Missio Dei: A Journal of Missional Theology and Praxis 5, no. 2 (August 2014)

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Eel River Watershed Discipleship

Cliff Kindy

It was -20 degrees Fahrenheit at 5:00AM on 11 February, 2014. By 8:00AM it was down to -24 degrees, the lowest of the winter here at Joyfield Farm, North Manchester, Indiana. This was the second of three so-called polar vortex weather patterns that were unusual events for our region of the country. It was reminiscent of the extreme weather brought by the severe drought of 2012. As organic market gardeners, that summer had been very difficult. Later that same day, Dave Pritchett asked me to consider writing a reflection piece for the journal Missio Dei.

Those events were the on-the-edge stimuli that started my mind moving in the direction of this reflective piece. Who are we as disciples, those choosing to follow Jesus in this rapidly changing, even chaotic, world? Where do we find ourselves, and what is the place in which we shape our following of Jesus? Is there a specific identity that best defines our activity? I want to move through these questions in a reverse order.

Is there a specific identity that best defines our activity?

Eel River

The Eel River is a tributary of the Wabash River, which becomes the boundary between Indiana and Illinois. The Wabash enters the Ohio River at the southwestern extreme of Indiana. Then the Ohio becomes part of the Mississippi River, which drains just over one-third of the total United States area. The earlier inhabitants of this region along the Eel River called it Kenapocomoco. This river was the dividing line between the Miami and Potawatomi peoples who inhabited the area when Europeans invaded.

The Potawatomi and Miami both left this land under military pressure from the expanding United States. The forced clearance of the Potawatomi from northeastern Indiana to Oklahoma under military escort in 1838 was known as the Trail of Death. Reminiscent of the more well-known Trail of Tears, which was the forced evacuation of the Cherokee from the southeastern United States, the Trail of Death was actually even worse.

Eel River is also the name of the congregation where my wife, Arlene, and I hold our church membership—the Eel River Community Church of the Brethren. It began on the north side of the Eel River, formerly Potawatomi land, in 1838. New members joined the congregation through an immersion baptism of consenting adults in the waters near the church that flowed into the Eel.

That baptism came from the biblical understanding of the brothers and sisters that each congregant should be buried to self and raised to new life in the symbolic dunking three times forward into flowing waters. A Pennsylvania elder went further when he explained to me, “Baptism was carried out with the new member facing upstream, symbolic of living against the tide of society the rest of her or his life when one follows as a disciple of Jesus.”

Though our congregation is presently composed of folks living in three different counties, three different small towns, and focused in two different school districts, the Eel River drainage encompasses all of the members. That drainage provides a unity not found in other geographical units. Since many in the congregation have a focus in horticulture, the common weather and terrain conditions provide a unique common identity for the members.

Where do we find ourselves and what is the place in which we shape our following of Jesus?

Watershed

The Eel River and the rivers into which its waters merge all move toward the south. Just about twenty-one miles north of the Eel River Community Church of the Brethren is the continental divide that splits the falling water that goes north through the St. Lawrence Seaway to the Atlantic Ocean from the water that flows south through the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico. So we live in the Gulf of Mexico Watershed, one of the five major watersheds of the North American continent. The others are the Atlantic, Pacific, and Arctic Oceans, and the Hudson Bay.

For the purposes of this article, let us use a smaller geography and select primarily the Eel River and its environs. That will allow us to focus more tightly on the region that includes the Eel River Community Church of the Brethren.

Interestingly, almost parallel to the Eel River and just south of us is Teays River Valley, an underground aquifer of ancient water that carries glacial melt from the time of the last ice age. Those glacial waters have a few connecting points to the Eel River. But pumping the aquifer for major agricultural irrigation resembles the mining of resources because the aquifer waters are not replaced. For example, the Ogallala Aquifer in Nebraska, Kansas, and Oklahoma is depleted about two-thirds from its original volume because of unsustainable irrigation practices.

When settlers moved into this Eel River watershed region it was heavily forested. Huge trees made traffic by buggy or ox cart impossible. People could pass only on foot between the hardwood trees. When travelers carried any significant load they moved on waterways and passed through settlements built along those river banks.

