Gardening with the Least of These

Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many... The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” ... On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.
 (I Cor. 12)

It’s easy to be romantic about gardening – red, ripe tomatoes dangling from the vine, shiny green cucumbers, crisp and fresh. In our promotional material for A Rocha’s Community Shared Agriculture (CSA) project, we certainly capitalize on this sort of romanticism, both in recruiting consumers to eat all those lovely organic tomatoes and cucumbers, and also in our recruiting of interns to plant, grown and harvest those beautiful veggies. And usually the romanticism holds. CSA members relish every last bean and brussel sprout, and interns enjoy the soul-nourishing activity of digging in the dirt and falling into bed with sore muscles and the satisfying knowledge that they have provided for the most essential of human needs – food – and they have done so in a way that cares for the earth. Therefore we were a bit surprised by a young intern from Cambodia who came to work in our CSA project. Though he had signed up to serve as a “Sustainable Agriculture Intern,” he was not very keen on digging, planting, weeding or harvesting. He was a lovely fellow, so were puzzled by his work ethic and reluctance to embrace what he had signed up to do. Turns out, farming is peasant work in Cambodia and this guy had a university degree. Once you’ve escaped the drudgery of farming in Cambodia you don’t go back. Farming is what the poor and uneducated do.

It’s easy to be critical of this sort of stance, but upon reflection it hits awfully close to home for those of us born and raised in the privileged North. Very often we’ve relegated the sweaty, backbreaking, daily and dismal tasks of everyday life (whether that be washing dishing, cars, carrots or babies’ bottoms) to those economically desperate enough to do these “thankless” jobs. We have, in fact, reserved the “less honorable” tasks to the “least of these.” The injustice of this sort of hierarchy of labor can be seen in all its starkness in the migrant farm workers who can’t afford to eat the fresh produce that they grow, choosing instead the affordability and convenience of fast food (and therefore unwittingly choosing the array of health problems, from diabetes to heart disease, that go along with that sort of diet). In a word, these workers suffer. But, if we are take seriously the words of Apostle Paul, if one part suffers, the whole body suffers.

An acknowledgment of that suffering and an act of solidarity with those on the bottom rungs of the agribusiness ladder, might be to plant a garden: stand with the least of these, if not literally, then figuratively, under a common sky. Get our hands dirty, break a sweat, grow some food. Such an act not only has the power to create empathy and solidarity, it has the power to ground us, literally, in and on the earth as we become aware of the cycles of seasons and weather; as we slow down and give thanks for the gifts of rain and sun and good soil; as we acknowledge the generous hand who provides it all. If done intentionally, gardening can become an experientially bridge not only between us and the Creator, but also between those for whom growing food is a romantic hobby and those for whom it is a grinding way of life. Sore muscles and callused hands can become a prompt that leads us to remember and pray for our less fortunate brothers and sisters. By planting a garden we proclaim that we are part of a bigger human community – a bigger body – as we give honour to those who appear least.
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