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Project struggled to link Eucharist to justice

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

The Eucharist and hog farming may not naturally spring to mind as a paired set, but according to Bernie Evans, they go together just like Bogey and Bacall.


Well, consider first that in large swatches of rural America, massive corporate hog farming poses serious issues of social justice. Note, too, that Catholics are called to read the signs of the times, as an interfaith group with a strong Catholic presence in Minnesota and North and South Dakota did recently. It identified hog farming as a key issue for rural communities.

Where do Catholics find the spiritual, personal and communal energy needed to make the “preferential option” that leads to action on behalf of justice? According to Evans, associate professor of pastoral theology at St. John’s University, Collegeville, Minn., the only answer is the Eucharist.

Conclusion: the Eucharist and hog farming have everything in the world to do with each other.

Nothing in life, however, is as simple as that chain of reasoning suggests. Evans found this out the hard way as that interfaith group, which he helped create, sputtered when it came to advocacy and organizing. Forming an abstract commitment to social justice, Evans found, is one thing; moving to the next step, concrete action on a specific issue, is much more difficult -- especially when that involves confronting neighbors and friends in close-knit rural communities.

The lesson for parishes aiming to build social justice ministries is that one (an important local issue) plus one (church teachings on justice) doesn’t always equal two (consensus for action). It takes time to build support for justice ministries as well as the practical skills needed to pull them off. Still, Evans says, the effort is worth it -- not only because perseverance can lead to results, but because justice is a requirement of Eucharistic faith.

Evans holds the Virgil Michel Ecumenical Chair in Rural Social Ministries at St. John’s University and recently coedited the book Theology of the Land (Liturgical Press). His interest in justice issues led him to spearhead Churches Responding to Change, which brought together pastors and parishioners from Catholic and Lutheran congregations in Minnesota and North and South Dakota.

Responding to change

Designed as a three-year project, the goal of Churches Responding to Change was to help faith communities integrate concern for justice with their preaching and liturgical life. The notion was that doing so would lead naturally into organizing efforts around specific issues.

Initially, planners selected two issues for the group to focus on: school consolidations and hazardous waste. In later discussions, participants added hog farming to the list. All three were seen as priorities for rural Americans.

The first two issues seem obvious -- rural communities can be devastated when schools are closed for the sake of economic efficiency and they’re likewise the most exposed to the environmental dangers of waste disposal, because rural areas are often seen as convenient dumping grounds without much political muscle. But to urban folk, the notion of building a social crusade around hog farming may seem quaint.

To those who live with its destructive consequences, however, it’s anything but. For one thing, corporate agriculture raises issues of economic fairness. Large hog farming operations have displaced so many small farmers that proceeds from the 1997 Farm Aid concert were devoted to their relief. The trend is unmistakable. Illinois, to take one example, had 19,500 farms that raised hogs in 1985; by 1995, that number was 9,600, according to the state’s Agricultural Statistics Service, though the total number of hogs in the state had increased substantially.

While corporate agriculture is highly profitable, activists note that corporate interests and local interests often diverge. As economic conditions shift, it’s not unusual for companies to desert communities for more favorable locations. Moreover, corporate agricultural practices are frequently much more punishing to the land than more ecologically sustainable family farming.

With respect to hog farming, that ecological impact can be devastating. In 1995, when a dike broke in Haw Branch, N.C., the excrement from 10,000 pigs -- 22 million gallons worth -- poured onto fields, roads and waterways. Fish were killed 20 miles downstream. In his book And the Waters Turned to Blood, Rodney Barker claims that in the wake of numerous such spills, at least half a billion fish have been killed in North Carolina alone -- sometimes the dead fish have had to be bulldozed off the beaches.

The danger comes from the lagoons that store the immense amount of waste generated on large corporate hog farms. They sometimes rupture, leading to contamination of water supplies and fish kills. Less serious contamination also occurs on a regular basis, since the only way the lagoons can be maintained is to regularly spread their contents on surrounding fields. That’s done by using guns that can shoot manure 50 feet into the air.

