I’ve always liked the part of the post-communion prayer where we ask to be sent out into the world to do the work God has given us to do. It reminds me that my weekday work isn’t separate from the Eucharist. It also reminds me that I’m fairly new to the Table, and I don’t know what most people here do between Sundays. Where do we get sent to? What are we given? Over the next few months, I get to ask these questions of different people, hearing their stories and sharing glimpses of the Kingdom in their ordinary lives. Then I get to share them with you. Here’s the first, over lunch with MaryEllen Pitts.
Food and nature are MaryEllen’s two passions, and their roots run deep. She talks about her Italian family and their years in northern California, their fig tree and basil and the scent of eucalyptus. “Food is communion. To be with other people, to connect, to get nourishment.” The gifts of that communion come from the earth, and that’s why she’s farming and pursuing a Master’s in Sustainable Food Systems.
It’s a journey that’s led her through places expected and unexpected, but even the expected is laced with surprise. The intricacies of Creation are greater than she ever imagined. Over lunch, her face lights up as she describes the dance of plants and microbes. She says that plants enlist the help of microbes to protect them from pests and diseases. “They’re pulling and pushing partners all the time, to help keep themselves healthy. You need a healthy ecosystem, robust enough to have the proper setting for those collaborations to occur. I think that’s beautiful.”
She works alongside that beauty, choosing crops for her land like a mosaicist sets tile. Every plant has three purposes: the food itself, the other plants it’s going to help, and the insects it’s going to attract or repel. “It is all about relationships. Every single aspect of what we do is about relationship.”
The relationships of a human community are a vital ecosystem of their own, and the unexpected side of MaryEllen’s journey has landed her in the terrain of food justice and policy. She’s come to policy as vital in creating safe, just places for people to work. She doesn’t always know how the questions of food justice will shake out. One class assignment charged her to position herself as a student and learn from her community. So she and her husband Jeff held an open house.
It was a cold Sunday after Thanksgiving, and they brewed hot cider and put out cookies and nuts and popcorn. They set up a firepit and put a sign by the road. And people came. A former therapist and phenomenal multi-tasker, who doesn’t like many people but likes MaryEllen and Jeff. A WWII Navy veteran and his wife, both fond of beets. “We didn’t know we’d have beautiful moments like that with people [when we moved in],” MaryEllen says. “Our hopes for relationships with people have been surprisingly fulfilled. Always, of course, in ways we could have never imagined, because God works like that.”
A biodiverse urban farm offers no shortage of challenge. When MaryEllen considers the practices that sustain her, yoga and DNA group come to mind (in order of chronology, not relative importance). She’s learned that when she’s in stress, she has to help her body in order to help her mind. Yoga and long walks ground her. DNA grounds her also, dissolving the fears that bind performance to identity and centering her again and again in the love of God. When the basil gets sick and deliveries are called off and she’s tired from spending her body in the field, she needs to know how God sees her. “That practice of remembering who I am in God has been the best practice for keeping—or getting me back repeatedly—to where I want to be, throughout this whole journey.”