Journalist and recent seminary grad Jeff Chu ponders the intersection of theology and farming, then describes the Evolving Faith Conference and other places of healing and fresh imagination for people who are, for whatever reason, feeling on the margins of the church.
For more background
The Evolving Faith Conference website.
The Princeton Seminary Farminary.
The Cultivate event.
Debra Rienstra: Today I’m talking with Jeff Chu. Jeff is an author, accomplished journalist, and recent graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary. Jeff is with me today to talk about farm work, social media, the Evolving Faith Conference, and creating safe places for young people, especially, to reshape their faith and maybe even reshape the church.
Hey Jeff. Thanks for being here today.
Jeff Chu: Thanks for inviting me.
DR: So you’re in New Jersey. I’m in Michigan. We’re just starting to see tomatoes. Have you got good tomatoes in New Jersey yet?
Jeff Chu: Yeah, we are actually a few weeks ahead of where we were last year. So our cherry tomatoes are looking really good and I just harvested the first bigger orange ones.
DR: Nice. I had my first cherry tomato yesterday. So there’s hope. But I remember being in New Jersey and eating fantastic tomatoes.
Jeff Chu: Yeah, it’s been one of the better things in our garden last year and this year so far. So I think August will be awesome.
DR: So Jeff, we have managed to pull you into the Calvin orbit pretty often in the past, I don’t know, seven or eight years, but your connection to Calvin–now University–began as I understand it at a Christian school in Miami in grade school, where a number of your teachers were Calvin grads. Am I remembering that right?
Jeff Chu: That’s right. It was officially a non-denominational Christian school, but from the number of Dutch names you might be able to guess where people’s roots were. Most of the teachers were CRC and a lot of them had graduated from Calvin: Mr. Molethay, Miss De Young, Mr. Van Voorthuizen, Mr. Bouwsma, Mr. Zylstra, so you get the pic.
DR: Look at you. That’s how you learned Dutch names to begin with, right?
Jeff Chu: Yeah, that was a special time.
DR: And more recently you’ve spoken on campus here in our journalism classes, a couple times at our Festival of Faith and Writing, you’ve spoken on our Sexuality Series. So we are pulling you in. You can see that.
Jeff Chu: I’m being recruited.
DR: Yeah more or less. So you just completed your masters of divinity at Princeton Seminary. And from our conversations before it seems as if a really important part of your survival through the rigors of seminary was this place called the Farminary, so could you tell us about what the Farminary is?
Jeff Chu: So the Farminary is a 21-acre farm that was begun in 2015. It was started by a guy named Nate Stucky who was just finishing up his PhD at the time. And he had this dream as a Mennonite farm boy from Kansas turned into a youth pastor—he had this dream of combining theological education with agriculture. And one day he got a call from the president of the seminary who summoned him and informed him that it turned out that part of the seminary’s billion-dollar endowment included a farm, and did he want to give this idea shot. So, four years later, we have a working farm with a 12-family CSA this summer and we have chickens. Yeah, we have chickens. We’ll end up by the end of August with one chicken after we do our next slaughter. But it’s been a wonderful place to learn and to grow–probably the best classroom I’ve ever been in.
DR: Why do you think it was so important to you–your experience there?
Jeff Chu: I learned, and I think some of my classmates learned, that there are things about the traditional classroom that make it difficult for many of us to learn. Many of the professors at Princeton, wonderful as their own educations and knowledge may be, don’t always build the best bridges from academia to the rest of the world. And what is beautiful about the farm—and the professors who are willing to try teaching at the farm—is that it forces you into a different environment. It’s much more of a multi-sensory learning experience. It’s rarely someone lecturing at you. And what has ended up happening is the students who get deeply involved at the Farminary are very interestingly a less white, more queer, more theologically diverse, less likely to become parish pastors, kind of students.
DR: Fascinating. Why do you suppose that is?
Jeff Chu: I think many of us don’t feel entirely at home in the precincts of traditional academia. There are barriers to entry that don’t exist for a lot of white students. And I’ll give you one example. I learned relatively recently, just within the last few years, that there’s research that shows that the traditional Chinese way of argumentation and debate and thinking, the logical thought processes in Chinese culture and history, are circular. But the American—the traditional American essay, the traditional American format of argumentation—is linear. You have a thesis statement and then you have your proofs.
