Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Silvopasture Practices and Benefits

In agroforestry, silvopasture refers to the practice of bringing together livestock, forage, and trees in a single system. This is more complex than alley cropping, another agroforestry practice, which only brings together the elements of crops and trees. This isn’t simply the colocation of animals, plants, and trees, in that there is intentionality about silvopasture (Garrett, 2021). The three components are intended to be mutually beneficial (Judy, 2018). There are advantages and points of concern around this practice as well, which I will discuss here.

Before we can discuss what silvopasture is, we have to eliminate what it is not. Fully one-fifth of forested land in the United States is used for grazing. While it is a common practice in many parts of the United States for livestock to be set to graze on wooded public or private land (Garrett, 2021), simply having animals in an area with both forage and trees does not constitute silvopasture as a practice. Woodland pasture can be woodlots, areas with windbreaks, or non-industrial forests, and unlike in silvopasture there isn’t particular concern or attention paid to the health of the soil, care of the trees, or quality of forage (Orefice & Carroll, 2017).

There is a distinction to be made between silvopastoralism and silvopasture practices. The former is a broader category that includes both silvopasture and integrated forest grazing. The latter involves livestock being used as part of a plan to manage understory growth, harvesting native plants in order to improve the environment long-term (Garrett, 2021).

Silvopasture, on the other hand, is an interdisciplinary approach which seeks to make use of woodlands, forage, and livestock with a view towards profit, while also being concerned about the quality of the environment. Efforts are made in the design and implementation of silvopasture systems to ensure that the assortment of organisms involved can work together harmoniously (Garrett, 2021). It is possible, for example, for nitrogen-fixing plants like clover to enrich the quality of the soil for itself and also for other plants (facilitation), while walnut trees in an area release allelopathic chemicals which deter many other types of plants and trees from growing nearby (competition).

Silvopasture can put to good use land that would otherwise remain unproductive, such as rocky, sandy, damp, and hilly properties that aren’t fit for commercial commodity crops. At the same time, otherwise good land can be spoiled through incorrect grazing practices, harming trees and degrading soil (Garrett, 2021) However, there can be significant advantages to implementing a well-designed and implemented silvopasture practice, resulting in better protection of soil health and a more steady source of income (Judy, 2018).

Aside from land improvement benefits, the presence of trees that can provide shade and shelter can be beneficial to livestock. In inclement weather the trees can serve as a windbreak, and in intense heat they offer shade. In both situations the overall stress on the animal is reduced, lowering calorie burn and generally keeping them in a better state (Orefice & Carroll, 2017). There can also be a benefit to forage from the presence of trees, something I’ll discuss further below.

As I indicated above, more management is required in designing and implementing a silvopasture system than in traditional woodland pasture practices. Perhaps offsetting the increased effort is the possibility of silvopasture systems needing fewer external inputs, such as fertilizer, herbicides, and pesticides. In this case costs can be lower and there will be less dependence on outside suppliers . A mostly self-sustaining system can be realized.

Having such a system in place makes it possible to have a continuous supply of marketable products. Trees can produce nuts, for example, and of course cattle are themselves of value (Garrett, 2021). With a broader portfolio of product in a more sustainable system, risk can be reduce. Instead of banking on a single crop or the sale of livestock there can be a mix of products, providing some security. Traditional commodity crops grown in a monoculture can be considerably more susceptible to disease, infestations, and adverse weather conditions than a silvopasture system would be (Judy, 2018).

Two essential traits of a silvopasture practice are active management of tree density and shade, and careful attention to types of livestock and timing in order to maintain soil health and forage quality. Everything from root health to length of exposure to foraging animal, to the availability of light passing through the tree canopy need to be considered and reviewed on a regular basis (Orefice & Carroll, 2017).

As for initiating a silvopasture practice, there are two general approaches. In one, existing woods, such as woodlots, can be thinned. This is the fastest means to starting with silvopasture, but it requires the presence of mature trees to begin with. On established grasslands the longer route must be taken, which involves planting and protecting trees until they are of sufficient size to not be harmed by occasional contact with livestock (Judy, 2018). On this point some caution is required. Even in silvopasture systems with mature trees the animal presence must be monitored. While livestock are both “the product and the management tool,”, some types of livestock, such as goats and horses, can strip bark and injure root systems (Garrett, 2021).

When starting with an existing stand of trees some thinning may be required. Gary Judy (2018) suggests looking for the tree with the best trunk and crown and then harvesting the trees nearby, leaving it with less competition and the soil and forage more access to sun and rain.

On the other hand, when starting with a more-or-less ‘blank slate’ with an open field the possible interactions between trees and plants must be considered up front. If trees are planted into an existing pasture as-is, complete with grass and weeds, the competition for resources can potentially stunt the growth of the trees. Better instead to clear the field and plant trees and forage plants at the same time, and subsequently keeping weed growth down for the benefit of the trees (Garrett, 2021).

Shaded grass contains less lignin than that found in open fields. Lignin is indigestible for livestock, making shade-grown grass better forage (Judy, 2018). While forage grown in shade can be high quality, it is low quantity when compared to grass in open pastures (Ford et al., 2017). What makes the difference in a silvopasture system with regard to quantity and quality of forage yield is the sum of what takes place over the course of a year. High quality forage from shady areas, high quantity forage from sunny locations, and the tree by-products themselves (leaves, seed pods, etc) work together to provide a sustainable source of nutrition for livestock (Jose & Dollinger, 2019).

With good system design, implementation, and management a sustainable silvopasture system can be put into place. It may be more labor intensive, but requires fewer external inputs, potentially reducing cost. Livestock serve as weed control and process through digestion materials that are then returned to the land in the form of dung and urine. While adoption has been slow (Garrett, 2021), this practice is compatible with other traditional farming methods and provides benefits that will surely attract more attention in the future.

References

Ford, M. M., Zamora, D. S., Current, D., Magner, J., Wyatt, G., Walter, W. D., & Vaughan, S.
(2017). Impact of managed woodland grazing on forage quantity, quality and livestock
performance: The potential for Silvopasture in central Minnesota, USA. Agroforestry
Systems, 93(1), 67–79. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10457-017-0098-1

Garrett, H. E. (2021). North American Agroforestry: An Integrated Science and Practice (3rd
ed.). American Society of Agronomy.

Jose, S., & Dollinger, J. (2019). Silvopasture: A Sustainable Livestock Production System.
Agroforestry Systems, 93(1), 1–9. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10457-019-00366-8

Judy, G. (2018, March). The Benefits Silvopasture Provides for Your Farm. Stockman Grass
Farmer.

Lathrop, W., & Freking, B. (2018, July 24). Management Intensive Grazing. Kerr Center.
Retrieved September 22, 2021, from https://kerrcenter.com/publication/management-intensive-grazing/.

Orefice, J. N., & Carroll, J. (2017). Silvopasture—it's not a load of manure: Differentiating between Silvopasture and wooded livestock paddocks in the northeastern United States. Journal of Forestry, 115(1), 71–72. https://doi.org/10.5849/jof.16-016

Monday, September 20, 2021

Status of the Great Green Wall in Two African Nations

The Great Green Wall in an initiative of the African Union to draw a green line across the continent to hold back the Sahara. Trees and other plants are set out in order to not only stop desertification, but hopefully even reverse it. The nations involved are Burkina Faso, Chad, Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, and Sudan. In the excellent report below via France 24 we are brought up to speed on the progress and challenges of this effort in two of those countries. It's a mixed bag. Local people participating but also thieves wreaking havoc. This project is crucial for the well-being of people in the region and for the health of the local and global environment. 

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

A Very Basic Intro to Riparian Forest Buffers


Our creeks and streams could use more care. With that could also come some financial benefits as well. 

Growing up in the landlocked state of Missouri, all of my experience with bodies of water involved lakes, ponds, creeks, and (to a limited extent) rivers. Before my parents had air conditioning installed when I was a teenager it was customary for my mother, brothers, and I to go to the local public lake to swim almost every summer afternoon. It was the only way to really cool off. Year round I had access to a pond and a creek, though neither was for swimming. 

