Q&A: This Episcopalian cultivates community by getting dirty

January 2, 2018

Brian Sellers-Petersen works in a garden in the spring 2016. He’s retiring from Episcopal Relief & Development to continue his food and faith ministry in other ways. Photo: Kevin C. Johnson/St. Mark’s Cathedral, Seattle

[Episcopal News Service] As 2017 came to a close, Episcopal News Service caught up with Brian Sellers-Petersen during a brief visit to the Episcopal Church Center in midtown Manhattan. Sellers-Petersen spoke about how his ministry has evolved, his near-death experience and what he plans to do in 2018 now that he’s moving on after 17 years working for Episcopal Relief & Development. Hint: One catalyst was his book, “Harvesting Abundance: Local Initiatives of Food and Faith,” published by Church Publishing Inc.

Sellers-Petersen is based in Seattle, Washington. For the last several years, he worked as senior advisor to Robert Radtke, president of Episcopal Relief & Development. Sellers-Petersen’s favorite way to engage people is through his fusion of food and faith. For example, he was integral in founding the Faith Farm and Food Network at the Beecken Center of The School of Theology at Sewanee in Tennessee. In August 2016, the program’s name changed to Cultivate: Episcopal Food Movement.

What is the connection between edible gardens and the Episcopal Church?

The church owns a lot of land — land not being used. We’re huge property owners … A lot of my work interests run parallel with asset-mapping work. So, I was talking to churches about their asset base. And in suburban, upper-middle class churches, there are multiple master gardeners and gardens, people

Brian Sellers-Petersen


Home: Seattle, Washington
Education: University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, B.S.; Fuller Theological Seminary, M.A., theology; Sewanee, The School of the South, fellowship at School of Theology
Positions: Director of the Center for South Africa Ministry at All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, California; California regional organizer for Bread for the World; special assistant to the president at World Vision; senior advisor to the president, Episcopal Relief & Development.

knowledgeable about landscaping, ornamentals. Yet a lot of [experts] are moving toward edible gardens. There’s also an abundance of commercial kitchens in our churches that aren’t used to their maximum, or even minimum capacity, as far as I’m concerned.

Why didn’t you go directly into farming like your family did?

My family is the first generation off the farm. We were the city kids of all the cousins, [the ones] who came down in the summer and worked on the farm. We were the kids without a farmer tan and calluses. My parents, they’ve never really come right out and said it, but they couldn’t wait to get off the farm. So, there wasn’t encouragement of my interest in agriculture. I mean, I remember distinctly thinking about going to [agriculture] school in Nebraska, where the family farms are. I don’t know if I ever told my parents that, but they would’ve probably convinced me that wasn’t the right thing to do because it’s a really hard life.

What did you do instead?

I went into international development. When I graduated, I had a psych degree, and I didn’t know what to do. I … ended up in South Africa. That was as far away as Nebraska and Minnesota as I could get. I was there during apartheid, at the end of it. I worked in rural areas and kept that connection with the land. I worked for Bread for the World, which is a Christian citizen lobbying group focused largely in the farm belt and on anything hunger related. And then I worked at World Vision, and I developed curriculum for kids and worked in a similar job to what I’m doing at [Episcopal Relief & Development].

How did your work at Episcopal Relief & Development take a turn toward food in particular?

Whenever I’d make international trips, I’d look and really study and learn as much as I could about the agricultural work — small-scale, sustainable agriculture. When I headed up the church engagement department at [Episcopal Relief & Development], we started the curriculum for children called the Abundant Life Garden Project.

It was viewing the garden as a classroom, where children could learn about what Episcopal Relief & Development does in terms of food, water, environment and livestock, and also, they could learn the basics of Christianity. To me … the garden is the best classroom we have to learn about God. And that’s what this curriculum was about.

Out of the experience of seeing all that work around the world, I started looking at church assets in the United States completely differently. Churches had beautiful green lawns, a lot of them. And then I started seeing those green lawns and saying, ‘You know, that acre of land that they don’t use, except for the Easter egg hunt, could be growing food.’  We need to develop a stronger sense of awareness of how important it is to be eating local and seasonal food … the church is the place to help lead in terms of awareness.

Brian Sellers-Peterson displayed copies of his book and some of the honey from his hives after a recent Sunday service in December. Photo: Kevin C. Johnson/St. Mark’s Cathedral, Seattle

What instigated your “Harvesting Abundance” book and career change?

Five years ago, I got sabbatical from Episcopal Relief & Development. I took a deep, deep dive looking at church agriculture here in the United States. I volunteered at this biodynamic permaculture hippie farm not far from my house once a week. And I visited a lot of church gardens and talked to people and listened to what made them glad. It was a blast. I went way beyond parishes. All the other entities within the church have agriculture, and some of them were founded on agriculture. The University of the South, Sewanee, used to be a working farm, all the students had to work on the farm. And there’s a separate high school, St. Andrews, that a monastic order founded, where again, all the students had to work on the farm … Camps and conference centers are another example. Gardens are growing all over the place.