Jeff Chu: And that’s not how the Chinese mind and the Chinese argument works. So I’ve had professors tell me that I just write wrong. And I’ve been a journalist for almost 20 years. So that is one way in which the farm breaks down barriers, because the way we have debates, the way we have discussions, the way we wrestle with things, is different. And the assignments that professors tend to assign for those classes that meet at the farm are different. They’re much more about reflection. They’re much more about, honestly, substance over style.
DR: So there’s even a connection, maybe metaphorically, perhaps, between the debate format, the thesis-antithesis-synthesis format, maybe, and the academic classroom as opposed to the circular pattern of ecology. So it’s almost like the rhetorical system lays on top of this more circular, cyclical, ecological system in more natural ways.
Jeff Chu: It’s interesting because often in the context of faith and churches, we talk in linear fashion. At least in the American church, right?
Jeff Chu: The advance of God’s kingdom is a linear picture. It’s moving in a particular direction. We talk about progress. We talk about spiritual growth, which can often be charted on a line between immaturity and maturity. But what you realize very quickly at the farm with the seasons and the cycles–what God has written in the creation is not linear at all. It’s very much about the cycle of life, death, and new life. It’s very much about dying and then coming to life again.
DR: So there’s a theological connection between death and resurrection as the central Christian pattern and what happens on a farm.
Jeff Chu: It was so striking to me when we first arrived at the farm my first year of seminary, and one of the first places Nate Stucky took us was the compost pile. And I had very little experience with any kind of agriculture or composting. He gave us shovels and he gave us rakes and he gave us whatever implements–I still don’t know the name of them–and said, I want you to dig and find signs of life and death and resurrection. And at first–it was a super hot, early September day, humid like it tends to be in New Jersey at that time of year. At first I was just disgusted because you’re standing in the midst of coffee grounds and rotting vegetables and all these signs of death. How could there be life there? And then you dig a little bit deeper in the pile and you start to see the worms and there were spiders and different creatures. And then you dig a little deeper to the stuff that has already broken down and you realize that compost, the process of composting, is producing soil, which is so necessary for new life. So there you have the signs of life, death, and resurrection.
DR: I love the connection between the word humility in the word humus.
Jeff Chu: Humility–being grounded in who we are versus who God is.
DR: Yeah. So I wonder if the Farminary nicely fits the definition of refugia that we’ve been working on here, refugia as micro-countercultures where we gain strength and spiritual capacity to face the challenges ahead. Could we think of the Farminary as a refugium?
Jeff Chu: I suppose it… I suppose we could. I think the thing that grieves me about that definition is that more of the world should be refugia.
Jeff Chu: Right. It shouldn’t need to be counterculture.
Jeff Chu: It should be more of what is the norm, not a place you go and gain strength so that you can deal with them.
DR: Right. Yeah, so the predefinition or the precondition of the need for refugia is crisis. Refugia exist only because there’s some kind of crisis. So we’ll get back to that in just a minute. But I wonder if another definition of refugia is that these are places from which life re-emerges. They don’t remain little isolated pockets. Their life-giving effects spread. So I’m wondering if you think that’s possible with the Farminary. Can what you learned at the Farminary scale up? Can the Farminary become a model that maybe other churches could do, other places of higher education could do? They already are, but is it possible to let this spread somehow?
Jeff Chu: I think one lesson is that we have to be very conscious of context. So it’s not like any institution should just take a few acres of land and start a Farminary. I think something like that should be organic to the institution. It should be respectful of the land on which it sits and it should take that history and context into account as you’re developing it. For instance, it’s been a process over the last few years of doing that at the Farminary. So we now recognize that this is, this was Lenape land. And so this season we planted in our garden an heirloom variety of blue corn. It’s blue-purple corn. That the Lenape, when they were pushed out of New York, what is now New York and New Jersey, ended up taking with them west to–most Lenape are now in Ontario, Ohio and Oklahoma, but they’ve managed to hang on to this seed. So we planted some of that as a way of acknowledging the specificity of this place and this land. And so I would never want someone just to say, oh Princeton did a Farminary; we should do one, too. Likewise, we did a CSA because that was what this community needed. It’s a relatively affordable CSA and it’s mostly for student families and faculty and staff families. Your community might not need a CSA. That might not be the teaching tool–that sowing and harvesting that our students are doing–that might not be the right teaching tool for a church or another seminary. So I think refugia ought to be mindful of the prevailing culture and the specificity of the culture, right? Because you’re not a proper sanctuary if you’re not attentive to what you’re countering.
