The Louisville Institute

The Louisville Institute
1044 Alta Vista Road Louisville, KY 40205 (502) 992-5432

Author Interviews

Author Interview with Fred Bahnson

Fred Bahnson

Fred Bahnson received a 2011 Project Grant for Researchers award to support The Good Land Project - Extending Practical Charity to the Soil. We interviewed Fred about his 2013 book Soil and Sacrament: A Spiritual Memoir of Food and Faith, an outcome of his project.

LI: Tell us about yourself and your current work.

FB: My current writing projects are a jumble of scribbled notes, half-baked ideas, and little snippets of narrative that slowly accumulate like geologic strata in the folds of my Moleskin notebook. And the geologic reference is only a slight exaggeration. I’m a slow writer. Once those strata begin to cohere into a recognizable pattern, I’ll pursue them and they will become a book, but for now they’re inert layers of dirt. I have three or four book ideas I’m toying with. It feels premature to speak about them so I’ll speak instead about my other work, which is my full-time job at Wake Forest University School of Divinity directing the Food, Faith, and Religious Leadership Initiative.

Part of my role is to organize continuing education events on food & faith issues both in Winston-Salem and in the Asheville area. This Fall, for example, we’re hosting Vandana Shiva for a talk on global food security. I’m teaching a class called “Field, Table, Communion: Food & the Work of Ministry” which involves readings, seminar discussion, and site visits to local farms and gardens. For the Spring I’m organizing a conference on Contemplative Ecology and another gathering on Food, Faith, and Climate Change.

We’ve developed a fruitful partnership with Warren Wilson College, where every June I host a 5-day seminar on a topic related to food & faith. This is a WFU School of Divinity-sponsored event, but Warren Wilson allows us to use their lovely campus with its model gardens as a teaching site. This past June we brought in the intrepid Ched Myers, who taught on “Sabbath Economics and Watershed Discipleship.”  In 2015 we’ll again be bringing in biblical scholars, permaculturalists, and a musician-in-residence. Each year is a slight variation, but the overall goal remains constant: equip faith leaders with a holistic, scriptural frame for thinking about food systems, social justice, climate change, and ecology. We need to de-balkanize our thinking, and this course is an effort in that direction. It’s but one example of how we’re trying to redefine Christian leadership which for too long has limited itself to concern only for people. We’re trying to follow the scope of Christ’s cosmic redemption we read about in Colossians 1 and say that Christian leadership should really be engaging things like watersheds, food-sheds, our climate, and the non-human creatures with whom we share this earth. And that means learning practical skills for how we care for our places, skills like permaculture, biointensive gardening, and watershed restoration.

For people who want to learn more about the Food, Faith, and Religious Leadership Initiative, here’s our website:  http://divinity.wfu.edu/food-and-faith/

LI: What core question/concern guided your research project?

FB: The main project I worked on during my Louisville grant was a book called Soil and Sacrament: A Spiritual Memoir of Food & Faith, published last August by Simon & Schuster. The publisher called it a “memoir” for marketing purposes, but I really see it as more a hybrid of literary nonfiction with a spiritual quest as the narrative spine on which everything hangs. The book is partly memoir, but it’s also part narrative journalism, part nature writing, and part lyric essay. There’s even a bit of mythic storytelling and a smidgen of theological diatribe. It was fun for me as a writer to bring together all these different layers and styles and try to make them cohere in a single narrative. It’s less a book about gardens and food in the practical sense and more a theologically-informed narrative that uses the religious imagination to think about soil and land and community, about our journey in this life from one garden to another (Eden to New Jerusalem), about the tenuous nature of our place in the world.

LI: What would you like us to know about Soil and Sacrament: A Spiritual Memoir of Food and Faith?

FB: With Soil and Sacrament I wanted to explore both my own journey into gardens, which I’ve come to see as a necessary metaphor for the Christian life, but also my journey to different agrarian strongholds, places where life and liturgy and food and community and land are all blended in a luminescent whole. Places that witness to the fullness of our humanity and our connection to soil. I wasn’t looking for airy transcendence; I wanted immanence, incarnation, fecundity in all its forms. I visited Trappist monks who raise shiitake mushrooms, Mayan coffee farmers and Pentecostal coffee roasters, community gardeners, Jewish farmers. In each place I traveled as an immersion journalist but also as a seeker, praying the 4th century prayer of the Egyptian monastics: “God, we beg you, make us truly alive.” The undercurrent (I wouldn’t call it an argument) of the book is that caring for the soil and feeding people is a means to become more fully alive. To become more fully the soil-people (“earth’s hallowed mould” as Milton wrote in Paradise Lost) that God created us to be.