In addition, the stench is powerful -- so powerful, in fact, that voters in Seward County, Kan., passed a nonbinding resolution against the introduction of corporate hog farming last year largely on the strength of that issue, despite promises from the Dekalb corporation to add 400 to 500 new jobs to the local economy. Activists claim that corporate hog farms poison the local environment in order to generate profits for owners and stockholders who have no stake in that community.

Evans’ argument is that people of faith living in those communities can’t simply pretend that the issue doesn’t exist, or that their religious beliefs don’t have anything to say about it. In fact, Evans argues, the connection between faith and justice is explicit -- especially for Catholics for whom the Eucharist sacramentalizes their commitment to community.

The Eucharist is a concrete expression of “the possibility that we can enter into right relationships, that we are called to communion with God, with our neighbor and with all creation,” Evans told NCR.

The summit

In the Eucharist, he said, we learn who we are and how we are to live. “To me, that’s why the Second Vatican Council points to the Eucharist as the summit of all we are and all we do. It’s just so central.” Moreover, the Eucharist empowers us “to go out and build community that reflects the kind of relationships we are called to,” just relationships “that are now possible for us because of what has happened to us through Jesus Christ.”

Based on this theological foundation, Evans -- who works with the Catholic rural life staff in Minnesota -- networked with Catholic and Lutheran colleagues to identify parishes wishing to participate in Churches Responding to Change. Pastors were asked to make a three-year commitment and to bring four to six parishioners with them.

During the first two years, parishes worked to help preachers connect the dots between scripture and social issues and to develop liturgical environments in which those connections would be reinforced. Evans told NCR that these years -- mid-1994 to mid-1996 -- went very well. “People felt energized, like what they were doing was making a difference,” he said.

In the third year, 1996-1997, the culminating stage of the project was to occur as the pastors and parishioners started dialogues in the parishes on key issues such as hog farming, leading to concrete action. It was at this stage, Evans said, that the waters became much more choppy.

“People found these things extraordinarily difficult to talk about,” he said. “You mention Mother Teresa and for many people in our parishes, no problem at all. You mention something that the Campaign for Human Development is doing,” however, and if the people understand that it supports local organizing on the part of the poor, “that’s very difficult” for them to accept. They typically see it as too controversial, as the church becoming involved in political issues.

Difficult conversations

In addition to a general reluctance to get involved, Evans said rural communities face a special hurdle in speaking truth to power: You know your adversary.

“I think it’s more difficult in rural areas because people know each other,” he said. “They don’t want to offend one another. Or, some people’s business depends on other members of the community and the parish, and they don’t want to be on the opposite side, so they stay out of it.”

It’s one thing to stand up in an urban parish and denounce the World Bank, Evans suggested. It’s a safe bet the bank’s director isn’t sitting next to you. But if someone in a rural parish were to denounce the corporate farm two miles away, chances are that several people who derive their livelihood from it are in the congregation. “That’s much harder for people to accept, and it makes it extremely difficult to have these conversations,” he said.

In consequence, Churches Responding to Change stalled in its fateful third year. Few places could get conversations started, Evans said, and those that tried found mostly awkward silences and reddened faces to be the result. Despite the best of intentions, Evans said he couldn’t really point to a single organizing effort that had flowed from the project.

He hastened to add, however, that Churches Responding to Change was really an experiment, and as in science, sometimes a negative result is just as good as a positive one in terms of what you can learn from it. So what conclusions has Evans drawn? That in order for churches -- especially in rural communities -- to be a voice for justice on matters of intense local concern, where the risk of divided opinion and hurt feelings is the greatest, there’s a need to erect the theological infrastructure to support those efforts. Catholics especially must understand, he said, that their faith demands this sort of effort.

