Posted: 10/20/16 at 8:00am. Post written by Neil Zahradka
Greetings from the desk of an older professional but a very young minister. I’m Neil Zahradka, a student at the Baptist Theological Seminary of Richmond, blessed to be spending a few months as an intern with the Mission Development staff of the BGAV.
Between now and April 2017, I hope to make visible some exciting connections between food and faith, building on national momentum around the importance of local, healthy food, and connecting that with insights on the value of agriculture as an instrument of connection with God.
I will focus on ministries like urban agriculture and church gardens that produce food for the hungry, but connections between food and faith run even deeper into our rhythms of Christian life; I suspect that Jesus had something like this in mind when He centered remembrance of Him in the sharing of a meal.
If this theological reflection or ministry emphasis seems unexpected, allow me to offer a bit of my story. I grew up as the “baby” in a family of four children on a farm in Prince George County, my parents also the children of farmers. I grew up watching things grow. I would love to say I appreciated this from the beginning, but since our family income was dependent upon that growth, my early experiences were not as romantic as they were focused on work.
Education, though, often works this way. Experiential learning is not always immediately connected with deeper meaning, and for me, the connection between cultivation of soil and spirit would not happen for decades.
Having spent too much of my childhood in the fields, I headed to Virginia Tech in 1988, aspiring to major in engineering and go to work in an industrial setting. Genetics apparently kicked in, though, as I landed in the Agricultural Engineering department and became enamored with the science underneath all that growth I had taken for granted as a child.
My professional path in agriculture would wind its way through both state government and private industry, and for the last 12 years, I have worked at the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, managing regulatory programs designed to ensure that agricultural practices protect ground water and surface water.
I grew up attending a small rural United Methodist Church, and my relationship with Jesus began at a youth retreat in high school. While I was blessed to find a spiritual home in Blacksburg, singing and doing mission work with the Wesley Foundation, I ultimately came to call volunteer rescue squad my ministry for 13 years. I learned a great deal about life and death, but more than anything, I was awestruck by the connections made when attending to the physical needs of others.
Somehow, though, I still did not link those connections with my spiritual path. It was during this time that I met my wife, Amy, and began worshipping with her at First Baptist Church in Richmond and then Central Baptist Church in Chesterfield, joining Central in 2008.
My call to seminary came shortly thereafter in 2009, and I initially suspected that a career change was in store. The light came on slowly, as I began to realize that all the time I was watching things grow, immersed in soil and water conservation textbooks, committed to emergency medical response, making connections with Virginia Cooperative Extension and other community and crop experts, and engaged in my seminary journey, God was weaving my experiences into a tapestry centered on food and its connections with Christian faith. A career merge is probably a better term for my scenario.
For the last year, I have coordinated a small garden at Central Baptist Church that provides fresh produce for the church’s onsite food pantry. Tending a garden in the shadow of the steeple brings new meaning to watching things grow, and I want to learn how to share that experience.
My initial work will focus on connecting with congregations with similar garden ministries and building a network of resources that will expand opportunities to connect to God through agriculture and the provision of food. I look forward to learning from you, and to sharing in this Kingdom work together.
Neil’s work, the ministry of the community garden and food pantry at Central Baptist Church, and 50 other congregations and agencies in Virginia (this year alone!) are supported by your generosity through the BGAV Hunger Ministry. Donate online to support ministries providing food for the hungry, or apply here to request funds for your own congregation’s food pantry or feeding program.