Then what happened?

Not long after that, I almost died. I spent four months in the hospital. There’s about a 10 percent survival rate [for people diagnosed with aortic dissection]. So, I just learned about gratitude. I was immobilized, so I had a lot of time laying on my back. I never really understood the depth to which I had gone until I was out of the hospital. I had to relearn everything. I had to learn how to swallow again.

How did this traumatic event change the course of your life?

I had a lot of time to consider, and so during that period, I started finally documenting my sabbatical, and it ended up becoming a book. The process of writing the book led me to the decision that it’s time, after 17 years with [Episcopal Relief & Development], to try something different.

And so, this is how you’ve integrated your faith with your love of all things agrarian?

I’m called to put my hands it the dirt, but not eight hours a day, 10 hours a day, 12 hours a day. Maybe occasionally, but my call is more to be an agricultural evangelist in the Episcopal Church, sharing the good news of our responsibility to care for all of creation. The presiding bishop really has articulated that well, in terms of creation care. I want us to do a better job in our choices around food and caring for all of creation, and that happens in a variety of ways.

Such as, how we can do our part to alleviate climate change?

When we talk about building resilience against climate change, a kitchen garden is a pretty simple way to do it, instead of feeling paralyzed. Every carrot we pull out of our backyard or off our little balcony, if we grow on our balcony, is one less carrot where we drive our car to the grocery store to buy a carrot that’s been shipped from somewhere else. And by extension, farmers markets are vitally important.

I have a chapter in my book about churches with farmers markets. I think it’s a great way of participating in the community … If a church wants to do a garden, if at all possible, put it in the most conspicuous spot on your property. Plant it in your front yard. That serves as a symbol of your values. I think that gardens can serve as invitations. They can serve as porches. They may even serve as a front door.

Why is food considered a ministry?

I look at [the church’s current mission priorities] and all of them can connect to food. I look at reconciliation work: A garden is a great equalizer. The common table, if you can stay off of divisive subjects while at the table and enjoy food together, it really brings people together. And I think that’s an important ministry.

Evangelism: Not in a coercive way, but I think there’s good news in all aspects of food ministry.

Church growth, reinvigoration and church planting: There’s another story in there about a new church … really using the growing of their garden as a metaphor for growing their church.

And, the Navajoland [Area Mission] is doing some remarkable farming and small business enterprise through their agrarian ministry. So, in terms of indigenous ministries within the church, they’re doing it.

Do you have a garden at home?

Yeah, it’s kind of a wild garden. Since I’ve been sick, I haven’t spent as much time on it as I’d like. And since I started keeping bees, the bees have taken more of my time. But my wife is the big-time gardener. We’ve had chickens for many years, but our last chicken got out of the coop.

Considering himself a bee evangelist, Brian Sellers-Petersen keeps bees in four places: His hives at home in Seattle, Washington, at St. James and St. Columba churches in Kent, Washington, and on the roof of St. Mark’s Cathedral and diocesan office in Seattle. Photo: Kevin C. Johnson/St. Mark’s Cathedral, Seattle

What are you going to do now that you’re not working for Episcopal Relief & Development?

I’m still trying to figure out how it all pieces together. It is largely going to be surrounding food ministry. Growing food. Preparing food, eating food. Spirituality of food.

Basically, I’m hanging up my shingle. I’ve been in conversation with a number of groups both inside the church and a couple of government agencies and nonprofits in Seattle. My hope is to continue to work within the church to encourage better stewardship of our land.

Is there any kind of action that you’d like people to take after reading this?

Churches should be doing their own composting. I’ve come across a lot of great composting systems that churches have developed. But we’re [not even doing well] at just recycling. We’ve got to walk before we run. So, we can talk about the big things such as insulation and solar panels, but there are the small things too.

Get our kids’ hands in the dirt at Sunday school when they’re preschoolers, to put a radish seed in a Dixie cup so they can see the sprout next week. There could be huge transformations from these very little things. Sunday school kids … put the seed in, which ends up at the food bank, that ends up in people’s balconies or backyards, and these people might even live in a food desert.  And the kid can follow that food chain from a young age and learn about that.

Cultivate, one of their big jobs is to make sure this [grow-your-own trend] isn’t just a fad. We’re at this sort of this critical place where if we don’t hop on it hard now, we’re in big trouble.

Start a conversation in your churches about what your assets are. What can you do, small or large? Sometimes people get overwrought and think it’s too much, and they collapse in on themselves — “Oh, we can’t do it. We don’t have enough volunteers.” Sometimes it’s just planting a seed.

— Amy Sowder is a special correspondent for the Episcopal News Service and a freelance writer and editor based in Brooklyn. She can be reached at [email protected]. This interview was edited for clarity and condensed.

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