The creek I named 'Acorn Creek'  ran from farm to farm through pasture and woodlands before emptying into the Long Branch creek. It turns out that 'my' stream doesn't have an official name recorded anywhere. Acorn Creek begins just before a piece of property that my late father purchased in the mid-1990s. The people before him had used the creek as a dump, with plastic, glass, and even large appliances lingering up and down the stream. 

It wasn't just dumping that troubled that creek. The agricultural use around it led to good soil being washed away in it, along with fertilizer and pesticides. Still, it passed through enough woodland areas along the way to still be able to support life. It's woody perennials along with grasses and forbs that made the difference. Warm season grasses put in deep roots, holding the soil in place and filtering the water that passes through it. The same goes for trees. It's not perfect, but it leads to the stream running clear most of the way to Long Branch. 

Now, imagine making that happen intentionally. Setting aside creeks and a strip of land on either side for a planned intervention. If the sides are too steep they can be reinforced with large stones. Otherwise in layers radiating out from either side of a creek or stream there can be natural growth, trees, shrubs, forbs, and warm season grasses. No cold season grasses because they don't tend to put down as deep and reliable roots. A fence could keep out any livestock, with water being provided to them by other means. In reality, I've never really seen farmers where I'm from relying on direct access to streams to water their livestock. Usually there's a well system in place with waterers installed around the pasture. 

This mixture of woody perennials with grasses and forbs is referred to as a riparian forest buffer. They can be very beneficial for the environment, but a few objections could be raised by landowners. I'm not going to try to list them all, but here are a couple that seem particularly important to me.

First, buffers like this take land out of agricultural production. That's true enough, since crops like corn and soybeans can't be included in the buffer zone. On the other hand, the buffer itself can be productive. Nut trees can be planted, for example, providing a crop in addition to whatever else is raised on the property. Having a riparian buffer doesn't have to mean that the land is out of use. Rather, it means that the land is being put to different use.

Second, wooded land can attract wildlife, which can be pests for nearby crops. That's also true, although many farms have wooded land without farmers having particular concerns about wildlife. In fact, the wildlife can provide yet another source of income. The owner and family can certainly hunt there in the proper seasons, and the option exists to allow access to others for hunting for a fee. 

There's only so much that a riparian buffer can do. It needs to be maintained over time, though I tend to think that's not a huge demand on time. Further, it only exists where landowners put it in place. Neighboring farms likely won't have a system like this, meaning that the extent of ecological benefits will be limited to land where the buffer exists, except that of course on that land it's helping reduce further damage to the creek structure and water quality. 

Monday, September 6, 2021

The Small Family Farm is a Colonial Concept

The title of this post rankles me, because I grew up on a small family farm. My father was the fourth generation of the family farming the same land. He told me often as I was growing up about the importance of the family farm, and compared the industrialized corporate farm system it's a hell of a lot better on the land and livestock. I want to be absolutely clear that I'm not advocating against small family farms, and wouldn't consider supporting any proposal that would involve the forced transfer of private land in favor of a different system. That said, a recent podcast series and some additional reading has got me considering other systems that could be more just, regenerative, and sustainable than either small, private farms or corporate farming.

In the aforementioned series, which I include here below and can easily be found on Spotify, a Scottish man and his wife talk about the experience of returning to the family farm in the north of Scotland. He went into it with the zeal of a convert, believing in the ideal of the family farm and simply assuming it was the way things have always been. When he mentioned 'colonialism' with regard to his farm and the others in his area I thought he was off his rocker. Then he explained. 

In times past the land in northern Scotland was held as a sort of commons. A time came when enslavement of African people in the British territories was banned, and the government paid huge sums of money to enslavers as 'compensation' for their 'loss.' No regard for the human beings who were enslaved, of course. The Gaelic-speaking Scots were forced off their land as it was acquired with the wealth former enslavers had received, and many of those Scots made their way to the Americas, where they in turn homesteaded on lands that had belonged to indigenous peoples. 

It's ugly, isn't it? White supremacy and base greed is the soup we've all been cooked in. Few hands are clean, and those that are belong to the people most exploited and oppressed of all. 

Sarah Taber explained it well in a 2019 article for New York Magazine:

It’s easy to see how Anglo-Americans could mistake it for normal. Our cultural heritage is one of the few places where this fluke of a farming practice has made multiple appearances. Family farming was a key part of the political economy in ancient Rome, late medieval England, and colonial America. But we keep forgetting something very important about those golden ages of family farming. They all happened after, and only after, horrific depopulation events.

Rome emptied newly conquered lands by selling the original inhabitants into slavery. In England, the Black Death killed so many nobles and serfs that surviving peasants seized their own land and became yeomen — free small farmers who neither answered to a master nor commanded their own servants. Colonial Americans, seeking to recreate English yeoman farming, began a campaign of genocide against indigenous people that has lasted for centuries, and created one of the greatest transfers of land and wealth in history.

In 2019 Chris Newman, a Virginia farmer, wrote a Medium article about his experience farming and dealing with farmers markets. Far from being an idyllic life involving easy sales through such markets, it is in truth a matter of long hours, great sacrifice, and significant cost to participate in farmers markets. He argues that it would be more affordable for him and the other participants in farmers markets to collaborate in setting up their own brick-and-mortar stores. From their, he moves into making a case for cooperative farming. 

Imagine all the producers at that market combining their acreage, expertise, supply chains, and financial resources into a co-op committed to producing food regeneratively, responsibly, and ethically. The results would be astonishing:
    • Costs of production would decrease significantly. Orders of seed, feed, equipment, and supplies would no longer just be in bulk, they’d be at a regional scale. Labor hours would be reduced as dozens of farmers are no longer replicating the same tasks (e.g. purchasing, bookkeeping, inventory, etc.)
    • Marketshare would swell. Owing to lower prices, larger quantities, and more accessible markets, we’d be able to service a much larger segment of the market. Increases in volume would reduce overhead costs, more than offsetting the reduction in each unit’s top-line. (e.g. — we net more money selling 100 chickens to a single restaurant at a 30 percent discount than we do to 100 individuals because that bulk order means we’re not paying for individual storage, transport, potential spoilage, transaction fees, the cost at the point of sale, etc.)
    • Wages and quality of life for farmers would rise in real terms. The confluence of reduced production costs, cooperative labor, and increased market share will mean individual farmers are working less and getting paid more. We’d actually be able to enjoy creature comforts of other industries like evenings and weekends off, PTO, group health insurance, even retirement.
    • The barriers to entry for new farmers would be much lower. New farmers would not have to learn to be entrepreneurs, marketers, agritourism experts, and social media mavens in order to make it work. A farmer could actually make a living as a trade journeyman, just like any other trade, and brand new farmers could be trained by the co-op itself. On a related note…
    • Sustainable farming could be de-gentrified since it would no longer be a “labor of love” only available to people that can afford to work for free or next to nothing (i.e. afford to be exploited, which is a bad thing even if they don’t seem to mind very much). Everyone — people of color in particular — would be able to look at farming as a viable career choice.
    • Farmers could follow their passions instead of diversifying. The co-op has producers of livestock, produce, fruit, mushrooms, grain, dairy, flowers, etc. Ecological diversity is managed at the co-op/landscape level rather than the level of the individual producer, so the latter can focus on what they do best, still make a living, and still operate within an ecologically restorative framework.
    • Farmers could operate at the scale they choose. If someone just wants to grow microgreens in their basement and sell them into the co-op’s single-payer market, so be it. If they want to range a cattle herd followed by sheep and chickens across a few hundred acres leased or owned by the co-op, go for it. The only constraint is that the producer must follow the co-op’s production standards.
The point is, these farmers would no longer be alone. We’d present a united farmer-owned — this is key — interface to the rest of the world — suppliers, customers, landlords, regulators, media, etc. — that, at present, each farmer is left alone to handle. It’s that isolation that makes us weak and ineffective against incredibly well-resourced competition.

