one knows exactly how much land the church owns, or how much of that land is even arable.

“Churches owning land made sense in 1880, but now its almost 2020 and we haven’t had a purposeful approach to the stewardship of our land,” says Parish. “Especially garden projects on church-owned land.”

But this is changing, Parish adds. “In the past, we had 40 people [in the fields farming] wheat for the church.” That fell out of favor with the advent of large-scale industrial farming. “But now this is possible [again], and on a larger scale.”

In Rancho Capistrano, California, church-land-grown crops feed Saddleback Church’s parishioners, many of whom rely on the church’s food pantries each week for fresh produce. The land, which is managed by Saddleback pastor Steve Mahnke, was originally owned by the now-defunct mega-church Crystal Cathedral. It was sold to the owners of the craft superstore Hobby Lobby, which was then bought by Saddleback for $1, says Mahnke.

Mahnke, with the help of hundreds of volunteers, used the 1.5 acres of church land to build out 20-foot-long raised planters and a well-water-fed irrigation system. The garden yields enough food to feed up to 1,400 families each month, he says.

If 1.5 acres feeds up to 1,400 families each month, imagine how many families 1,000 might feed, asks Parish.

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A member of Saddleback Church gathers crops for the local food pantry.Photo courtesy of Saddleback Church

“As we’re looking at issues around climate change, there is a greater need for regenerative agriculture,” Parish says. “But there isn’t a comprehensive inventory, even within denominations, of land they hold.”

Parish is trying to change that. Earlier this year at the Episcopal Church’s General Convention — a triennial meeting of church leaders — she proposed legislation for the church to appoint someone to gather land ownership information for the specific purpose of regenerative agriculture projects.

There have been other successes in mapping church land ownership for social impact. In 2016, the organization GoodLands — founded by Molly Burhans at the beginning of her discernment process to become a nun — asked the Catholic church to map out how much land it owned around the world. One estimate puts it at roughly 177 million acres. (In 2012, The Economist published an investigation that found Cardinal Dolan was New York City’s foremost landowner.)

“A fundamental way to address many of the issues we confront as a society today is to use the land and properties we already have more thoughtfully,” the organization’s website says. “GoodLands provides the information, insights, and implementation tools for the Catholic Church to leverage its landholdings to address pressing issues, from environmental destruction to mass human migration.”

GoodLands partnered with ESRI, a global mapping organization, and built out the Catholic Geographic Information Systems Center, which has mapped over 35,000 parishes as of 2016.

The hope, Burhans told the Boston Globe, is to “[wake the hierarchy] up a little bit to the enormous potential they have to really change the world and do good through careful and thoughtful property management.”

The tradition of farming within faiths — including Islam and Hinduism — is something that could be an easy sell for churches that own lots of land, says Nicole S. Janelle, executive director of the Abundant Table. The Abundant Table is a Christian-based non-profit in Ventura County, California, and its farm yields enough food to feed two school districts in the nearby cities of Oxnard and Santa Paula.

“The Christian tradition is agricultural,” Janelle tells NationSwell. “You’re digging into your agrarian Biblical tradition, growing food to share with others, gathering around a table of abundance to share the gifts of God’s creation.”

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