Jonna Higgins-Freese is environmental outreach coordinator at Prairiewoods: Franciscan Spirituality Center in Hiawatha, Iowa. She is a fellow of the Environmental Leadership Program.

Monday, 11 Mar 2002


Just for the record, I am not a nun. I do work for nuns, so folks often want to know if I’m one of them. I usually say that I’m not qualified on two counts: I’m married, and I’m a Quaker.

The place where I work, Prairiewoods: Franciscan Spirituality Center, is one of three spirituality centers owned by the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration. Prairiewoods’ mission is to integrate spirituality and ecology into every facet of our operations — from food service to grounds maintenance, from energy production to programming. The sisters believe, along with many other religious women and men across the U.S., that they are called at this time to care for the Earth. Historically, nuns in the U.S. have provided education and health care — crucial needs that no one else was meeting. Now that those are widely available (theoretically), the sisters feel that what’s needed today is a model for ecological living and a voice for the Earth. Prairiewoods is just one part of a broad network of ecological spirituality centers and resources that includes Genesis Farm, Michaela Farm, and Earth Light Magazine.

My role as environmental outreach coordinator here is to assist with some of the on-site ecological projects (particularly our prospective wind turbine installation) and to help other faith groups in the area live out their own commitments to care for creation. That can take some interesting forms; for example, on Saturday morning, my task was wine delivery.

I dropped off two bottles of Tabor Home Winery’s Barn Dance Red wine to be used in the closing communion service at Congregations Together in Ministry (CTIM), an annual conference sponsored by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Southeast Iowa Synod. For about a year, I’ve been working with the synod, several local wineries, and the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture to encourage Christian churches to use locally made wine for communion.

The project began in the summer of 2000, when the Leopold Center published Grape Expectations: A food system perspective on redeveloping the Iowa Grape Industry. The report documented that grapes were an important part of Iowa’s diverse, small farm-based agriculture in the early part of the 20th century: The state ranked sixth in U.S. grape production in 1919. However, as Iowa shifted to corn and soybean production in the 1930s and 1940s, grape production decreased. The corn herbicide 2,4-D, to which grape vines are very sensitive, began drifting into vineyards, and was a key factor in the decline of the grape industry in the Midwest. However, Iowa’s grape and wine industry is growing again as farmers see opportunities to market products that will earn them much more per acre than row crops.

Using local wine is only one way faith communities can show their support of local, sustainable agriculture. We sometimes forget that food is central to many religious traditions: Muslims fast and feast throughout Ramadan; Buddhists and Jains are vegetarian; and the stories of the Judeo-Christian tradition include unleavened bread, manna from heaven, the loaves and the fishes, the Last Supper, and the wedding at Cana. The scriptures are full of stories and teachings supporting small farms: “Woe to those who add house to house and join field to field, until everywhere belongs to them and they are the sole inhabitants of the land” (Isaiah 5:8). Every major denomination has statements supporting rural areas and small farmers. Recently, a Cardinal in Italy even argued that fast food is not appropriate for Catholics, since it destroys the bonds of family and community.

In part due to the outreach program’s encouragement and educational materials, several faith communities in the Cedar Rapids area are supporting local agriculture. More than a dozen church members in the area have been introduced to Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) through presentations at their churches; Prairiewoods serves as a drop-off site for CSA shares for many of those members.

Lutheran Church of the Resurrection in Marion, Iowa, grows a garden on church property. Members sell the produce outside the sanctuary on Sunday mornings, using the proceeds to support Habitat for Humanity and other projects. The mid-week harvest is taken to the food pantry, where clients are excited to have “real food.”

Pastor Karen, with Kale.

Robert Rosenheck.

Olivet Presbyterian church in downtown Cedar Rapids grows a garden to provide fresh vegetables to the many low-income, minority, and refugee families in its neighborhood. Pastor Karen Beals is excited when she looks out her window from the rectory across the street and sees folks she doesn’t know pulling weeds and picking a snack.

Surely, then, the substance that Christians say represents (or is) the blood of Christ should be made in a way that promotes social and environmental justice. Once they stop and think about it, most people understand that. Until then, they’re just out to be “good stewards of their financial resources” — one pastor told me that she’d almost spit out the dregs in the chalice one morning during worship when she discovered that her frugal altar guild had purchased Mad Dog 20/20 for communion instead of the usual Mogen David! So pastors are excited about the theological and social justice reasons to use local Iowa wines — but they’re also glad that the local wines have won awards for quality at international festivals.

More than 20 Iowa churches are now using local wines for communion, and that number may expand again after Saturday’s CTIM service. I’ll have to check in with my contacts at the wineries to see.

In the meantime, I’m off to attend a couple of meetings. The first is a planning meeting for “Ethical Perspectives on the News” a local 30-minute television show sponsored by the Interreligious Council. I’m one of the moderators, and I want to find out who we’ve got for panelists on next week’s show on the ethics of corporate power and the Enron scandal, and advocate for a show one of the other moderators proposed on the Bush administration’s decision to exempt industries from having to pay taxes to the Superfund for cleanup of toxic sites. After that, I’m off to a meeting of Choose Now, a nonprofit organization based at a Wesleyan church here in town. Its members are fired up about building a super-efficient, passive solar Habitat for Humanity house, with renewable energy and efficient appliances, and I need to put them in touch with church folks interested in environmental issues who’ll volunteer.