We have to evolve if we’re going to survive.

The only kind of contemporary farming I hold we'd be better of without is corporate agriculture. My chief concerns are providing a sustainable supply chain of food to support 7+ billion people on this planet, and doing it justly with regard to people and the land. No model may be perfect, but the best should be sought out. Private family farms, co-ops...whatever works to reach toward fulfilling those goals. 

Here's the podcast series I mentioned above. I very highly recommend it. 

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Ministry That Includes Agroforestry

As I continue discernment as an aspirant for Unitarian Universalist ministry more clarity is very gradually developing regarding what shape my work might take. Although this Fall I'm not actively in seminary due to a building fire that destroyed my apartment last month (July 2021), I am enrolled in a course in agroforestry through the University of Missouri as a non-degree-seeking student. Class started just this week, and I'm loving the material covered already. We'll see if I still feel the same in a few weeks! 

Having grown up as part of the fifth generation of my paternal side on the farm I spent a lot of time in the fields and woodlands of northeast Missouri. Although traditional farming never appealed to me as a profession, working with growing things certainly did. Now, in what might be the third phase of my life (childhood, young adulthood, middle age, retirement) if I live long enough, I'm finding that the various threads of my proclivities, aptitudes, and life experience are coming together in a new way. 

Early on I wanted to be in ministry, and I was for a time. Then I found my way slowly into project management, working primarily in infrastructure technology for multinational media companies. This is still the field I am in, but as I sort through what it would mean for me to be a UU minister I've found that community development is a key concern, and my lifelong twin loves of gardening and hiking remain. It's only natural that I'm thinking of ways to bring the science and practice of agroforestry to bear on the well-being of communities. 

With that, here's a good, brief intro to what agroforestry is all about. I'm sure I'll be posting a lot more in relation to it here in the future. 

Friday, August 20, 2021

The Overstory (Book Review)

The Overstory by Richard Powers came highly recommended to me, and yet I didn't know what to expect. It's a fascinating read that weaves a love of trees with the histories of people. 

This book confused me at first. For a while it was seemingly scattered short stories or vignettes about people who had nothing to do with one another. Some element of tragedy was present in each. With the book clocking in at 502 pages I became concerned that if it were a book of unrelated short stories it would quickly become tiresome. Fortunately, the stories began to weave together.  

A work of fiction, The Overstory reads like the real-life account of the rise and fall of an 'eco-terrorist group,' as seen mostly through their eyes. I thought of it as a story from an alternate timeline with the same world history but different people and differences in details in the most recent several decades. This isn't speculative fiction, by any means. It's grounded in the facts and observations of the world we have. 

What came through time and again was the wonder of trees, the deep history of forests on this planet, and the brevity of human life...even perhaps the life of our species. We see this all through the eyes of very human, flawed, often quite earnest people. This is the sort of narrative that will remain with me for a while as I continue to process it. 

Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Keep an Eye Out for the Spotted Laternfly

This summer the Spotted Lanternfly (lycorma delicatula) is making its way through New Jersey unimpeded, it would seem. The images to the left were taken by yours truly in two different patches of woodland, and represent the insect in two of its phases of growth. The full set of four phases are illustrated at the bottom of this post. As for why these invasive pests pose a problem, here's what the New Jersey Department of Agriculture has to say: 

Spotted Lanternfly (SLF), Lycorma delicatula, is an invasive planthopper native to China, India, and Vietnam; it is also established in South Korea, Japan and the U.S. It was first discovered in the U.S. in Pennsylvania in Berks County in 2014 and has spread to other counties in PA, as well as the states of New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, New York, Connecticut and Ohio. 
 
This insect has the potential to greatly impact agricultural crops and hardwood trees. SLF feeds on the plant sap of many different plants including grapevines, maples, black walnut, and other important plants in NJ. While it does not harm humans or animals, it can reduce the quality of life for people living in heavily infested areas. 
 
Why You Should Care 
 
SLF is a serious invasive pest with a healthy appetite for our plants and it can be a significant nuisance, affecting the quality of life and enjoyment of the outdoors. The spotted lanternfly uses its piercing-sucking mouthpart to feed on sap from over 70 different plant species. It has a strong preference for economically important plants and the feeding damage significantly stresses the plants which can lead to decreased health and potentially death. 
 
As SLF feeds, the insect excretes honeydew (a sugary substance) which can attract bees, wasps, and other insects. The honeydew also builds up and promotes the growth for sooty mold (fungi), which can cover the plant, forest understories, patio furniture, cars, and anything else found below SLF feeding.

As bad as this seems, I'm hoping that the species already present in North America will prey on SLFs. According to an informal PennLive survey of gardening groups on Facebook last year, some creatures have been observed doing just that.

From hundreds of responses, the No. 1 and 2 reports were of praying mantises seen eating adult lanternflies and garden spiders at least snaring lanternflies in their webs and killing them, if not eating them. 
 
Others reported yellow jackets, gray catbirds, wheel bugs, hornets, fishing spiders, green frogs, dogs, cats, goldfish, koi and ducks eating the invasive insects. Some chicken owners reported that their birds ate lanternflies, while others said the chickens avoided the insects after one taste.

The simple truth is that there's no way to safely and completely exterminate this species now that it is present in North America. I've taken to killing them as often as I see them, though I know that makes only a minimal difference. One thing that might help is the elimination of Tree of Heaven (ailanthus altissima). This invasive tree species from China is the favored refuge of SLFs. They eat the tree's sap and lay their eggs on it, preferentially. If landowners, both public and private, were to remove this tree from their properties it could potentially help reduce the impact of these pests. 

Monday, August 16, 2021

Walk in the Park: Volunteering and Future Plans


Growing up I spent quite a lot of time in the fields and woodlands of northeast Missouri. After coming to New Jersey in 2005, by way of New Mexico and Brazil before that, I've had little opportunity to soak in the sounds, scents, and scenes of the woods. At the same time I always had green growing things in my home and when the opportunity arose I planted a garden. 

Several months ago I was looking for volunteer opportunities that would get me out into the woods or tending gardens. After having no success with the state or other local programs, all suspended due to COVID, the Parks & Recreation department of Middlesex County, New Jersey got back to me. They were looking for trail walkers to report on issues along the trails, and possibly even effect repairs. It was exactly the sort of thing I was looking for, and I opted to regularly check on Thompson Park Conservation Area. here's a bit about from the county website:

The Thompson Park Conservation Area was saved through the cooperative efforts of the Middlesex County Board of Chosen Freeholders, the Township of Monroe and the State of NJ, Green Acres Program. The initial purchase of land from the Bank of China was in July of 2000 and additional properties are continually added to this remarkable area. The series of County land parcels total 925-acres. Combined with the existing 675-acre Thompson Park and 335-acres of adjacent State owned land, the total preserved open space in this part of Monroe Township is nearly 2000 acres. 
 
The conservation area stretches south from Thompson Park and Schoolhouse Road along the Gravel Hill. It is dominated by heavily wooded forests and lowland swamps along the Manalapan Brook. Parts of the area also continue to support local agriculture, with farmers growing corn and soybeans.

It really is a lovely area. Some of the trails are used more than others, and my favorite to walk just for more quiet is the Gravel Hill Trail. 

With the building fire that destroyed practically everything I own my plans for monitoring the trails have been postponed. This will be a year-round commitment, though, and summer youth corp groups have already cleared and effected repairs in the past couple of months. As soon as I'm settled into a new apartment I intend to acquire the basic tools and equipment and set a schedule for my tours. 

