Faithful Have New Food for Thought

When Marilyn Lorenz of Alma, Mich., talks about living out her
Catholic faith in daily life, she starts by describing what’s in her

The produce is grown on nearby farms, and the milk
is organic and hormone-free. Meat comes from a local farmer who lets
his animals graze freely and doesn’t use antibiotics.

animals in factory farms, I think, is against God’s wishes,” says
Lorenz, who changed her shopping and eating habits after a speaker at
her parish broached the issues last year. “It isn’t something my faith
could ever support.”

In bringing faith to bear anew on diet,
Lorenz is among a growing movement of believers from various traditions
who are exploring how to better reflect their moral values in the ways
they eat. A few examples:

· In Pennsylvania, the Laurelville
Mennonite Church Center’s annual conference on sustainable farming was
just for farmers when it started five years ago but this year attracted
non-farmers from more than 40 Mennonite congregations in five states.

Three congregations in Clemson, S.C., teamed up for the first time this
summer to host dinners featuring local foods, host workshops on
eco-friendly eating and launch “Upstate Locavores,” a regional group to
promote local food sourcing.

· Methodists in North Carolina,
Congregationalists in Massachusetts and Catholics in Michigan have in
the past year started organic gardens on church property in part to
encourage consumption of foods grown without pesticides or chemically
based fertilizers.

· In June, Conservative Jewish lay leaders and
rabbis proposed guidelines for ensuring high ethical standards in
kosher food production under a new label, the “Hekhsher Tzedek.”

of diet in religious terms is, of course, hardly new. Jews and Muslims
have long followed kosher and halal codes, respectively, in order to
maintain purity. Although Christians generally haven’t required
year-round dietary codes, fasting and abstaining have traditionally
been important in certain seasons, such as Lent.

For many
congregations, today’s initiatives are tackling new terrain. The
faithful discuss how God might want them to eat in light of new
research on health, working conditions in food supply chains and
environmental crises.

In the process, they’re learning new ways to model the values they profess — and to tread lightly when seeking converts.

Consider, for instance, the challenge facing James Patterson,
pastor of Institute Church of the Nazarene in Institute, W.Va., who now
believes that he’s accountable to God for both the spiritual and
physical health of his predominantly African American congregation,
where one in four parishioners suffers from either diabetes or high
blood pressure.

Patterson encourages followers to honor their
bodies as the temple of the Holy Spirit by shunning fried food, as he
tries to do, but is careful not to suggest an inherent link between a
God-pleasing diet and one that’s beyond many people’s budgets.

people really can’t afford all the things that are necessary for
healthy eating, even if they can get a ride or catch a bus down to the
farmers market,” Patterson said. “So it isn’t as simple as just saying,
‘This is going to be our ministry philosophy,’ and going with that. You
have to know who your congregation is and how much they can actually

Elsewhere, proponents of diet discipleship are figuring
out how much eco-friendly eating they can preach without ruffling a
flock’s feathers. In Newbury, Mass., First Parish Church allows a local
organic farmer to distribute vegetable harvests on the premises every
Friday, and individual plots in the church’s new community garden must
be treated with organic products.

But the idea of replacing First
Parish’s monthly ham and bean supper with a locally sourced, organic
feast wasn’t going to fly with some of the church’s longtime members.

have an organic or vegetarian dish” at the community suppers, said
deacon Erin Stack, “but we honor people in the congregation who say,
‘I’m making the ham and beans. That’s what works for me.’ “

North Carolina, a faction at Fuquay-Varina United Methodist Church
tried to stop a plan to turn most of a ballfield into a
7,500-square-foot organic garden. Now the congregation’s gardeners, who
call their work “a Christian practice,” invite former naysayers to
partake of the bounty at a seasonal picnic.

Picnickers follow one
rule — no meat allowed — in order to focus gratitude for what the
garden gives as nourishment. This year, about 250 of 800 worshipers
stuck around after the Sunday service for sandwiches made with
homegrown tomatoes.

“By just having [the garden] out there, we
hope that when people come to church on Sunday, they may be thinking,
‘Oh, maybe some garden-fresh food would be good to eat today,’ ”
parishioner Christine Burtner said. She says farming with chemical
fertilizers “is not honoring the land because you’re killing off the
biology that’s there.”  beliefs