DR: Nothing franchise-able about refugia. They, also by definition, have to be that which can survive in that place.
Jeff Chu: I think the one element that might be scalable is the attentiveness, the awareness of what it’s like to grow things, the painstaking work that it takes to cultivate something, and likewise the attention that it takes to grow something in yourself as well as those elements in both cases that are beyond your control. I think that knowledge is scalable.
DR: So you learned to be attentive to baby goats and to chickens, to soil. What other things did you learn to be especially attentive to?
Jeff Chu: I think I became more attentive to how noisy the natural world is. We talk about silence sometimes as if that’s the natural state of things. But actually when we are talking about silence, I think so often it just means that human beings have managed to shut up for a few minutes.
DR: And our machines.
Jeff Chu: It is so loud at the farm.
DR: What do you hear? Tell us what the sounds are.
Jeff Chu: So there is the burble of this stream that goes from an unidentified source. We think somewhere there’s a spring maybe a mile away which feeds into our pond, and the water never stops moving, never stops brushing against the little plants that grow up on the side. Lately, there are frogs. Earlier in the year there were spring peepers. I didn’t know what peepers were. I didn’t know they were frogs and I said to Nate, who runs the farm, wow, the crickets are so loud, and he said, they’re not crickets; they’re frogs. So sometimes I can be attentive to the sound without knowing where the sound comes from. In the fall, there’s often the sound of the leaves tumbling over each other in the breeze. There is often the sound of branches clapping together, especially high up where the wind is stronger. We have robins. We have deer. We have Canada geese that often pass through the pond and mallards and an occasional hawk or an osprey. Right now our chickens, which are mostly roosters, are learning that they have the power to crow…
DR: Oh dear.
Jeff Chu: In the morning. So that is an interesting form of non-silence.
DR: That’s one way to put it.
Jeff Chu: But the farm is a loud place. Oh, we have three beehives and the bees are always buzzing.
DR: Yeah. Thank you for painting that beautiful sound portrait. Let’s shift to a different kind of refugium that you’re involved in, the Evolving Faith Conference, which I’ve been thinking of as a pop-up refugium.
DR: So tell us about that, how that conference came about.
Jeff Chu: So this conference was started in 2018 by the authors Sarah Bessey and Rachel Held Evans. And the goal was to create a space in which people who were seeking solace in some kind of spiritual wilderness, people who came out of the Christian tradition, mostly Evangelical, I would say, who did not want to walk away from their faith, but had felt either pushed out by the established church or by their congregations or denominations, who were a little bit at a loss as to how to continue, people who were marginalized from what they saw as mainstream Evangelical Christianity, people who wanted to hang on to their love for the Bible but could not understand how scripture was being manipulated to exclude and to hurt so many people. So Rachel and Sarah started this conference that met at Montreat last October, and will meet in Denver October 4th and 5th this fall, and gather musicians and visual artists and writers and seminary professors and Bible scholars and activists. And we worked through different themes. So it was evolving faith and the Bible and theology; evolving faith and your understanding of racial justice; evolving faith and your understanding of sexuality. I think what Rachel and Sarah did not expect was the depth of the need and the hurt that was out there.
Jeff Chu: There was so much hunger, and yet there was so much hope. Because without hope, 1,500 people would not have spent their time and energy and money to show up at Montreat in North Carolina, which is not super convenient or super cheap to get to. They wanted to hear about a new way of reading scripture or a different way of reading scripture. They wanted to be moved in some way. And then I came on as a co-host and co-curator in February.
DR: So I guess this raises that precondition question about the crisis, broadly speaking. So what has happened in the church, which should be, as you said before, a place of life-giving refuge, but it seems to have become for so many people a place that people need refuge from. What has happened?
Jeff Chu: Well, I think you could ask a hundred different Christians what’s happened and get a hundred different answers, right? And you could throw in a few ex-Christians, too, and they’ll give you their version of the story. I think part of it is a difficulty with definition of terms. So you say life-giving and what seems life-giving to some people is feeling a member of a club that other people don’t belong to. What’s life-giving for other people is an acceptance of diversity and even a celebration of diversity. What’s life-giving to still others feels more like a cultural society of sorts that blurs the lines between religion and ethnicity. So I’ve ended up in a denomination that has strong Dutch roots. And sometimes you walk into an RCA congregation and it feels like a Dutch community gathering. And that’s life-giving for some people but also soul-sapping for others.
