Time to Speak — Sisters seek a more sustainable world

By Keith L. Runyon

Nuns on tractors? If a creative group of Roman Catholic sisters in Kentucky and neighboring states have their way, they can take leading roles in the world’s movement for sustainable agriculture.

Did you know that faith communities are linked to 85 percent of the world’s population? Or that they own seven percent of the world’s arable land? That they are involved in more than half of the world’s schools? Or that they are the third-largest category of financial investors in the world?

These statistics were highlighted by Sister Claire McGowan, a Dominican Sister of Peace, at a recent conference, “Leadership for Sustainable Religious Lands: Tilling a Future of Hope.”

Sister McGowan, an enthusiastic sister who prefers to think small, is onto something big. Since 2005 she has been executive director of New Pioneers for a Sustainable Future, a non-profit based in Washington County, about an hour southwest of Lexington.

The conference was an outgrowth of “religious lands days” at the Festival of Faiths in Louisville, which is an internationally respected project of the Center for Interfaith Relations, founded by Christina Lee Brown and others in the mid-1990s. In the years since, Mrs. Brown, who coined the term “Nuns on Tractors,” and her creative team have explored all sorts of ways to inspire constructive, sustainable change that reaches far beyond the confines of Kentucky.

It became clear that something more than a meeting one day a year was necessary. Mrs. Brown proposed that Sister McGowan launch a broader movement from her base in Springfield. Sister McGowan was startled.

“Leading a regional movement encompassing all of Kentucky and parts of several surrounding states sounded a lot bigger than I wanted to take on!” she said.

That reluctance has been overtaken by the clear need for someone to coordinate what is rapidly becoming a multistate effort. The recent conference in Louisville offered opportunities to brainstorm with experts in non-profit planning to set some goals.

Among its speakers was Mary Berry, executive director of The Berry Center in Newcastle, Ky., an organization dedicated to advancing the views of her father, Wendell Berry, and the Berry family, all leaders in the field of sustainable agriculture. Mary Berry, herself a farmer and writer, offered a gloomy perspective on farming in America today.

In the years since World War II, the replacement of small farms and their communities by big agriculture has taken its toll. But consumers need to wake up to the reality of that transformation, she said.

“More and more consumers are now becoming aware that our supposed abundance of cheap and healthful food is to a considerable extent an illusion. They are beginning to see that the social, ecological and even the economic costs of cheap food are, in fact, great,” she said. “And they are beginning to see that a kind of agriculture that involves unprecedented erosion and depletion of the soil, unprecedented waste of water, and unprecedented destruction of the farm population cannot by any accommodation of sense or even fantasy be called ‘sustainable.’ ”

Berry’s ominous report re-ignited the mood of urgency in the room, where some 50 people gathered to discuss the opportunities that their lands and their orders might have for setting examples of sustainability and blessings from the good earth.

The questions they were asked were these:

  • What does your community’s land mean to you personally? How has that land helped shape your personal spirit, commitment and sense of mission?
  • Why has your congregation held onto its land so long (if it has) or divested its land (if it has)? What theological values underlie the relationship between your congregation and your land? How might this theology be of use to our world?

Sister Susan Gatz, a vice president of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, articulated the views of many: “There is a rootedness when you walk on the land you know … you gain a sense of how deeply rooted we are. What are we doing to nourish (the land) and make it flourish?”

At day’s end, the sisters realized that the initiative they are undertaking will take time, prayer and identification of solid partners who can offer the other resources that will be needed, especially technical expertise and funding options. But they believe they are on the right track.

Just as in previous eras they founded schools, hospitals and social service agencies to respond to unmet human needs, they recognize now that care for the land, water and air of our planet is one of the most urgent unmet needs of our time.

Keith L. Runyon is a writer who lives in Louisville. He participated in the “Tilling a Future of Hope” conference.

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