There is slightly more to this than the sense of well-being I experience in the woods. It's true that there I'm able to clear my thoughts by focusing on the sounds of singing birds and rustling leaves. My affection for woodlands and gardening needs a better outlet. Volunteering in this way is one step, and another I will be taking along academic lines. Without giving up on working towards an MDiv, by any means, I am also now enrolled at the University of Missouri for an online course in Agroforestry. While currently I am non-degree seeking, if this goes well and the subject matter works for me I'll apply to enter the Master of Science program to focus on the topic. 

What I want to do is bring together community development, project management, pastoral care, and agroforestry in one ministry. What exactly that will look like remains to be seen, but that's the general shape of it. As I mentioned in my last entry, my desire for biblical studies seems to have gone away completely, so the way has been cleared to shift my focus to something else that I find incredibly meaningful. 

Friday, August 13, 2021

Ignis Invictus

Three weeks ago today, around 1:30 in the afternoon, I had just finished lunch and was sitting back down at my desk. I had been working from home for about a year and a half because of the COVID-19 pandemic. As I thought about the several things I had left to do that day my thoughts also went to my plans for the weekend. Then, the room got very dark. I assumed that a storm was rolling in, but it was so sudden that I got up to look through the blinds out the window. Thick black smoke was rolling by, right up against the side of my apartment building. Then I smelled smoke.

Opening the door to my bedroom to see where the fire was, my cat ran passed me and into my bathroom to hide. In the living room I looked out the sliding glass doors watching for just a moment and angry red-orange flames lapped over the balcony from the apartment below, consuming the plants I had invested so much time in growing. The sunflowers would have bloomed last week if they hadn't burned.

The only word I could say for a few moments was 'FIRE.' It forced its way up from somewhere inside me and came out as a bellow to awaken my 19-year-old son who was sleeping. He'd been working nights for a while and sleeping during the day. I ran to grab the pet carrier, yelled for my son to grab his documents and put on his shoes, and loaded the cat up. I grabbed my own documents in two folders and we ran out of the building. 

The fire department said our place was fully engulfed within 8 minutes of the fire starting.

As I write this we still don't have an official cause. Eyewitnesses say it started on the balcony of the apartment below ours. That's quite a mystery, given that the balconies were made of solid concrete and had metal railings. 

The fire burned our apartment and climbed the outside wall into the attack, where there were no sprinklers. As the afternoon wore on our local fire department was joined by others from neighboring towns. From what I could see the fourth floor was a total loss. During the fire the elevator apparently collapsed, blasting flames out the room and through the first floor. It's my understanding that a few pets died.

My prescription medications were destroyed in the fire and I hadn't taken them yet that day. The doctor's office insisted I had to have an appointment on Monday afternoon to renew them. I went into withdrawal on Saturday, coinciding with the initial shock wearing off, and spent around 4 hours in the emergency room Saturday night. I'll need to find myself a new doctor once things settle down.

For several days my mind seemed to be in a fog, but with the help of my daughter and other good people I managed to sort out next steps. A lot of people donated generously to a GoFundMe campaign that my daughter started, and a number of my co-workers kindly put their resources together and go me a hefty enough amount in Target gift cards to fund replacing my cooking and baking supplies along with some basic countertop appliances.

Only 8 days after the fire I was back to work, happy to have the familiar routine to distract me. 

My son and I have found another apartment that will be available on September 1. In the meantime he is staying with his mother and I have temporary lodgings. The weeks can't pass fast enough. I want my own place again.

The trauma is real. 

My entire library was destroyed. I had built it over the course of 5 years in order to attend seminary. Now it's gone, along with pretty much everything else. That alone was worth thousands of dollars. It's strange how a catastrophic event like this can change one's tastes and preferences. I hadn't expected that at all. Where before I had an intense academic interest in the Bible and planned to do New Testament scholarship, I now have no interest at all in the matter. Consciously I don't feel revolted, in the sense that the loss of the library has made me disinterested, but that must be what's happening subconsciously. To give you and idea, I love sweet iced tea, and so it would be very disorienting to wake up one morning and no longer have any desire to drink it, preferring other beverages. Think of something you love to eat, drink, or do and try to imagine suddenly not caring about it any more. That's where I am, and other interests are quickly taking the now-unoccupied space in my heart.   

The maize and bean lineages I had been working on for a few years now are gone as well. The new apartment will be north-facing and shaded, so my growing options will be limited. I'm thinking I'll switch to fava beans and sweet potatoes (grown in large bags made for the purpose). Someday down the road I may try my hand at raising a variety of gooseberries. My beloved citrus tree in a pot is also gone and I'm now planning on replacing it with evergreens. I'm attempting to clone a Blue Spruce from cuttings, and I expect to buy a Norfolk Island Pine to keep in the apartment after we move in. 

If this had happened earlier in life it would have been devastating enough to derail me for years. Now that I'm on anti-depressants, have a therapist, and don't believe in the supernatural I find that I have the strength to do this. To be clear, I would always have survived and recovered from this sort of trauma. It's a question of how long that would take and how bad things would get before the sun would rise again on my innermost being. 

The fire has not and will not defeat me. Ignis invictus. 

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Christianity Today Asks: Who Killed Mars Hill?

Christianity Today has produced a new podcast series on what happened at Mars Hill Church that I can't recommend highly enough. If you're interested in the tangle of toxic masculinity, mega church politics, and the general corruption that is evangelicalism in the United States, you definitely want to follow this series.

Thursday, June 10, 2021

SBC Whistleblower Report: Southern Baptist leaders on sexual abuse in their own words

The following was prepared by Phillip Bethancourt and shared by him via Google Docs. It is, in a word, explosive. He includes audio files of Mike Stone and Ronnie Floyd speaking that are pretty damning, in my opinion.
June 10, 2021

To: Mike Stone, Ronnie Floyd
CC: Rolland Slade, JD Greear

Mike and Ronnie,

I am writing to you in regard to your public responses to the recently publicized letters from Russell Moore. Ronnie, you said you “do not have the same recollection” of the events. Mike, your video called Moore’s claims “absolutely slanderous,” “ungodly,” and an “outrageous lie.”

I cannot remain quiet in light of your responses, so I am compelled to do something no one would want to do--become a Southern Baptist whistleblower.

Wouldn’t the best way to get to the truth be to hear the two of you in your own words? Your own words actually corroborate the claims in Russell Moore’s letters--the same claims you now suggest are false. I believe that when Southern Baptists hear you in your own words, they will be wise enough to recognize the truth.

Below you will find links to audio clips from two meetings Russell Moore mentions in his letter; our October 8, 2019 meeting in Nashville (in which Ronnie was present along with others), which followed the Caring Well Conference and our May 9, 2019 meeting in Atlanta (in which both of you were present along with others). The brief summaries for each audio clip will help Southern Baptists understand the context of what happened in our conversations.

Nashville Caring Well Conference Debrief | October 8, 2019

In this Caring Well Conference debrief meeting, which included both Ronnie Floyd and Russell Moore, Floyd’s own words corroborate Moore’s recounting of the meeting. As the audio captures Floyd’s pressure tactics, sometimes masked in the form of “I’m just asking questions,” it also reveals troubling statements not previously disclosed to Southern Baptists.

Clip #1 - Ronnie Floyd questions the lack of restrictions on Caring Well Conference speakers

Ronnie Floyd’s question seems to imply that Caring Well conference speakers should have had restrictions on what they said since the Executive Committee financially supported the Sexual Abuse Advisory Group. Russell Moore explains that the reason the ERLC didn’t restrict what speakers say is because “we are not in a criminal conspiracy to cover up what happened.” Note: no Executive Committee funds were used for the Caring Well Conference.

Clip #2 - Ronnie Floyd voices Executive Committee complaints about Rachael Denhollander

Ronnie Floyd’s question raises Executive Committee trustee complaints about how Rachael Denhollander “has come after them” in her Caring Well Conference interview. Russell Moore points out that the ERLC “didn’t script anybody.” And, in reference to the Executive Committee’s mishandling of a survivor’s public abuse disclosure, Moore asserts that the Executive Committee should “not do stupid stuff again.”

