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July 7, 2014

Compost as Resurrection

June 9 was a special day for me and compost.  T’was the day I installed a compost bin at my church in Burlington, MA and it happened to be the day I learned what other churches are doing with compost.  I saw an exciting webinar with the Presbyterian Hunger Program (the keepers of this blog) that went rapid fire through 8 awesome food and sustainability projects going on at Presbyterian camps, church basements, roofs, and yards. One of those church yards, "Sacred Greens" at Church of the Pilgrims in Washington, DC provided some liturgy and faith background on compost for me to incorporate into my church’s journey with our new compost bin.  I'd like to share some of my thoughts on compost as well as some from Ashley Goff at Church of the Pilgrims featured in the webinar.  (watch the entire webinar here, Sacred Greens begins around 48min.) 

Our church in Burlington hosts a weekly distribution of Farmer Dave's Community Supported Agriculture (CSA).  Customers pay the farm directly at the beginning of the season and get a weekly "share" of whatever's ready to harvest.  The farm drops it off at the church, and we set it up in the playground.  The parent's let their kids play while we help them identify the veggies and give cooking ideas.  A fun time for all!  

We got the compost bin so brown leaves, carrot tops, thick stems, or other scraps that get left behind from the farm customers don't end up in the landfill.  And we are working to direct more waste from the church kitchen and from members’ homes into the bin. 

Food scraps such as greens and coffee contain high levels of organic matter that generate high levels of methane gas when decomposing in landfills.  Landfills are the third largest source of atmospheric methane—a greenhouse gas over 10 times worse than carbon dioxide 1.  And food waste is the largest category of waste in our nation’s landfills2.  In a small way, throwing the vegetable scraps from the farm share and church events in the trash can, we are contributing to a larger environmental problem. 

Composting can significantly reduce the amount of waste we put in the landfills, reduce the stench of trash cans, and it provides a natural nutritious soil amendment for a vegetable garden, or the church flowers if nothing else.  Consider composting in your own yard, contributing to your neighborhood's compost, or start one at your own church!   It’s a very simple process.  

But why should a church compost? Is there any theological reason for it?  Other than doing justice to our planet, I answer these questions with some help from Ashley Goff of Washington, DC featured in that webinar.  

Sacred Greens’ compost began with a verma-compost bin (worm bin) where church members could bring vegetable scraps that earthworms could transform into vibrant, life-giving soil for the church garden—which supplies some food to their weekly meals program.  Their trash could feed worms that feed some plants that feed hungry people in their community. The trash deemed for disposal and death was rescued, saved and made into new life.  Kind of like how God rescues and saves us from the death of sin, and through Jesus Christ makes for us a new life. 

This church dove more into the theology and liturgy.  They came up with what they called a “God story for the garden” with three parts: 1. Compost is an act of resurrection.  2. Growing is an act of resistance.  3. Eating is an act of remembrance. 

Compost is an act of resurrection?  Hmm?  “Dying with the old to create the new,” Ashley Goff said.  That’s what compost does to plants.  Living things we put in the bin die, rot, and decay to welcome the way for new life.  Ashley likened this to Christ dying on the cross, and being resurrected to new life so our lives become new.  We must die completely from sin, so that God can fill us with new life, His life and his spirit.  I see it as a clever Sunday school lesson or even a sermon illustration, but this church did something I never would have thought with the theology of compost and new life.  They used the compost pile as a communion table.  Yes, you heard me correctly.  Here is the story: 

During a special fall sermon series on food and faith, they had a wheelbarrow of veggie scraps at door, midway decomposed compost in the Baptismal font, and in the front of the sanctuary, the bread and cup sitting on top of a pile of fully composted compost. 

Photos taken by Andrew Satter asatter.com, provided by Ashley Goff, both of Church of the Pilgrims in DC

Photos taken by Andrew Satter asatter.com, provided by Ashley Goff, both of Church of the Pilgrims in DC Photos taken by Andrew Satter asatter.com, provided by Ashley Goff, both of Church of the Pilgrims in DC 

Symbolically this represented the journey of transformation we go through as Christians.  In Christ we are transformed from one thing, perhaps a bunch of scraps, into something better.  At Baptism we know this and we have started to be transformed, but we are only midway there.  Like the partially rotted compost you can still see there is work to be done before our minds and hearts are entirely God’s.  And at communion we are completely transformed, like the compost ready to feed someone else.

The church sat on the floor around the compost pile and shared communion recognizing the mortality of our bodies we usually only recall on Ash Wednesday; remembering the adamah, the soil that God made into Adam.  The soil and dust we will all return to and shouldn’t distance ourselves from.  The soil that feeds the food we eat, that was once alive and is now dead but full of life.  They also shared the eternity we have through Christ that we will be transformed through him.  God’s love and spirit will become new after death.  Likewise this compost is dead, new, and ready to feed next year’s garden. 

This story of compost at Sacred Greens is featured in the Washington Post and soon to be in the Union Theological Seminary Quarterly Review. 

It’s a little weird, new and different, but it makes sense if you think about it.  Compost can be part of your life, your church’s life, or even your church’s communion.  So let it rot!!! That’s what’s been on my mind since June 9 as I encourage composting at church. Thanks for reading!

Thanks to Ashley Goff for her resources, and Andrew Satter for the images. More of his photos at asatter.com.   

  1. EPA (2014). “Overview of Greenhouse Gas Emissions: Methane Emissions.” EPA official website. Retrieved from http://epa.gov/climatechange/ghgemissions/gases/ch4.html
  2. EPA (2012). Municipal Solid Waste Generation, Recycling, and Disposal in the United States: Facts and Figures for 2012. Retrieved from http://www.epa.gov/osw/nonhaz/municipal/pubs/2012_msw_fs.pdf

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