A Feature Review of
This Is God’s Table:
Finding Church Beyond the Walls
Reviewed by Sam Chamelin
No author should ever have to release their first book in the course of a pandemic. Yet maybe in God’s providence there’s a way that a particular book might speak with exceptional clarity in a pandemic world. It is quite possible that “This Is God’s Table: Finding Church Beyond the Walls” by Anna Woofenden is such a book. This book is being released at a moment when everyone is forced to find church beyond the walls, and each of us are seeking places to find meaning, community, and purpose when most of our life’s infrastructure has been stored away for the unpredictable foreseeable future.
The church has been preparing for this moment for a generation. As ecclesial infrastructures show significant erosion as numbers decline, budgets shrink, and buildings close, a new generation of church leaders have sought to establish a new kind of church with a new foundation of faith and praxis. Those expressions have been vast and varied. “This is God’s Table” tells the story of Anna’s church plant, The Garden Church, which was envisioned at the intersection of agriculture, ecology, social justice, and a deeply rooted Christian faith. The “food and faith movement” has been an emerging hotbed of new life for years now, as food has proved to be a robust entry point to a variety of issues for progressively minded, justice-oriented church. Anna felt this draw, writing, “I knew we were not going to solve huge systemic issues with a church plant. I was committed, however, to doing my best to be aware of them and to be curious how this start-up church might play a part in a movement towards equity and justice.” Through the lens of The Garden Church, the reader catches a glimpse of a “food and faith” movement that is growing like a weed, where churches are finding new life, new vision, and new opportunity in ecosystems as varied as vacated lots and rural fields, and how this movement is quite literally growing faith and justice. Anna found her vocational ecosystem in a vacated lot in San Pedro, in the wider Los Angeles area, where she and a memorable cast of characters lived into a new call to “feed and be fed,” serving their neighbors and entrusting that work to their neighbors in a collective gardening effort.
This book is written from a pastor’s heart, but it is not for pastors only. Anna is skilled at weaving narrative amongst sound and progressive pastoral thinking and practice. She takes us into the streets and communities of San Pedro and help the reader to feel the social and ecological concerns of the people, not with data, but with stories from a memorable cast of characters. If one is going to create “a church that is a garden, and a garden that is a church,” then one needs to take a larger, more expansive view of the ecosystem in which one finds itself. As the reader might imagine going on a tour through a forest or a farm, Anna takes the reader on a tour of her ecosystem, identifying all that is beautiful, troubling, and life-giving. Her writing is immersive and inviting, and one can feel Anna’s love for her people and the enormity of the task. The writing is not triumphal, and the book is not self-congratulatory; there is a humility that invites faith leaders to be a little less visionary and a little more present and humble to reality.
As we walk this journey, we see Garden Church mature into a community cultivating a healthier reality for the wider San Pedro area. In this way, Anna gives us a subtle and powerful roadmap for rediscovering the parish model, where the church isn’t simply a country club for folks who hold a certain creed, but even more a force for good that impacts all of its neighbors. All of this comes out of the ground of a sustained and living presence when a garden and a community of faith collide.
One of Anna’s most laudable skills is her ability to use ritual to create meaning. She is abundantly creative in using images, actions, and items to make meaning instead of simply words. Whether it is pouring oil over a cedar round to consecrate the abandoned lot for a church and this round to a communion table, to her blankets and pillows observance of Maundy Thursday, to lifting up an icon of the tree of life from Revelation calling people to a grander vision of sustainable life for all people, the reader is immersed into images and actions more than words, making this church experience permeable and accessible to the reader. Woofenden’s prose is not simply explanatory, it is immersive. And in doing so, she inspires not only those who seek a new expression of church, but she subtly and capably invites us into how to think about such things, leaning out of word-heavy expressions into incarnational immersion.
As I interviewed her for our podcast, “The Food and Faith Podcast,” I asked Anna about the cast of characters she has assembled in this story. Her narrative is full of individuals who meaningfully contribute to the development of this place. Though Anna has a background in homesteading and agriculture, we get to meet Farmer Lara, whose expertise reminds us that it is one thing to want things to grow; it is quite another to grow things. Lara stands as a reminder that it truly does take a community to make this work. This book is not a celebration of one person’s (admittedly considerable) expertise, but rather speaks to the power of the community to bring life to a place if the community is indeed entrusted with this sacred work.
This pandemic has revealed in short order two essential truths – churches will need to change rapidly, and that faith still serves as an essential scaffolding to our shared daily lives. We are observing these changes at a dizzying pace as churches immerse themselves in Facebook, YouTube, and Zoom worlds. But maybe that’s not as sustainable as we imagine. Maybe the church is changing, and maybe faith is still undergirding everything, but maybe it’s been happening for a while, in vacated lots, in container gardens, as communion is served on cedar rounds, as marigolds are planted by children. This is God’s Table is a breath of hope and encouragement at a time when hope seems to be in short supply. It is a reminder that God is still at work on the margins.
N.B. – Sam Chamelin is cohost with Anna Woofenden on “The Food and Faith Podcast.”