Clip #3 - Ronnie Floyd suggests his primary concern is not survivors but to “preserve the base”

Ronnie Floyd says he is “not worried” about what survivors would say because his primary focus is to “preserve the base,” seeming to suggest that his priority on abuse is protecting the SBC. Floyd had already stated that he is hearing threats that some churches may stop their Cooperative Program giving because of the Caring Well Conference. So, it certainly seemed to us in the room that what it meant to “preserve the base” was to protect the money.

Atlanta Meeting on Sexual Abuse | May 9, 2019

This meeting that included Mike Stone and Ronnie Floyd intended to finalize action points on sexual abuse for the 2019 SBC Annual Meeting in Birmingham. Their resistance to the immediate formation of a standing credentials committee became a primary point of disagreement. Stone’s own words corroborate Russell Moore’s recounting of our contentious discussion on this subject.

Clip #1 - Mike Stone discloses that the Bylaws Workgroup abandoned pursuit of a Credentials Committee and perceived themselves as victims

In a response to Ronnie Floyd’s question, Mike Stone states the Executive Committee’s Bylaws Workgroup had abandoned plans to create a standing credentials committee in advance of the 2019 SBC Annual Meeting, right as many Southern Baptists were publicly calling for the formation of one. Why? At least part of the reason, Stone suggests, was the “human factor,” which he seems to portray as the fact that the Bylaws Workgroup believed they were true victims in the process, who were “thrown under the bus.”

Clip #2 - Mike Stone suggests approaches like mine to the Credentials Committee are “unseemly”

Near the end of the meeting, we were at a standstill regarding the prospects of a standing Credentials Committee proposal coming forward at the 2019 SBC Annual meeting. Mike Stone had already disclosed that the Bylaws Workgroup had abandoned its pursuit of one. Stone also had insisted during this meeting that a Credentials Committee be delayed at least a year, just as Russell Moore disclosed in his letter. Seeing no other pathway ahead at that point, I noted in the meeting that, if the Executive Committee wouldn’t bring a proposal, I would personally bring a motion from the floor of the convention to pursue a standing Credentials Committee. In Clip #2, Mike Stone uses the exact language Russell Moore referenced in his letter, when Stone calls approaches like this “unseemly.” He also suggested that the Bylaws Workgroup felt “like it has been bullied,” again implying that they were true victims in the process.

Southern Baptists Deserve to Hear You in Your Own Words

It is a difficult decision to become a Southern Baptist whistleblower. But Southern Baptists deserve to hear you in your own words so they can know the truth. That’s why I believe it is necessary to not only give the courtesy of first sharing this information with you directly but also make it available publicly soon.

Some may have questions about the nature of these audio clips. This audio was lawfully captured by me in the one-party consent states of Tennessee and Georgia. It was appropriately captured in a manner consistent with the practice of the Sexual Abuse Advisory Group during major meetings and strategy sessions; real time documentation was often captured to ensure both the accuracy of notes and the clarity of follow up actions. I did not anticipate this audio might ever become necessary in a moment like this.

This audio captures relevant clips, attempting to ensure that nothing is taken out of context. The full audio is not available because it would publicly mention the names or stories of abuse survivors without their consent. However, when a credible third party investigation is launched, I would be willing to cooperate to provide the full audio along with other relevant information.

Southern Baptists are at a crossroads as we head to the 2021 SBC Annual Meeting in Nashville. I don’t know which direction Southern Baptists will choose. But I do believe these ancient words: the truth will set you free. The future of the SBC will only stand if it is built on a foundation of truth.

In Christ,

Phillip Bethancourt
Galatians 4:16

Wednesday, June 9, 2021

Seminary Isn't Scary Podcast

When I graduated from high school nearly 3 decades ago the plan was to go into ministry. Had I stayed on the path I'd now have quite a bit of experience in that role, but that wasn't to be. I made some missteps along the way, and one of them was not going to seminary. I completed a Bachelor of Ministry (BMin) degree at Harding University, was ordained the day after graduation, and in just a little over a year was off to Brazil for mission work. In retrospect I see that more time and reflection would have helped heal some personal trauma and prepared my heart for what I was about to do. As a result, I spent only a few short years in Brazil, and was out of full time ministry not long after returning to the states. Last year (2020), while the pandemic was keeping me in relative isolation, I discovered that Abilene Christian University Graduate School of Theology has precisely the Master of Divinity (MDiv) program that I've been wanting to do. 

The ACU GST MDiv can be done almost entirely online, with only a requirement of 4 separate weeks of intensives on campus over the course of 4 years. What really attracted me were the Hebrew and Greek requirements, something we don't find very often any more at seminaries. If the courses are offered they are often optional, and as someone who continues to maintain a keen interest in the Bible, its interpretation, and its impact on people and society, this matters to me.

Below are the first 7 episodes of a podcast that ACU GST has produced, interviewing different professors and people connected to the seminary about their experiences. If you're considering seminary, whether at ACU or elsewhere, you might find these interesting.

One disclaimer though: although ACU GST is fairly progressive for an evangelical seminary, accepting critical scholarship and not requiring and creedal statement or position from students, it may not be the best place for every Unitarian Universalist. I have classmates from evangelical and mainline Protestant traditions, and the professors show a concern for us thinking clearly and developing as people rather than holding to their beliefs. At the same time, a UU with little or no interest in the Bible and Christianity would be better suited looking to Meadville Lombard Theological School or Starr King School for the Ministry. Both of those are affiliated with Unitarian Universalism. 

Sunday, May 23, 2021

Hope for Post-Pandemic Times | Pentecost 2021

"When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place."Acts 2:1 NRSV

People gathered for a common purpose can have great power.     

The past year, being one of pandemic and social isolation, has been a rough one for many people. Sickness, hospitalization, and death have been the experience of families around the world. For those who managed to avoid getting sick and who had no one close suffer with the virus, there was still the daily struggle of adapting to life primarily lived indoors. I feel especially for parents of young children who've had to monitor their children to keep them focused on schoolwork while, also working to continue to support their families. As an introvert, 'homebody,' and father of grown children, the circumstances of the past 12+ months didn't post a huge challenge for me personally. I've been able to work and study remotely, and everything I feel I need, I have. And yet, Pentecost has reminded me of a way in which I do miss some gatherings.

The week prior to my first trip to Brazil in 1997 was one spent at a retreat. About 50 or so young Christian young people had signed up and raised money to go to other countries to get a taste of mission work for two months, and I was one of them. The sending organization rented a retreat center and our days that week were spent together in classes, team bonding activities, meals, and more. It was a profoundly spiritual experience, one that got me out of my head and able to connect a little better with my heart, which was going to be essential for the following several weeks living in a country with different customs, cuisine, and language from what I'd always known.

Experiences like that, bringing a sense of heaven on earth, are few and far between, in my experience, and in recent times they've been practically impossible.

Over the past year the world has experienced the first global pandemic since 1918, and 3,464,312 have died as of this writing. Not so bad when compared to the 20th century pandemic, which took the lives of between 20 and 50 million, until you consider that our recent lower numbers are due almost certainly to better medical science, and further reflect on the fact that each of those more than 3 million people were human beings with thoughts, feelings, hopes, and loved ones. I've been fortunate to have lost few that I know, although I had the shock of finding out a couple of weeks ago that my psychiatrist had died of COVID-19. 

In time we'll learn to feel comfortable again with one another in close quarters. At least, so I hope will be the case. Online gatherings have been a useful outlet for social connection, and has opened up possibilities to attend seminars and conferences that previously would have required travel and significant expense. Still, those just aren't and never will be the same as joining in heart, mind, and hand with others to seek what's highest and best. Perhaps, as this Pentecost comes and goes, we're passing through a gateway into new possibilities and a greater appreciation for being with one another. We could use a fresh wind blowing through the world right now, clearing the confusion, cooling tempers, and renewing our lives.