But the Brethren were farmers and their style of farming required open ground. Brethren settlers felled trees for houses; they girdled trees and then burned them for planting crops and clearing land to graze animals. Today the canopy is gone, except for a scattering of new growth trees.

Who are we as disciples, those choosing to follow Jesus in this rapidly changing, even chaotic, world?

Discipleship

Discipleship for Christians is primarily about following in the footsteps of Jesus. Discipleship is voluntary but may come through what the individual feels is a call from Jesus’ Spirit. For Brethren, it comes primarily in the context of the community of sisters and brothers.

The beginnings of the Church of the Brethren were in Germany in the year 1708. The seven young men and women who gathered along the Eder River to baptize each other were strongly influenced by the Anabaptist and the Pietist movements. An adult voluntary decision to join the church, a commitment of accountability to sisters and brothers, a practice of Bible study and prayer life, a choice to be peacemakers in a world focused on war, a clear separation of church and state, and an embodied life of discipleship and justice in Jesus’ Way are threads of this disciplined following of Jesus.

Discipleship relies on spiritual feeding and regular challenges to our acceptance of a status quo that builds injustice. Spiritual disciplines need to be chosen that help us live against the tide of a society that ignores the injustices that feed our own power and wealth. Disciples need to sip water from the underground aquifers of ancient wisdom and times of testing.

Discipleship is a clarity of living in the face of choices because the community is clear that is how Jesus would choose to live. Discipleship is not about a choice of doctrine or a special place to worship and practice one’s devotions. It is about what the follower of Jesus does. It is a focus on how God’s reign manifests itself here on earth rather than an emphasis on whether the believer gets to heaven. It is an effort to live consistently with Jesus’ prayer, “Thy kingdom come here on earth as in heaven.” God’s reign starts here and now and then will be fleshed out most fully in God’s time and space. Disciples recognize their dependence on God’s power for their daily walk and rely on God’s initiative in the formation of this reign.

Synapses

What are the ways these pieces fit together? I will attempt to hold the connections long enough for the reader to examine my theses and shape them for the benefit of a different space and people. They are not poured in concrete. I have found them helpful but perhaps you can use them as a launch pad for different and better ideas in your own church community.

(1) Watershed discipleship here in the Eel River basin needs to start with some kind of reconciliation with the First Nation peoples. Maybe it requires moving out and returning the land to the remnant of the original inhabitants. Just as in Palestine/Israel it seems that any sustainable decision on land will require a shared land with shared political control or a split two-nation political entity, and that is most likely in this setting, too.

True, the Brethren were not part of the military effort that evicted the Potawatomi and Miami but they were clearly beneficiaries of that forced expulsion. How can injustice be corrected after more than 175 years?

An important step might be for us as settlers to assume a style of life that allows sustainability for seven generations, a principle often used as a guideline by Native peoples.1 How do our present decisions impact the lives of those who will come to this place in seven generations? Clearly our lives of consumption and waste cannot be sustained by the planet or our watershed for anywhere near seven generations!

Our lifestyle drives toward an apocalypse of humanity’s making. The maximization of profit over justice ignores environmental and human concerns. Our depletion of mineral resources leaves nothing for future generations. We waste pure water to the last drop. Our eating practices drive us to obesity and ill health. The radioactive and toxic wastes we leave in our path will lay down extensive cancer fields that will outlive the human race. The pollution of the air will leave no air for humans to breathe. The culmination is war, which combines the above sins against God and humanity with the assumption that whatever we can do we should do. So we choose gas chambers, nuclear weapons, rape as the tool of war, depleted uranium weapons, suicide bombings, and drones.

But these sins pale in the face of the apostasy that assumes our apocalypse can usurp or fulfill God’s Apocalypse. We even define the disaster we have made of the earth as God’s judgment, God’s apocalyptic intervention, because of the sins of the other humans who are not like us. We put ourselves in the place of God by choosing uncreation in the face of God’s good creation.

In a more faithful following, the journey can begin with a small step. Downward mobility rather than upward mobility can encompass an intentional choice for a dramatically lower income level. For over forty years Arlene and I have kept our income below the taxable level so as not to pay taxes for war. This also forces for us a lower level of material consumption, perhaps a level of living that doesn’t need so much to be defended by war. Downward mobility can also include major steps toward humility and vulnerability. In the context of church community and accountability to brothers and sisters, both neighbors and enemies, downward mobility might control any lust for power and egocentric perversions of relationships. Choosing humility and vulnerability as Jesus did enables us to find Jesus in the least of these.

