Norm Braksick knows a thing or two about farming. At age 63, he still oversees the 115-acre family farm in Napoleon, Mo., the same soil his parents worked a generation before him.
But Braksick, after 55 years in farming and agriculture-related work, also is getting his hands dirty through a unique form of agricultural ministry. As the volunteer director of the Kalamazoo, Mich.-based Foods Resource Bank (FRB), he's teaching congregations how to help feed hungry people through farming—one harvest at a time.
The concept is simple yet profound. Urban and rural congregations partner together to provide money, land and labor to grow crops that are converted into cash. The profit is then used to support sustainable agricultural projects around the world.
Currently, FRB is coordinating 95 revenue-generating projects on more than 4,000 acres throughout the Midwest. The crops' value, estimated at $800,000, will be matched with a federal international development grant. "That means we'll be able to provide $1.6 million in food security programming," says Braksick, an active member of Portage UCC in Michigan.
FRB does not offer handouts, but provides what is necessary for substantive change to address hunger—"seeds, tools, training, fertilizer, fencing, water wells, pest control, whatever communities need to develop a sustainable agricultural operation," Braksick says. FRB spends about $40,000 on each of its 45 international agricultural projects.
"Our niche is to allow people to know the dignity and pride of feeding themselves," Braksick explains.
The UCC's roots in the ecumenical ministry are significant. In 2003, a $20,000 grant from the UCC's One Great Hour of Sharing special mission offering was used to support FRB, and congregational involvement is strong—and growing.
This summer, Plainfield UCC in Illinois partnered with two nearby Lutheran churches to grow 42 acres of corn. On Oct. 11, church members gathered for a cornfield worship service just before a cadre of combines began harvesting the fields. Soon, African villagers will reap the rewards.
First Congregational UCC in Constantine, Mich., worked with area churches and farmers to initiate a 110-acre project. Similarly, First Congregational UCC in Coloma, Mich., developed a 40-acre project in celebration of its 150th anniversary. First Congregational UCC in DeKalb, Ill., has been instrumental in a 75-acre project, and in three years, Peace UCC in Fredricksburg, Iowa, increased its participation from 20 to 40 and then 80 acres.
In Higginsville, Mo., the pastor of Salem UCC, the Rev. I.W. Muita, is a native of Kenya. His congregation developed a 15-acre project to support food programs in his African nation.
Last year, First Congregational UCC, an urban church in Western Springs, Ill., and Park Street Congregational UCC, a rural church in Mazon, Ill., planted a 42-acre field of dreams to support food security programs in The Gambia. Eight combines and six grain trucks stood by on harvest day, as church members dedicated their fields—and yields—to the glory of God.
Western Springs' pastor, the Rev. Richard T. Kirchherr, remembers, "Our ultimate satisfaction was, of course, raising $32,000, but the relationship of community, spirit, cooperation and brotherhood between our two churches in working toward a common goal of sharing our bounty with a community in need was a side benefit that has richly blessed us all."
Braksick's own congregation in Portage "has a long-time goal of spending 25 percent of its income to help those outside its walls." Each year, it contributes 10 percent of its resources to global mission projects, including generous support for the UCC's Our Church's Wider Mission.
"A couple in the church who had traveled widely and saw the effects of hunger first-hand heard about FRB and challenged the church," Braksick says. "They would anonymously provide a grant of $7,000 if families would match their gift." The church responded enthusiastically. "Individuals and families heard the call of 800 million hungry people and matched the donation twice," Braksick says.
Susan Sanders of the UCC's Global Sharing of Resources Ministry and vicechair of FRB's board of directors says that FRB's global projects address reallife international farming struggles. She touts a radio project in Niger that communicates fair-market values for agricultural products. "Brief broadcasts enable illiterate farmers to get a fair price rather than having someone come into their village and offer something unfair—five nickels, for example, instead of 10."
Sanders says she loves FRB because "it's a project that everyone can agree on. As we are called to come around the table of Jesus Christ, this is one of the ways that we can do that—not only in the United States, but also around the world. It's not necessarily about exporting western technology to other parts of the world, but about ways to maximize our resources and their own historical approaches so that their systems can be more useful."
Back in Missouri, Braksick has converted his family farm into an FRB project site. He says his deceased parents, who were longtime members of St. Paul's UCC in Napoleon, Mo., would be happy.
"I just know that it would please them," Braksick says. "The farm they worked so hard on is now being used to feed hungry people around the world."