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

On Canon


It's common now to refer to whether something really happened in a movie or TV 'universe' as being 'in canon' or 'out of canon.' This comes from the use of the terms 'canon' and 'canonical' in religious usage, referring to writings considered reliable representations of a particular faith. The word 'canon' itself is derived from a word for 'reed,' and was used to refer to a measuring stick. Whether some religious truth-claim was to be believed or not depended on how it measured up to scripture, and so what constituted scripture had to be defined somewhere along the way. 

When Disney acquired Lucasfilm in 2012, it suddenly had a massive amount of tangled and somewhat incoherent IP on its hands. Here's how they cleaned it up:

As of April 25, 2014, the only previously published materials that are considered canon are the six Star Wars films, the Star Wars: The Clone Wars television series and film, novels (where they align with what is seen on screen), and Part I of the short story Blade Squadron. Meanwhile, the Expanded Universe is no longer considered canon[2] and was re-termed as the "Legends" brand. Most Star Wars material released after April 25, 2014—with some exceptions—is composed in collaboration with the Lucasfilm Story Group, making it part of the "new canon."

Although it's commonly misunderstood that a church council defined the canon of Christianity, it wasn't so straightforward. What actually happened was that from the time of the apostles and into the third century C.E. a multitude of different writings circulated among Christian communities, and there wasn't any one defined version of Christianity that was considered correct in all places. There were churches that claimed some connection to an apostle or more, and churches that were fostered or founded by such churches, and other churches that also claimed some ancient connection or greater hold on 'the truth.' It used to be common to hear about Gnostic Christianity and Orthodox Christianity, but again that's too simplistic. Many groups fit neatly into neither category.  However, over the course of time, with debates and conversions, one group became dominant. 

The proto-orthodox church, through an extended process of localized discernment over time, came to a general consensus on the books of the New Testament as we now have them. Really, the only significant variation in terms of the New Testament is with the Orthodox Tewahedo canon, that has a few extra texts. This sorting out of canon is seen by some as miraculous, though I suspect the leadership of the episcopacy had more than a little to do with ensuring that books which supported their understanding of the faith were accepted, and others rejected. The role of the episcopacy itself is a matter for a separate post. 

The Jewish Study Bible offers, in its commentary notes, a perspective I find useful in understanding scriptural canon:

In various ways, canonical status for a book or group of books has to do with the community's views of their centrality, authority, sacredness, and inspiration. Over time these characteristics have become connected, inseparably so in some traditions; yet they are not identical, and though they overlap, they must still be viewed distinctly. (Berlin et al., 2004)

Within Unitarian Universalism there is no set, defined canon, and that's by design. While our predecessor churches originally held to the Protestant Bible, that was set aside as a standard by the time of the consolidation of the two denominations mid-twentieth century. Personally, I've noted that poet Mary Oliver and translations of Rumi tend to have a lasting popularity, and there are readings offered in the back of the primary hymnal used that have something of a scriptural ring to them, but really there's no consistency. In fact, it's more common for people to have their own personal canons, whether they think of them as such or (more likely) not. That is, texts, songs, films, and so forth that they find themselves referring back to from time to time.

What this means is that while other Western religions have specified texts around which a community gathers, no such thing exists for Unitarian Universalists. I'm not sure how important that is, as we seem to do okay without it. I grew up Catholic, hearing the lectionary readings at every Mass until the main stories were engraved in my mind, but whether that made any substantive difference to my sense of connection to the community is uncertain. After all, I did skip out at age 17 for a more evangelical outlook, and that only after my own study and reflection. 

With no shared canon, it can't be said that Unitarian Universalists have a shared sense of what a 'revelation' might be. We tend to hold a more humanistic outlook, though not across the board and many would like to deny it, and such questions are not what we typically center among ourselves. We have a much more this-worldly perspective that tends to keep us away from debating the nature of gods and whether there's an afterlife. It's hard to fuss over such literally immaterial things when we live in a world with systemic oppression, corruption in high places, and so much suffering and injustice. 

As for me, I find myself at this point in my life incapable of believing that any deity as described by classic Christian interpretation could possibly exist. Whether a trinity or not, a god described as omnipresent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent would not be so limited as to be rendered incapable of immediately delivering us from evil. Indeed, if said god were omnipresent, omniscient, and omnimalevolent, and yet still somehow restricted, the world remains exactly as we would expect it to be. That being the case, no purported revelation seems worth the time to take seriously, particularly in light of the fact that our human condition really only started to improve substantially with the advent of the scientific method for arriving at facts and solutions. Had revelation provided us with warnings about microscopic bacteria or forbidden human enslavement in no uncertain terms, then it could perhaps be more worth of acceptance.

But then, is the function of a canon really to serve as a font of actual information, or is it something else? In practice a canon functions as a common ground of understanding for a community. Thus the debates among Trekkies and within other fandoms about what's in canon and what isn't. They have a common vocabulary and shared narratives that they use to engage with one another socially. In the religious arena having a canon that's agreed upon doesn't always mean everyone has to agree with it. In the biblical book of Genesis the patriarch Abraham actually debated and negotiated with God, and he's one seen as a friend of God. Within the text of the Bible itself we encounter different voices that often disagree with one another. How then could it be wrong for a community to share a canon and at the same time have the space and grace to allow for arguments with the text itself?

If I were a theistically-minded Christian and compelled to choose, I'd borrow the perspective held by Community of Christ, formerly known as the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. 

However, Community of Christ has insisted since the time of Joseph Smith III that what the authors of scripture wrote is not revelation itself. They wrote works of literature that are pointers to revelation. Former member of the Community of Christ First Presidency F. Henry Edwards wrote, “Revelation cannot be fully expressed in words. Words are but tools, and must be quickened by the illumination of the Spirit which shines in the hearts and minds of the readers….Revelation, then, is one thing, and the record of revelation is another.” Former apostle Arthur A. Oakman made the following observation in an important 1966 article: 
 
The prophets saw the movement of God in history. It was there before they saw it. Had they never apprehended it, it would still have been there. But it became revelation to them when they appreciated this divine movement. What we have in the Old and New Testaments is not, therefore, revelation. It is a record made by the preceptor. …There are, then, strictly speaking, no revealed truths. There are “truths of revelation”—statements of principles, that is, which stem from the actual revelatory experiences. 
 
In its theology, ethics, and pastoral practice, Community of Christ believes it is essential to make this kind of distinction between revelation and human beings’ varied literary accounts of revelation. Without this distinction, communities are always tempted to worship not the Living God, but their texts, traditions, and interpretations, which can bring and has brought great harm into people’s lives. (Chvala-Smith, 2020)

What we find among white conservative evangelicals in the United States is precisely the situation described in that last paragraph: they commit bibliolatry by paying lip-serving to it without really understanding it or committing to live according to it. If instead they were able to see the Bible as the result of attempts to put into various genres of writing the sense of what they understood as having come from God, there could be a great deal more humility and less beating others over the head with interpretations. Then again, perhaps that's simply an enduring difficulty stemming from the human condition that will manifest regardless. 

Attending General Assembly I've come to suspect that for some Unitarian Universalists they see Robert's Rules of Orders in roughly the position of canon (and that's not a joke), and as I mentioned above there are some texts and songs that we tend to favor collectively. And yet we carry on seemingly well without a canon. It can certainly be useful to have a shared standard as a resource for homilies and liturgies, providing a common ground for everyone in the community. It can also be a source of misery, as we see in the fandoms when some take others to task for not conforming to a particular understanding or appreciation of canon. Except that religion isn't meant to be a hobby. Rather, a way of life. That's not so easy to walk away from, as if leaving a fandom could ever be easy for someone either. 
References:

Berlin, A., Brettler, M. Z., & Fishbane, M. (2004). The Jewish study Bible: Jewish Publication Society Tanakh translation. Oxford University Press.