I grew up with little or no idea where my food came from. With the lens of a theological education I came to see that our distance from the sources of our nourishment has resulted from a widespread Gnostic disdain for the material world. We’ve come to think that we’re somehow above the hard work of growing food. Yet we’re now realizing that when less than 1% of us know how to grow food, something important has been lost. I hope Soil and Sacrament leaves the reader with examples they might follow through the stories of people trying to reclaim a more embodied life. More than anything I wanted to show the beauty and promise of such a life.

Author Interview with Diana Garland and Gaynor Yancey

Gaynor Yancey

Diana Garland and Gaynor Yancey received a 2011 Project Grant for Researchers award to support Social Work with Congregations.  Their research resulted in the 2014 book Congregational Social Work: Christian Perspectives.  

LI: Tell us about yourselves and your current work.

DG: I began teaching social work in a Baptist seminary in 1979 as part of a small group of faculty bent on developing an accredited graduate social work program focused on church leadership. We did not realize we were pioneers.  Social workers had been serving in congregational ministries since the beginnings of the profession in the 19th Century, but few had studied or written about this field of social work.  In 1997, I had opportunity to start a new graduate social work program, this time at Baylor University.  In the nurturing environment of Baylor University School of Social Work, I have been able to continue to pursue the work we began in 1979. My work has benefited beyond measure from being married to David Garland, a New Testament scholar and theologian.  Since the publication of Congregational Social Work, I have turned my attention to another book manuscript, Social Work as Calling, based on interviews with Christian social workers in the diverse fields of our profession, from child welfare to hospice, who see their work as the fulfillment of their Christian calling.

GY: In the early 1970s, several denominations transitioned from almost a century of para-church organizations meeting the needs of the poor and marginalized to having congregations take responsibility for meeting the needs of people. I was in the first group of social workers to practice social work in congregational settings. Ultimately, I became a regional director for Congregational Community Ministries, teaching and equipping congregations for applying the teachings of the gospel to every part of their lives. I worked with congregations in Philadelphia and the five-county region until I started teaching full-time at Eastern University. I moved to Baylor University in 1999 as a faculty member in the new MSW program.  Helping congregants and students apply their calling from God in service with marginalized people groups helps me fulfill my calling from God. I continue to target my research and scholarship on congregational social work. I provide leadership for the Congregational Social Work Initiative in our School of Social Work, which is very rewarding and exciting!

LI: What core question/concern guided your research project?

DG & GY: We explored the actual experiences of social workers who are providing professional leadership for congregations.  We wanted to develop a full-orbed description of social work as a field of practice and spotlight how social workers can be a resource in congregational missions and ministries.  We also wanted to produce a research-based text that educational programs could use in teaching congregational social work. 

LI: What would you like us to know about Congregational Social Work: Christian Perspectives?

DG & GY: We wrote the book backward. We began to write a report on a research project designed to describe the field of congregational social work. As we wrote our findings, however, the manuscript grew into a much broader description of this field as we reflected back on (1) what we have learned from our own professional experiences; (2) our understanding of the culture of congregations developed from living more than six decades grounded in congregational life; (3) what our students have taught us as they have practiced social work in congregational settings; and then finally, (4) what we have most recently learned in the congregational social work project.

Our writing was full of surprises, and we think it will be surprising to others.   As we studied the stories these congregational social workers told us about their work, we came to understand that congregational social work is a field of practice as diverse as the social work profession itself. We began with the assumption that social workers would be engaged predominantly in the missions and community ministries of the church.  Although many were, they were also engaged as worship leaders, Christian educators, and in providing congregational care.  We were fascinated to learn from social workers how they had figured out how to put together their professional identities with a call to congregational ministry.  We had expected them simply to tell their stories, and did not expect to have our understanding so dramatically altered as we studied the stories of 51 social workers finding their way into this field of practice and how they grew and changed as they served.

