In 2016, a farm church called The Keep & Till was founded in Carroll County, Maryland. The stated vision of the church is "to see rural renewal through sustainable agriculture and environmental responsibility informed by radical Christian faith." The church’s pastor is the Rev. Sam Chamelin, and I interviewed him as part of an ongoing series focused on church leaders who are envisioning and bringing to life new ways of being the church while having a notable emphasis on creation care and justice.
How would you describe the mission and ministry of your church?
The Keep & Till arose out of my vocational call to rural ministry. In the midst of the crises around rural life, I wondered, “What future does the rural church have?” As I prayed and thought about what a prophetic rural ministry might entail, I heard three very distinct concerns. First, our perpetual-motion society has created a renewed desire for genuine community. Second, I heard the cries of communities struggling with food security even in deeply agricultural, rural areas. Finally, I heard the devastating reports about the climate crisis, and I heard the legitimate fears of people who are concerned about the world we’ll leave for our children.
As I thought carefully about these needs, it occurred to me that the issues of community, environment, and food production are things that the rural community, at its very best, have lived for generations. Perhaps this is a place where the rural church can make a meaningful, prophetic impact in a rapidly changing world; not attempting to return to a preferred past, but learning the lessons of the past for a more just and generous future.
In this way, we’ve discovered the place where "our passion meets the world’s need." The mission of The Keep & Till is to make agrarian disciples of Jesus Christ to serve rural communities. By participating in sustainable agriculture, we are reconnected to creation, and to the Savior who walked creation with us and who comes to us in bread and wine. In this way, we are formed as disciples who are ready to serve the places where we live. We want rural places to be a place where the gospel is embodied in people and the land. Our vision is to see rural renewal through sustainable agriculture and environmental responsibility informed by radical Christian faith.
A portion of your church's website is devoted to agrarian daily prayer. Can you explain what that is and what makes this particular kind of prayer agrarian?
If we’re going to build a community of faith, we need a shared language of faith that shapes us as a community in the ways of God. Agrarian Daily Prayer (ADP) is an order of prayer intended to open our minds to the spiritual potency of food, soil, and Incarnation. It uses the ancient practice of praying the psalms as a means for learning the language of prayer and seeing the world as the Creator sees it. While we do tend to focus on the agricultural or ecological passages in scripture, we also acknowledge that so much of scripture is written from an agrarian point of view, and in ADP we are challenged to be more hermeneutically creative in seeing scripture from a soil-based perspective.
Wendell Berry taught us what it means to be "agrarian." In several works, Berry contrasts "agrarian" with "industrial." An "industrial" mindset views the world as a machine: the world and its people are things to be manipulated for production. "Agrarian" assumes that the world has value by virtue of its existence, and therefore a faithful life considers the land and the community as moral partners in faith. For us, we want to pray in such a way that we are formed to see the world not only as the setting of God’s activity – made fully present in the Incarnation – but also as a participant in salvation. That's what we mean by "agrarian."
How is your focus on sustainable agriculture and ecological responsibility received by the broader community of which you are a part? Is it a new and different conversation for people? Does it connect easily with people’s daily lives?
In Carroll County, MD, the ideas of sustainability and ecology are generally viewed with political suspicion, given our political realities and our proximity to the Chesapeake Bay. This makes the conversation a difficult sell to those who are a part of multi-generational farming families. They don't want to hear about more regulations, and they certainly don't want to hear it from people who don’t really know agriculture. I’m sympathetic to this position; farming is hard, and many farms stand on the edge of a knife in terms of their viability. To approach this conversation from a policy standpoint offers little hope of progress.
Having said that, Carroll County has a deep tradition of simple faith based in local communities of faith historically supported by agriculture. When the conversation is approached in a way that appropriately honors local history and faith, it often re-invigorates treasured memories, where the ideas of food, justice, and sustainability remain dormant but viable. I find most people to be deeply concerned about the environment. They are concerned about the impact of a shrinking, monopolized food system. And they are proud of the food they produce. Approaching these issues from the point of view of deep faith, good stewardship, and good land management opens up opportunities for people to contribute, and it allows us to faithfully challenge the prevailing narratives in order to craft a vision for a more just and generous future.
In this way, we find that farmers can talk meaningfully with climate scientists. Red can find common ground with blue. And doubters can pray with the devout. While these categories still exist—which means that division still exists—we feel like this is a well-tilled field, where one day these seeds may take root and produce lasting fruit.