Chvala-Smith, A. J. (2020). Exploring Community of Christ Basic Beliefs: A Commentary. Herald Publishing House. 

Friday, May 7, 2021

Meadville Lombard Theological Seminary to Relocate


The email below arrived this afternoon (Friday, May 7, 2021), and I thought it good to share here as well. See the bottom of the email in this post for a link to a page with more details. My take on it is that they are thinking of their students and faculty with this move, considering feedback provided over what their current space lacks, and also practicing fiscal responsibility. With the COVID-19 pandemic office space in the real estate market has taken a big hit, so it's prime time to get into an affordable new lease on a better location.


Dear friends of Meadville Lombard,

We are moving!

Meadville Lombard’s 10-year lease for office space at the Spertus Building expires in December 2021. Although the lease provides for two 5-year renewals, the Meadville Lombard Leadership Team believed it was in the best interests of the school to test the real estate market given the current environment that has resulted from the pandemic. This was not a decision that we came to lightly, but we strongly believe that this move will enhance the experience of our students and prepare the school well for the future.

Over the years and, more specifically, in a survey taken by the Student Advisory Council in the Spring of 2019, our students have shared their desires for improvements to our space, such as access to classrooms with natural light, small group meeting space, a chapel, transgender and non-binary student safety, and ADA accessibility.

We also needed a space that allowed us to invest in our future and innovate, to create new programs that prepare a larger, broader audience of students to carry our UU values into the world, as well as to host community groups with whom we are growing relationships. A recording studio will enable us to host podcasts with scholars, faith leaders, and community leaders to help us become recognized as the thought leader that we already are.

We firmly believe we have designed a great space—one that provides classrooms that we can use any time of day or night without additional expense, one that provides a chapel that will be available to students of all faiths, and one that provides us the flexibility to make changes as we grow into our future.

The address of the new space and more details about the decision can be found on our website: https://www.meadville.edu/ml-commons/details/mlts-is-moving/

Sincerely,

On behalf of the Meadville Lombard Leadership Team

Cindi Redman
Vice President for Finance and Administration (credman@meadville.edu)

Sunday, May 2, 2021

A Trickle of Churches Leaving the United Methodist Church

The United Methodist Church is heading towards an official split, but with the pandemic and the inability to bring in delegates representing the church in nations other than the United States, the General Conference where the plan to do so will be voted on keeps getting postponed. As of now, it won't be happening until Aug. 29-Sept. 6, 2022. While most parishes of the UMC are apparently waiting it out, for a few, it's just too long to reach a decision, and they are disaffiliation. It's not an easy road to take, and here I'll take a look at what makes it difficult, and review the situation of some churches that have departed or are in the process of doing so.

Complicating the decision of a church to leave the denomination is the connectional polity practiced by United Methodism, in which all property at the congregational level is held in trust 'for the benefit of the entire denomination.' Putting it plainly, people can quit the denomination, but the property stays behind, unless the annual conference approves property going with a departing congregation. Even with approval, a disaffiliating parish will have to pay up all apportionments (dues to the denomination) for prior and current years, as well as its share of the conference’s unfunded pension liability. None of that is cheap. 

United Methodist News reviewed available data and found that the 54 conferences only approved around 51 disaffiliations in 2020. I say 'only' because that seems small in comparison to the 305 churches that closed because they were too small and had become unsustainable, and because there are 31, 000 United Methodist parishes in the United States. A 0.16% decline in parish affiliations is barely a drop in the bucket. Two churches in the Texas conference have disaffiliated or plan to do so pending conference approval, but again that's only 2 of a total 640 congregations in the conference, or 0.31%. 

Although historically the UMC hasn't kept official, consolidated records of disaffiliations, it is doing so now through its General Council on Finance and Administration. The denomination's pension agency, Wespath Benefits and Investments, is keeping track of departures as will in order to ensure that clergy pension liabilities don't go unmet. Given the small numbers involved so far, and the high cost of leaving, I don't think they have a great deal to worry about until the actual split presumably takes place. 

What about the churches that are leaving? It turns out that they represent both progressive and conservative perspectives. 

Grace Fellowship Church in Katy, Texas left for the Free Methodist Church in North America in 2020, citing the 'dysfunctional fighting' within the UMC as their motivation for doing so. This was no small loss in terms of membership for the UMC, as Grace Fellowship is a megachurch consisting of nearly 3000 members. The Free Methodist Church, for its part, wanted to make clear that it isn't merely a conservative version of the UMC. It was founded in 1860 and in the roughly 160 years of its existence it has developed its own culture and values. At about 110,000 adherents in 900 congregations, the FMC is considerably smaller than the UMC, and I imagine that concerns over church culture aside, denominational leaders must be pleased to have such a sizeable church join their number. 

Three progressive churches in Maine have also taken steps to disaffiliate: HopeGateWay in Portland, Tuttle Road United Methodist Church in Cumberland and Chebeague United Methodist Church in Chebeague Island. It's unclear to me at this point whether any of these will be affiliating with other denominations. HopeGateWay, which had to pay more than $350,000 to the United Methodist Church as part of the settlement to leave, has indicated that there are no immediate plans for them to do so, although they are 'in covenant' with other departing UMC churches in their area. All three of these churches cited discriminatory language and practices toward the LGBTQIA+ community as motivating their decisions.

Christ Church, a conservative congregation in Fairview Heights, Illinois, is another disaffiliating congregation. They incorporated as a new entity in 2020 and as far as I know are working through property issues with their conference. They appear to have a commitment to remaining non-denominational.

Bering Church, in Houston, Texas, is another noteworthy parish of the UMC that is on its way out.  Founded in 1848, when the population of Houston was only around 5000, the first members were German-speaking immigrants. Remarkably (to me, anyway) German remained the primary language in the worship services and Sunday School classes until 1911. Demographic changes in the 1960s and 1970s brought in 'hippies and homosexuals,' according the church website. Rather than resist the changing face of the community around it, they embraced it by committing to minister to their new neighbors and fully welcome them without discrimination or prejudice. That they were so progressive at that time is really impressive to me. I also found intriguing the statement of belief included on their website.

WHAT WE BELIEVE

If you are a first-time guest at Bering or a long-time member,

You are not only welcome here, you are celebrated here!

If you are black, brown, white or anything in between,

You are not only welcome here, you are celebrated here!

If you are gay, straight, bisexual, lesbian, transgender, or non-gender binary,

You are not only welcome here, you are celebrated here!

If you are a Native American or an immigrant friend, whether or not you have documents,

You are not only welcome here, you are celebrated here!

If you are lay or clergy, male or female, young or old, abled or differently-abled, rich or poor, short or tall, wide or deep,

You are not only welcome here, you are celebrated here!

No matter what you believe or what you doubt . . .
No matter what you count on, or what you question . . .

You are not only welcome here, you are celebrated here!

At Bering, we celebrate you as a gift of the Creator,
and an individual wonder of God’s creation.

What strikes me about that statement is how humanistic it is, particularly in comparison with the usual statements of faith we find on church websites. Instead of beginning with God and the Bible and only mentioning humans as sinners, this statement is affirming of myriad ways of living a human life, and only mentions God at the very end. Obviously, evangelicals would despise it. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Bering Church has opted to pursue affiliation with the United Church of Christ. Widely known as the most progressive denomination in the United States, the UCC has served as a refuge for a number of congregations whose denominations have tended to be a bit too conservative for them. The latest example I know of are the seven Reformed Church in America congregations in New York who joined the UCC in 2017. Although I don't know all the details, my understanding is that LGBTQIA+ exclusion from ordination was a deal-breaker for them. While they have maintained their affiliation with the RCA (I have to think it has to do with the conditions around endowments), they are now co-affiliated with the UCC, thus circumventing any issues of ordination or other official forms of LGBTQIA+ discrimination. 