Author Interview with Jason Storbakken

Jason Storbakken

Jason Storbakken received a 2011 Pastoral Study Project grant for his project: Toward a Radical Spirituality: Discipleship on the Margins. As a result of this project, Jason’s book "Radical Spirituality: Repentance, Resistance, and Revolution" will be available September 10, 2014.

LI: Tell us about yourself and your ministry.

JS: I was raised primarily in the upper Midwest, spent a decade (from the age of 17 to 27) meandering cities, cultures and continents, and finally settled in the County of Kings (i.e., Brooklyn!) where Jesus breathed on me, and even blessed him with Vonetta, my wife and co-laborer in Christ. We have two children, a four year old boy and five year old girl.

In 2007, Vonetta and I founded Radical Living (http://www.radical-living.org/), a Christian cohousing community in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. Radical Living is a multicultural, intergenerational and ecumenical community of artists, workers and students that includes individuals and families. In essence, the Radical Living community is dedicated to living a meditative, prophetic and prayerful life, centered in Christ, engaged in our neighborhood, concerned with social justice, and led by the Holy Spirit.

I also serve in a full-time capacity as the Director of Chapel & Compassionate Care at The Bowery Mission (http://www.bowery.org/) in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where I provide spiritual direction and support to New York City's unhoused and food-insecure community. I am a minister in the Mennonite Church USA.

LI: What core question/concern guided your Pastoral Study Project?

JS: In the Radical Living community we intentionally discuss issues specific to our neighborhood (e.g., gentrification, class disparity, etc.) in an effort to develop a race and class analysis that is faith-based and Christ-centered. For example, how does Christ’s life—born to an unwed, teenage mother and executed by the government as a criminal—shape our understanding of the poor and oppressed, outcast and criminalized? Jesus identified with those on society’s margins. Rather than extending mere charity, might we too find Jesus still on the margins today, might we join with him and those with whom he identified to participate in a movement for social change and kingdom building? If so, what stories, what personal experiences, what scriptures might strengthen and undergird us in this important work?

LI: What should we know about your book "Radical Spirituality: Repentance, Resistance, and Revolution"?

JS: "Radical Spirituality" is aimed at followers of Jesus Christ who seek a deeper, more authentic spirituality. It is aimed at those who have made mistakes on their spiritual journey and will undoubtedly take risks and make more mistakes as they pursue God. This is the story of my pursuit of God and the cloud of witnesses who have shaped me. I have had many failings in my life, and expect more struggles before this life is over, yet through these obstacles I have encountered a God who provides redemption and liberation, light and love to all who humbly, earnestly call upon the Holy Name. While this book is my personal story, that is, my testimony of Christ’s work in my life, it is also a description of the theology and praxis that I have encountered as a disciple on the margins of the church as well as the margins of society.

My spiritual formation has been flush with contrast. My patrilineal, Anabaptist ancestry reaches deep into the seventeenth century. I grew up listening to my grandfather, Elgin Tobias Tschetter, tell the stories of our distant Hutterite and Mennonite kin who were hanged, burned and stoned as martyrs of the faith. Yet I was born to an unwed, teenage mother, far removed from the church, and too often I served as witness to the brutal ways she was emotionally and physically abused by boyfriends, exploited by employers, and limited by society’s structures. As I came to faith in Christ, I sought to reconcile my personal experiences and my view of a church disconnected from those who truly need her with the teachings of Jesus Christ and the writings of the Holy Scriptures. It is for that reason that I have been drawn toward a radical spirituality. "Radical" merely means "root."

According to Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth, to be spiritual is to examine, investigate, inquire into, question, and discern all things (1 Cor. 2:15). For the Christian, to move toward a radical spirituality is to start by returning to the rich soil in which we have been planted. It is to consider the seed sewn, and the roots that serve to hold us fast in the holy faith. We must examine our religious heritage and traditions, grow in knowledge of the saints who have walked before us, read and re-read the prophets, psalms, gospels and other holy writings, and reflect upon our own Christian experience and perspective. It is as important to reflect on the experiences that birthed, shaped and formed the primitive church as it is to understand the experiences that give meaning to our own personal spiritual life.

