Skip To Content

Fred Bahnson’s 6 Lessons

I don’t often get the opportunity to read books about people I know in real life. Something about the written word is a distant and surreal fantasy world sandwiched between two hard covers. Even if I was reading about real characters, they were never real to me.

However, in reading Fred Bahnson’s newest book Soil and Sacrament: A Spiritual Memoir of Food and Faith, I had the thrilling opportunity to read about people I really know and work with regularly (yes, Fred Bahnson, hirsute is exactly the right word to describe that man, and yes, he is like a benevolent king). Knowing that the people that Bahnson describes in his spiritually uplifting memoir really exist, made the book all the more incredible. It reminded me of my favorite Margaret Meade line “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world – indeed, it is the only thing that ever has”.

In this memoir, Bahnson recounts four life changing experiences that led him to become the founding director at Anathoth community garden, and current director of the Food, Faith & Religious Leadership Initiative at Wake Forest University School of Divinity. His stories are rich, passionate, and honest. They are chronicles of thoughtful, committed individuals working to change the world. Here are just some of passages that made me wonder how I can change the world too:

That was the lure I found irresistible: in growing food they were co-creators with God. This comes from the chapter when Bahnson recounts his time as a peace worker in Mexico, and without scaring anyone away with the “G” word, I found this to be in amazing sentiment. While the world has grown increasingly urban and sub-urban, we have moved away from the notion that agricultural work is holy work. But for anyone who has spent time in the fields, seeding plants and then harvesting them when they’re ripe, you’ll need no reminder that growing food is holy work indeed.

We grow food for the food pantry, but out work here is really about finding ways to make love visible. This lesson actually comes from Bahson’s friend Susan, who runs a community farm called The Lord’s Acre. Susan and Fred run a community farm where the produce is redistributed to the struggling members of their community. Just as the food needs proper care to grow, so do the people that consume it. In many ways our world is broken, whether it’s growing food, or education reform, or healthcare reform that does it for you – aren’t we all just trying to make love visible in our world?

The spiritual ecology of prayer always includes such places of withdrawal – landings, tree stands, a chair by a wood stove—unadorned places where your soul can touch down for a while and simply be. This line comes from the first section of the book, while Banhson is spending time at the Mepkin monastery. There’s something about the way Bahnson describes his formative time in Mepkin that makes me think I know what “spiritual ecology of prayer” actually means. However, I can relate to the idea that when I’m unplugged, maybe walking down an empty street, maybe in the vast expanse of a forest, I think to myself “Oh. This is who I am”. Usually, I call it Shabbat.

But what about everyday meals – were they not each a tiny eucharist of their own? Admittedly, I Googled ‘eucharist’ just to make sure I knew it what it meant, since somehow it managed to escape my Day School vocabulary test. In Jewish tradition we say blessings before we eat not only to thank god for the food, but formally as a way to exchange ownership. If we don’t bless the food, then Halakha would make the case that we’ve stolen it from God. And it’s not only Shabbat or Holiday food, it’s all food that gets this special recognition. If you’ll remember the earlier passage about growing food being holy work, then this idea becomes all the more prevalent: growing food is holy work, so by transitive property cooked food is also holy. And although he doesn’t say it here, eating is holy too.

Everyone who comes here hungers for something. Some hunger for food. Others hunger for community. Or beauty. But we all hunger . Again, this comes from Susan. I listened yesterday to an NPR podcast entitled “The Trouble with the Poverty Line” which poignantly elaborates on this point. We all need something, some more severely than others. What will you do to quench your hunger, literal or spiritual? And then, how will you help feed someone else’s? Shalom is not just the absence of violence; it is a state of well-being, of living in harmony with one’s community and with the land, […] link the planting of gardens with the seeking of shalom (129) – Despite what the Pew Survey might argue, I think most people in this country could tell you that Shalom means ‘hello’, ‘goodbye’, and ‘peace’, but fewer –myself included- might not view shalom as a spiritual principle. With Bahnson’s accurate description of gardening as a meditative and spiritual practice, it only make sense that this would lead way to a healthier, more sustainable, more peaceful world.

Liz Traison is currently studying to become a certified health coach. She is a graduate of The University of Michigan where she received a BA in History and Judaic Studies. She also studied at Midreshet Lindenbaum and Hebrew University. She is thrilled to be a Program Associate at Hazon and also to be doing social justice programming for MASA Alumni. She likes being outside, particularly on Skeleton Lake. And also being inside, specifically doing creative workshops in prison.

I hope you appreciated this article. Before you go, I’d like to ask you to please support the Forward’s award-winning, nonprofit journalism during this critical time.

Now more than ever, American Jews need independent news they can trust, with reporting driven by truth, not ideology. We serve you, not any ideological agenda.

At a time when other newsrooms are closing or cutting back, the Forward has removed its paywall and invested additional resources to report on the ground from Israel and around the U.S. on the impact of the war, rising antisemitism and the protests on college campuses.

Readers like you make it all possible. Support our work by becoming a Forward Member and connect with our journalism and your community.

Make a gift of any size and become a Forward member today. You’ll support our mission to tell the American Jewish story fully and fairly. 

— Rachel Fishman Feddersen, Publisher and CEO

Join our mission to tell the Jewish story fully and fairly.

Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.