Aside from social considerations, the UCC is also a good fit for Bering Church because no change in their current beliefs or practices will be required. As a UMC church they already practice baptism of infants and adults, and their liturgy won't have to be modified either unless there are aspects that directly reference the UMC. It isn't the intent of Bering Church to entirely abandon their Methodism, and the UCC allows plenty of room for that. 

To me, it makes more sense to wait until the General Conference, even if it's postponed again. Then again, it's not my pony show. Conservatives complain that while they stay they're spending time and resources on their denomination's issues that they could be putting into their missions. Progressives point to the ongoing sense of harm being done to LGBTQIA+ members as something that can only be ended by splitting off. 

For those who manage to wait, the proposed Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace Through Separation would relieve them of the price tag for leaving, assuming it's approved. The protocol would commit $25 million over the next four years to form a new conservative or 'traditionalist' denomination. Conservatives have already taken steps in that direction by organizing the Global Methodist Church, at least on paper. With the approval of the protocol, parishes and conferences could vote to join the new denomination (or I suppose, perhaps, go off on their own), taking along their property. 

Whatever happens, it's indicative of the deep divide that exists politically, religiously, and socially in the world. While I tend to believe that denominations in general are going to continue to dwindle to a pale shadow of their former selves, and that what's considered 'progressive' today will be 'conservative' in 50 or more years, in the meantime we have to live through the struggle and do our best. 

Friday, April 30, 2021

It Isn't All Dinosaur Pee


Was the water you bathe in and drink once dinosaur urine? It turns out that some of it probably was, but not all of it. 

Dinosaurs, other than the non-avian variety which we still have as birds, were on the Earth for between 165 and 177 million years. They first appeared between 243 and 231 million years ago, during the Mesozoic Era, and for whatever it's worth, the Mesozoic Era is divided by scientists into three periods: the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous. During this very long period of time the land gradually split from one huge continent into smaller ones. Dinosaurs became extinct around 66 million years ago. This means that they were on Earth for far longer than they’ve been extinct.

Now, about the water. There are more than 326 million trillion gallons of water on Earth. Less than three percent of all this water is freshwater and of that amount, more than two-thirds is locked up in ice caps and glaciers. As I mentioned above, not all of the water we have on earth now is the same that existed over 66 million years ago. That's because not all the water that exists today is exactly the same as what existed then. While the amount of water on earth remains more or less the same over time, molecules of water are constantly being formed and broken apart. 

Water molecules are broken up during photosynthesis in plants. The plants take in carbon dioxide (CO2) and water (H2O) from the air and soil. Within the plant cell, the water is oxidized, meaning it loses electrons, while the carbon dioxide is reduced, meaning it gains electrons. This transforms the water into oxygen and the carbon dioxide into glucose. The plant then releases the oxygen (O) back into the air, and stores energy within the glucose molecules. To make it plain, although plants take in CO2 and release 0, it wasn't the carbon dioxide that became oxygen. It's the water that plants take up through their roots that gets split up, with the O atoms escaping out into the atmosphere. 

If that's the case, then shouldn't we be losing water over time? Not really, because cellular respiration in animals, including humans, produces water as a byproduct. Buckle up, because what follows is that process, and it's not as straightforward as what I described for photosynthesis. 

Animal cells take glucose and combine it with oxygen to create four molecules of adenosine triphosphate, commonly referred to as ATP, and six molecules of carbon dioxide during glycolysis. ATP is the molecule that cells need to store and transfer energy. Additionally, two molecules of water are created during this step, but they are a byproduct of the reaction and not used in the next steps of cellular respiration. It is not until later in the process that more ATP and water are created.

The second step of cellular respiration is called the Krebs Cycle, which is also known as the citric acid cycle or the tricarboxylic acid (TCA) cycle. This stage takes place in the matrix of a cell’s mitochondria. During the continuous Krebs Cycle, energy is transferred to two carriers, NADH and FADH2, an enzyme and coenzyme that play major roles in generating energy. Some people that have difficulty producing NADH, such as those with Alzheimer’s, take NADH supplements as a way to boost alertness and concentration.

The electron transport chain is the third and final step of cellular respiration. It is the grand finale in which water is formed, along with the majority of ATP needed to power cellular life. It starts with NADH and FADH2 transporting protons through the cell, creating ATP through a series of reactions.

Toward the end of the electron transport chain, the hydrogen from the coenzymes meets the oxygen that the cell has consumed and reacts with it to form water. In this way, water is created as a byproduct of the metabolism reaction.

Over the course of the past 66 million years quite a bit of photosynthesis and cellular respiration has taken place in the biosphere. Oxygen and hydrogen atoms have been separated, circulated, and joined over and over again trillions of times. Thus, in an 8 ounce glass of water you may drink a few molecules of water that were once dinosaur pee, but the whole glass of water wasn't. This also means that much of the hydrogen and oxygen in the atmosphere right now was once bonded in molecules long, long ago that were in dinosaur urine. 

All this is simply to show that while this world is ancient, change is the greatest constant. 

Thursday, April 29, 2021

Continuous Succession

"For all things are formed by nature to change and be turned and to perish in order that other things in continuous succession may exist.” – Marcus Aurelius

When I was a child my father had a new well dug on the farm. It took a few tries to find the right place, and at one of the failed sites something else was uncovered. From deep under the earth wood was uncovered, from too far down for them to be tree roots. These were the remains of ancient trees long gone. The drill kept going, hundreds of feet down, and suddenly seashells began to appear. Those, the sand and small fossils were from a long-lost ancient sea. What I could not have fathomed then and can barely comprehend now is how very long ago that sea existed.

During the early Paleozoic, 541 to 252 million years ago, what is now Missouri was covered by a warm shallow sea. I can't write 'what is now Missouri' without qualifying that, because the Earth has changed dramatically since that time. Continents have moved and hundreds of feet of soil now cover what existed so long ago. In any case, that sea was home to a menagerie of ancient creatures, including  shelled cephalopods, corals, crinoids, armored fish, and trilobites. Later in the Paleozoic, during the Carboniferous, a wide variety of flora developed on land. That was the period in which oxygen levels were at their highest, sustaining giant insects like dragonflies that could have wingspans of over two feet (more than half a meter). By the end of that period the sea had disappeared from most of the state, although southeastern Missouri was covered with seawater into the early Cenozoic. Since I grew up in northeastern Missouri, the only sea relevant was that of the Paleozoic. 
As I grow older it's easy to become nostalgic about the place where I was born and raised. I spent a lot of my time out in the woods and fields of Missouri, and there's a patch of it around the farm where I grew up that will likely always feel like home. And yet, it has not always been there. I imagine that before the last ice age it looked quite a bit different than it does now, and the same can be said for how it looked prior to European colonization compared to today. Although the country I grew up in has been losing population for over a century, since I was a teenager I've imagined what it would be like for that place to become urbanized. What if those fields and woodlands become housing developments someday, after the population decline reverses?

In truth, the only constant is change. As long ago as 541 million years ago is to us now, the Earth will still exist in another 541 million years. The places that I have known, in Missouri and elsewhere, will be long gone, covered under tons of history. It seems certain that the homo sapiens sapiens subspecies will be long extinct by then, although perhaps I can hope that our passing will not mean the end of the genus Homo. The varieties of creatures that existed in that ancient, shallow sea that existed where we now find Missouri are extinct, but certainly there are species that evolved from them, and then others from those successor species, right down to our time. Humans in the far distant future could be vastly different from us, and if they are spread out in different parts of the solar system and galaxy, they could also be distinct from one another. Unless, of course, we go truly extinct before that.

The world will be different. The continents continue shifting and moving. Species keep evolving. Layer upon layer of new earth is laid down even as mountains are worn down by wind and rain. It is important, I think, to keep some trace of this knowledge in mind in order to put things in their proper perspective. What matters to us intensely now is important because it impacts our lives and those of the world we know. At the same time, will our bones not one day also be fossils found far below earth's surface, telling of a long-forgotten time? There must be this continuous succession, so that new things can come about. That is life, in its truest sense.