Truett Seminary’s newest master’s program digs deep into the connections between hunger, agriculture and religion.
Students pursuing a master’s in theology, ecology and food justice in Baylor University's George W. Truett Theological Seminary will spend most of their time at World Hunger Relief, a Christian nonprofit founded in 1979 where interns and volunteers gather to learn about agriculture and fight world hunger on a 40-acre demonstration farm in Elm Mott, just outside of Waco.
The program launched in September last year as a concentration seminary students could take, with director Jennifer Howell at the helm, and the master’s program is set to launch in August, after an accrediting review by the Association of Theological Schools. Students split their time between core classes offered at Truett and the hands-on courses in the farm’s gardens, animal pens and fields, where they will spend most of their time.
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“So while we’re doing hardcore theology classes, they’re also learning how to compost, how to take care of soil,” Howell said. “It’s not just gardening we’re doing. We’re learning about food systems. These are the theological, moral and ethical issues we’re dealing with: Where does our food come from and how do we repair the answer to that question, because it’s deeply problematic.”
The course will tackle issues including food insecurity at home and abroad, the environmental and human toll of mass food production, labor issues, food deserts, factory farming and industrial farming’s role in climate change. Howell said the interdisciplinary program is set up to let students fine-tune their course of study.
“Let’s say they want to go work for the United Nations,” Howell said. “We’re working on a partnership with the (U.N.) World Food Program right now, the largest distributer of relief aid in the world. If they want to do that, they should probably take food classes in the business school, or do trauma-informed therapy coursework at the school of social work.”
The program also works closely with the Baylor Collaborative on Hunger and Poverty.
She said soil is often the best place to start to drive home the point of the program to incoming students. Teaching them how to compost food waste instead of letting it add to landfills or showing them tablespoons of soil that contain 9 billion organisms all hard at work, drives the point of the program home, she said.
“We know less about soil than we do the cosmos,” Howell said. “We’re just now beginning to contemplate the complexity of life that goes on in the partnerships within those organisms, and the ways in which they repair their environment is stunning. It’s a great foundation to contemplate God, who created all that leads us into mystery.”
The farm recently received a grant to build onto its “urban homestead” garden, a fenced-in area roughly the size of the average backyard in Waco where students and volunteers practice gardening under urban constraints.
Howell said it was her theological studies that drew her to farming, not the other way around, and most of her students are in the same boat.
“It’s a spiritual discipline,” she said. “Farming in Texas is not for the faint of heart, not the kind of farming where you’re actually in the field every day.”
Howell, who is Baptist, said the church has not always done enough to address humankind’s relationship with the land, and she believes the issue cannot be ignored any longer. She cited a U.N. projection that by 2050, 1.2 billion people will be displaced by climate change across the planet, as an example of why.
“Taking care of the poorest of the poor and the care of the land, those go hand in hand,” she said. “You can’t just care for land without thinking of the inhabitants who live on that land, and you can’t just think about people who live on the land without thinking about the land itself.”
World Hunger Relief Inc. Director Jonathan Grant said when he started 20 months ago the farm was struggling, with a core group of dedicated but exhausted workers keeping it going. The farm lost about $160,000 in canceled events and dinners over the course of the pandemic, but he said he has a long-term plan to repair that damage, expand the farm’s reach and combat hunger in even more direct ways in McLennan County.
“This is going to take an effort to beat this big, hairy problem with economists, with social workers, with public health people, with farmers, with all different kinds of people in our community that have different skills,” Grant said. “And so we are working and having that conversation right now.”