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Grounding Faith

Seminary students and Princeton University undergrads explore how faith relates to the land and those who work it
2019 Farminary Amer Agrarians classroom2
(Photo: Ben Johnston)

No farmers, no food. It’s a common bumper sticker in the Garden State, the nickname for the state of New Jersey. It serves as a reminder to suburbanites that, despite a growing divide between the food we eat and those who grow it, farmers are a critical component of our communities and lives. During the Princeton Seminary’s spring 2019 semester, participants in a course called American Agrarians received a similar lesson. Led by Nathan Stucky, the class challenged students from the Seminary and Princeton University to literally step outside the classroom to explore the land and its cultivators, as they relate to economic, political, racial, and religious practices.

“The goal was to reflect theologically on the matters of land, neighbor, justice, and joy,” says Stucky. “If God is the creator of heaven and earth, there is a notion that we can learn about who God is and who we are when we are in close proximity with the land.”

2019 Farminary Amer Agrarians Planting
(Photo: Ben Johnston)

Not only did students study texts, but they also got hands-on with trips to local farms and working together at The Farminary, which Stucky says can enhance and even transform one’s understanding of texts. “We can read about farmers,” he says, “but to put your hands in the soil and recognize the joy and struggle that goes along with that endears an empathy for those we read about in a way that is three dimensional and not possible if you’re only reading the text.”

Adding another layer to the class was that it ran concurrently with a Princeton University course, bringing two unlikely cohorts together. For Jeff Chu, MDiv ’19, the benefit of this class was twofold. Not only did it challenge Seminary students to leave jargon behind when communicating their opinions and analyses, but it also “opened us up to the healthy discomfort of interacting with folks who don’t come from our religious backgrounds.”

2019 Farminary Amer Agrarians Menu
(Photo: Ben Johnston)

One important component of the course was an oral history project, in which students interviewed a New Jersey agrarian. Many interviews were then submitted into the Princeton Public Library’s oral history project and database. For MDiv student Hannah Grace Lehmann, this added yet another practical layer to the study of food producers, since it allowed students to “listen to the stories of the common person,” she explains. “This is not the person who will spend their life writing books, but one who has an equally important story to share.”

For her project, Lehmann interviewed a shepherdess, who found herself caring for a flock of sheep, despite never doing that sort of work before. “She stepped up, even when she didn’t know what she was getting herself into,” Lehmann says. “It’s inspirational because climate change is dominating our generation’s thinking about the future. It can feel overwhelming, but you can start with something that points towards hope, as she did.”

Chu chose a fisherman as the subject of his oral history project, and was impressed by his subject’s sense of responsibility for the ocean. As he noticed the waters warming and getting more acidic, he started working with research scientists interested in climate change. “We have a tendency to caricature the people who grow our food, but there’s an interdependence between production and science,” Chu says. “Everything is better if we collaborate, as opposed to living in silos and thinking it’s not our responsibility.”

What students took from the course ranged from new friendships with Princeton University students to appreciating the spiritual rhythm of remembering where our food comes from. But if you ask Chu, it’s the practical application of faith that he will take with him. “Theological education has to be done in conversation with the broader world,” he says. “It’s not sufficient if we’re sitting in a classroom, having abstract debates about what a theologian said or wrote. We have to be asking questions about how what we read affects real lives.”

Educating faithful Christian leaders.

Chaplain at the Hill School, Pottstown, Pennsylvania

Khristi Adams, Class of 2008

“At Princeton, we had precept groups—we’d engage text and debate. That gave me confidence to have those conversations anywhere.”