(2) A movement toward watershed discipleship here in the Eel River basin should be a movement away from empire toward regional responsibility. For Jesus and the early church, that was healing the wounds caused by empire economics—a system which squeezed the wealth out of Palestine solely for the benefit of the political elite. Jesus and the early church led a refocus toward those on the bottom of the economic and political spectrum, the outcasts, women, children, Samaritans, and poor, instead of an elevation and honoring of those on the top. It was an equalizing of money and power not a maximization of the economic and power divide between poor and rich. It was a dramatic and intentional move toward voluntary slavery (see the foot washing scene in John 13) as opposed to the making of slaves for another’s personal benefit. This change was initiated not by the top of the divide but by those on the bottom of the divide.

These steps are not easy. How can we move ourselves into their reality? Imagine a youth group or congregation choosing to “walk a mile in another’s moccasins.” Perhaps doing so by walking a day or a week as a lonely elder abandoned by family, as a vegan or vegetarian trying to eat lower on the food chain, as a returned Afghan vet impacted by post-traumatic stress while operating in a front line Ranger unit, as a gay/lesbian youth grappling with ostracism in high school, or as a homeless person, jobless or underemployed and struggling to support a family. Would this “role play” provide the stark realism that Jesus’ actions and words toward outcasts did for his disciples and followers throughout the New Testament?

(3) Regional responsibility also moves us as disciples to envision an economy that serves the neighbors that are right around us. The Eel River watershed and its agricultural economy as it is presently structured is controlled by decisions made in board rooms hundreds or thousands of miles from here. The prices for crops grown here on local farms are prices set by multinational grain companies who care nothing about real people in the Eel River region. Inputs for crops, like fertilizer and herbicides, are priced to serve the corporation rather than the farmer.

How does that change? Farmers’ markets start to bring locally grown food back to the customers. The growers set their prices, often discover organic ways that bypass fertilizer and herbicide companies, and experiment with crops that could be easily grown by farmers who have seemingly become dependent on bank loans and outside multinationals to survive.

A locally-focused economy begins to recycle each dollar many times in the community before it leaves town rather than leaving town the instant it is spent at a McDonalds fast food chain or Walmart Superstore. If that dollar is spent instead with locally oriented establishments the benefit accrues to local businesses and families. Then it won’t be the corporate executives that reap the big bonuses for squeezing low paid employees, relying on public inputs to run the company and leaving those local neighborhoods to clean up any messes.

Our local North Manchester Farmers’ Market is an experiment in birthing new economic ventures and an attractive place that draws customers committed to investing their monies to sustain this local economy. It is but one example of an effort to recycle each dollar many times before it leaves town, for each recycling adds to the local economic stability and sustainability.

Conclusion

Most congregations find themselves in a certain watershed, with a specific history and grappling with environmental and economic issues that threaten to overwhelm their abilities. Watershed discipleship offers new ways to reexamine following Jesus. It brings rich resources to bear on that effort by relying on the sisters and brothers who make up each congregation. It offers accountability with those who lived in our space before us and may even provide a better insight for reading the Scriptures and interpreting Jesus’ words.

This reflection is an offering to stimulate imagination for other disciples in their walk with Jesus. Though it may not fit your situation exactly I hope it does offer ideas that you can expand to best fit your denominational and congregational setting. I encourage you to be part of expanding this framework for the choices in Christian discipleship. Blessings of peace to you!

Cliff Kindy is an organic market gardener with wife, Arlene, on Joyfield Farm where they live with three other families. For the past thirty years Cliff has been active with Christian Peacemaker Teams using tools of nonviolence to increase the peace and justice in many of the conflict sites of our world. Cliff and Arlene decided to keep their income low enough to not pay any taxes for war since they married in 1971 and chose not ot have a car for the first twelve years of their married life even as they raised two daughters. They enjoy hosting interns who work with them in the garden and grapple with discipleship issues for these times.

1 When I spent time with the Lakota Sioux in South Dakota as part of a Christian Peacemaker Teams effort, tribal members would regularly speak of making decisions in light of how it would affect those seven generations in the future.