Evans sees three challenges to building this infrastructure:

  • First, for too many people, faith is predominantly personal, not seen as “connecting to life out there. Much less does it call us to be engaged in the difficult, nasty, challenging activities that can put us at odds with others.”
  • Second, many parishes operate out of a flawed “ecclesiology, our understanding of church or who we are as a faith community.” He is “absolutely convinced” that most faith communities are not involved in social ministry because they do not see it as part of the parish and church’s mission. He says people need to see the church in these dimensions: proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ; celebrating the presence of Christ; developing faith communities; and serving the world. It is in service to the world that “we fall down,” he said.
  • Third, people need help “living out the social dimensions of the Eucharist ... the justice dimensions of the gospel.” The challenge here is practical: lack of knowing how to do it. Some parishes accept the necessity of social ministry but are hampered because they have a few enthusiasts who “turn everybody off” by the way they go about the task. Other parishes are unsuccessful because they tackle global issues with which only a few in the congregation identify. Yet other parishes are very good at charity work and are comfortable doing it, but they neglect the “dimension of justice, of changing systems and structures -- advocacy -- which is much more difficult,” Evans said.

He said the difficulties encountered by Churches Responding to Change involved a mixture of all of these factors. Participants in the project enthusiastically bought into the new ecclesiology and the understanding of the Eucharist it assumed, he said, but perhaps didn’t spend enough time or resources to make sure their parishes were moving along with them.

Equally important, however, the tools to translate those convictions into action were not readily at hand. Here, Evans said the project yielded some valuable insights about the sort of tools that should be in a parish’s justice ministries toolbox.

Very basic is that parishes should pay attention to simple things relating to worship, such as accessibility for the disabled and making sure people feel welcome, especially newcomers and members of racial or ethnic minorities such as migrant workers. If the parish sees the connection between their Eucharistic faith and small gestures of inclusion and concern such as these, it will be easier to make the transition to bigger issues.

Further, the liturgical environment -- decorating with scriptural motifs that relate to issues of economic or environmental justice, for example -- can help make connections, as can prayers of the faithful and the selection of who brings gifts to the altar.

A key element is preaching: The preacher needs to make connections between the day’s scripture readings and the community’s lives and needs, which may involve something difficult, ugly or controversial. The preacher does not prescribe a solution, Evans said, but mentions what needs to be addressed. Effective preaching requires that the preacher knows the community well, he said.

An important adjunct to worship is education about social ministry at all levels, he said. Whether that level is the Catholic school or preparation for baptism or adult faith formation, principles of Catholic social teaching need to be instilled and issues requiring social ministry need to be identified to motivate people to act in their families, work places and communities.

Additionally, he said the parish needs a social concerns committee to make sure social ministry and social justice action -- not just charitable activities -- are taking place. “In some, especially rural parishes, this may have to be done on a multi-parish basis, and it certainly can be done ecumenically.”

One danger is that two or three abrasive activists might alienate others, he said, and another is that the bulk of the community leaves to the committee all responsibility for carrying out the parish’s social ministry. The committee’s appropriate role “is to make sure the mission of the church comes to life in everything a parish does.”

Evans recommended that dioceses also have a person or office in charge of social concerns, as many already do. Such a person and office can facilitate the transmission of social justice concerns from the national to the parish level and also can be sure the diocesan liturgy and education offices include social justice concerns in their agendas.

The bottom line, Evans said, is that parishes wishing to link their Eucharistic faith with issues of social justice have to focus on both “the theoretical and theological,” and on practical strategies for “facilitating, encouraging and leading.”

“I am convinced that people are ready to do more,” Evans said, “but we have to find appropriate ways for people to enter into social ministry, especially where it involves any kind of controversial issues or situations.”

Ultimately, though, Evans acknowledges that the reason to make the effort is not merely the prospect of practical success. The reason, he said, is because, “we are not church if we are not about service to the world.”

In that light, hog farming -- or any issue of human concern -- and the Eucharist don’t seem such strange bedfellows after all.

National Catholic Reporter, January 23, 1998