"Radical Spirituality: Repentance, Resistance, and Revolution" releases September 10, 2014 (http://www.amazon.com/Radical-Spirituality-Repentance-Resistance-Revolution/dp/1626981035/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1406647851&sr=8-1&keywords=storbakken )

Author Interview with LaVerne Gill

LaVerne Gill

LaVerne Gill received a 2012 Pastoral Study Project grant for her project: Faith Formation and Kidney Transplantation: A Pastoral Counseling Manual and Website. Her research resulted in the book "Faith and Kidney Disease: Prayers, Meditations and Other Spiritual Disciplines For People with Kidney Disease" published in 2013.

LI: Tell us about yourself and your ministry.

LG: I generally refer to myself as a "retired clergy person" - obviously there is no such thing. After nine years as a full-time pastor in Webster township, just north of Ann Arbor, Michigan, I began a ministry as the United Church of Christ Chaplain at Chautauqua Institute, in New York. Although it was a summer position, much of the planning took place in fall and winter.

I retired from my full time ministry in Michigan because I was feeling ill. I did not know how ill I really was, but I knew my stamina was diminishing. In 2008, I took my last trip to Ghana, West Africa, where I had led church mission trips for eight years. What had been a pleasant and rich spiritual experience turned out to be a physically grueling trip.

The Chautauqua summers that followed were filled with varying degrees of angst and illness. By my fourth summer my nephrologist (kidney specialist) told me that I was in the fourth stage of End Stage Renal Disease (ESRD). I would need dialysis or a kidney transplant within six months to a year.

My five-year commitment to Chautauqua had to be cut short. Before notifying the board of directors, I told the chair of the personnel committee Patricia Hanberry, wife of a UCC clergy colleague, and God's providence became evident. Pat offered to donate her kidney. This incredible act of generosity led to us entering the operating room just five months later in November 2010. Pat and I tell the full story my book Faith and Kidney Disease.

My ministry now involves telling this story of God's providence and grace in the book, at churches, and educating and counseling people about ESRD.

LI: What core question/concern guided your Pastoral Study Project?

LG: During my journey with ESRD, the need for pastoral care focused on this particular illness became clear. Even though I am clergy and my donor is married to a pastor, we both felt that our spiritual journeys during this period could benefit from pastoral care that included insight into our situation -- hers as a donor and mine as the recipient.

After the successful surgery, I began to reflect on my spiritual growth and looked at what spiritual disciplines did or could have provided guidance and comfort during those difficult days of discernment, discomfort, and dismay.

The Louisville Institute's Pastoral Study Project grant offered the opportunity to look beyond my personal spiritual journey and to research the connection between spirituality and health. In particular, I wanted to know how to incorporate the best practices of pastoral counseling and what is known in health care about the spiritual experiences of people with ESRD or similar prognoses to affect better health outcomes and strengthen faith.

After completing the research, I decided to organize the resulting product as a book and structure it around the teaching elements used by Jesus in his ministry: storytelling, prayer, meditation, scripture reading and the creation of a faith community. I published Faith and Kidney Disease using the not-for-profit organization I established to further the message about kidney disease: Faith Formation and Kidney Disease Institute, Inc. This is the first book in a three-part series to address the role of faith in healing.

LI: What would you like us to know about your book Faith and Kidney Disease?

LG: Faith and Kidney Disease will find its most potent response in people who have kidney disease and are either on dialysis or have had a kidney transplant, as well as those who are anticipating organ donation.

The opening chapter features four first-person narratives: two dialysis patients, my transplant story and the faith journey of my kidney donor. All four began their sacred stories in 2010 and each chronicles the faith formation or lack thereof during an encounter with ESRD. Pastoral care and other care givers can glean insight from these stories into how best to minister to people with kidney disease and other similar prognoses.

The chapters that follow provide prayers of various types and case studies using spiritual direction to aid in faith formation. People with terminal diagnoses such as ESRD or cancer have two prominent thoughts: Has my life had meaning? What is beyond life? No matter how far or near death might be, the diagnosis begins the mind's journey in search of answers to these questions.

Faith and Kidney Disease describes spiritual disciplines based on the ministry of Jesus to help the patient gain a more intimate relationship with God. I attempted to make the book readable and user-friendly, inviting readers to pace themselves according to their own phase in faith formation.

The blessing of the Louisville Institute's Pastoral Study Project grant made this atypical research possible. Rarely do clergy have an opportunity to reflect, explore and document religious experiences and disseminate them for the benefit of the faith community. A blessing indeed!