As someone born and raised in Los Angeles County, my experiences with ‘small’ and ‘rural’ are far and few. Furthermore, when I read books on sustainability and agriculture, I typically pick up books written in universities by professors who spend their lives writing, researching, and teaching indoors in a classroom. While there is certainly great content in books like these, perhaps a better place to learn about sustainability and agriculture is in a community that practices it. Although Los Angeles can teach us many things about culture and diversity, the mountains of western North Carolina is one place we can learn about the intersection of eco-justice and faith. Blackburn’s Chapel is a very small community of people in a town called Todd. Todd is a stretch of land that sits on the line between Ashe and Watauga county. This area is so small, there are about 4 buildings that form the center of town. One of these buildings is the local church, Blackburn’s Chapel. On most Sundays, the church has about 20-30 members who join together in worship. Although Blackburn’s is small in number, when it comes to caring for God’s creation, they are mighty.
The members of Blackburn’s understand the mission of ‘loving one’s neighbor’ as intimately intertwined with caring for the earth. When I asked how faith informs her passion for sustainability, Vicki Randolph explained that part of loving our neighbor means we cannot pollute the water they drink, the air they breathe, and the food they eat. Therefore, caring for our neighbors (both human and non-human) necessarily requires caring for the earth and its gifts.
Jim Dees, another member of Blackburn’s, witnessed to how easy it is to lose hope in light of global warming. The science that predicts humanity’s future on earth is quite grim. Yet, Jim holds fast to Jesus as a reason to hope and fight for change. He states, “without my faith I think I would be a whole lot more desperate, unhappy, and paralyzed.” Jim’s passion for environmental care comes from the belief that God calls us away from greed and towards stewardship. As the data and assessment specialist at the Sustainability Office at Appalachian State University, Jim practices creation care in all aspects of his life. His daughter, Lucy, witnesses to their family’s lifestyle, as she notes her favorite thing to do is wonder around in the woods.
This pattern of caring for the earth plays out in the church cooperate worship as well. Roughly 10 years ago, Blackburn’s chapel had an attendance rate down to the single digits. The chapel was getting ready to close its doors when a local church about 20 mins from Todd, Boone United Methodist Church, stepped in to send volunteers to Blackburn’s to preach. At that point, the parsonage was no longer in use, so the church members brainstormed ideas on how they could use the house for ministry. This is when the Blackburn House was born, as the parsonage transformed into a place for young adults to do a year long internship in Todd, and serve in the community. Out of the passion and desire to do more, members of the Blackburn House and Blackburn’s Chapel formed a nonprofit organization called Blackburn Community Outreach (BCO). One member of the church, who served with the Blackburn House for two years, Caitlin, states that this program allowed her faith and her passion for sustainability to come together and intersect. BCO also started a local garden on the church grounds, called Beatitude Gardens, where they grow fresh produce using agroecology and permaculture — sustainable farming practices. With the crops they grow, BCO also runs a local produce stand, and partners with the local school to provides free boxes full of food to food insecure families in Todd. Given that Todd is considered a “food desert” with no grocery store in a ten mile radius, BCO’s produce stand, also known as Todd’s Table, fulfills a vital role in providing access to fresh produce for local residents.
As a congregation, Blackburn’s Chapel practices sustainability in their inward ministry as well. When the church gathers for meals, they always use reusable plates and cutlery. In addition, after meals the church recycles by using compost in the Beatitude Gardens. Furthermore, in their ministry “Life Around the Table,” BCO hosts people in the community by providing a meal and reading a curriculum based on food and faith.
In addition to the churches ministry, Blackburn’s Chapel has modified the church grounds to constantly remind others of God’s love for all of creation. Years ago, the windows in the church were falling apart. As a result, the church decided they wanted to design new stain glass windows, and commissioned one of their members, local artist Martha Enzmann, to design them. All the windows are now images of local flowers and placed in the order that they bloom throughout the year. Furthermore, the flowers were intentionally picked to represent different stages in the life of Christ. The church then decided to plant each of the flowers represented in the widows on the church grounds. Thus, each time members attend church, the creation around them reminds them of Jesus’ life on earth.
In addition to planting flowers on the church grounds, Blackburn’s Chapel also has its own “prayer hiking trail” on the property. A few years ago, church member Jeremiah, started making the trail during his internship with the Blackburn House. With his hard work, Jeremiah created a space for members to walk through creation and praise God along side their non-human neighbors.
As you can see, Blackburn’s Chapel might be small in numbers, but they are mighty when it comes to loving God’s creation. Their ministry witnesses to a larger message for the greater Church: as creatures, we are called to live in community with the earth. The Creator demands our dependence on nature with each breath we take, substance we eat, and fluid we drink. The modern desire to escape the body and the planet has led to death in God’s beloved creation — death of coral reefs; millions of creatures in the ocean, on land, and in the sky; tropical rainforests; and thousands of humans in the global south. If we are to truly love our neighbors, care for the earth must infiltrate all areas of our faith. Only then will God’s call to live as creatures be fully realized, in a community of creation.