DR: I think we have to go back to the scriptures and the gospels especially and ask the question there. What is life-giving in God’s design? What is life-giving according to Jesus? What is truly life-giving as opposed to what we might think is life-giving?
Jeff Chu: And I have my biases, right, but I would say, we are not good readers in 2019 America. Our reading comprehension is poor; our efforts to see what’s behind the text are even poorer. And we’re suffering because of it and we are hurting people because we are such poor readers.
DR: I know that you’re very, very intentional about creating the conditions at the Evolving Faith Conference. And you might even say these are… you’re thinking very carefully about how to create a refugium. So what are the conditions that you’re hoping to create there?
Jeff Chu: We want people to be challenged and inspired. That’s why we have this weird mix of artists and Bible scholars. We want people not to be bored. That’s why we keep talks to 20 minutes. We want people to leave with some sense of hope, especially in feeling not so alone, and that’s why we emphasize the importance of gathering together. We are fully cognizant of the fact that not everybody can travel, and that’s why last year–and we hope this year–live stream is an option, but we do think that that act of gathering together in the flesh is not replaceable. We hope that people will break bread together. We hope that people will find one another in those in-between moments and help each other, which is as much a part of the experience as any talk that you may hear from the main stage. This year we are going to incorporate art for people who feel like they process better that way so there will be a table towards the front and a couple tables towards the back where people can draw or paint or sketch or color their way through these talks so that they can be doing something with their hands. That is another recognition that our faith is multi-dimensional. And that’s another way where we can honor the fact that not everybody learns the same way, not everybody receives information the same way, and for some of us we might need means to process visually.
DR: So you create this beautiful moment, this pop-up refugium where people are able to feel those life-giving qualities and to be together and to know they’re not alone.
How are you thinking about continuing that, letting that refugium grow and spread? Are there ways that you do that? Do you create community through social media? How do you make it continue?
Jeff Chu: We have intentionally created Facebook groups. There’s a group for last year’s conference. And there’s another one for this year’s. And those are closed to people who have not attended the conference, just because we want to create some boundaries where people can at least have some common ground in terms of what they’ve experienced together. And we have community rules which are not meant to be punitive in any way but more to protect and guide people towards what we see is a more hopeful way of interaction. I hate the term safe space. I don’t actually think it’s theologically defensible. So I would never say that the conference or the online forums are safe spaces because–and what I mean by that, I don’t mean that they will not be safe from psychological harm, okay. I always think we have to be looking out for each other and helping guard one another from psychological or physical or emotional or spiritual abuse. But when I say that I don’t think that a safe space is theologically defensible, I mean that the gospel constantly calls us to be uncomfortable and to interrogate our presuppositions and our preconceptions. So even with this concept of the refugia, I don’t think the refugia is a safe… that they are safe spaces. Refugia can’t be safe spaces if they’re genuinely helping us build strength and spiritual capacity.
DR: They’re only temporarily protected, and not from everything. Sometimes they don’t… yeah.
Jeff Chu: They can’t be protected from everything, and we can’t be protected from everything, and we shouldn’t be protected from everything. We shouldn’t be protected from our own bad habits or our own life-sapping tendencies or our own self-sabotaging ways or our own sin, right, to use a word that’s increasingly unpopular. There shouldn’t be safe spaces in theological terms.
DR: The gospel blesses and disturbs.
Jeff Chu: And destroys.
DR: Disturbance and destruction, to go back to those ecological metaphors, are also part of life.
Jeff Chu: They have to be. You don’t get new life in the Christian story without death.
DR: Tell us a little bit about the event that you’re hosting this August at the Farminary. It’s another example of what we might call a pop-up refugium. So tell us what that’s all about.
Jeff Chu: So this event is called Cultivate. It’s funded by the Lily Endowment through the generosity of Kenda Dean, who’s professor of youth, church, and culture at Princeton Seminary. And she gave a group of students, including me, a grant to create a young adult retreat. And we’re defining young adult kind of generously, so we have folks from 25 to 39. We only have 12 spots, and the idea was to create space for 12 young adults who need time and space for dreaming and reimagining, especially vocationally. So they’ll come and work with us in the garden, dig with us in the compost pile, sit next to us on the little stone bridge that crosses the stream. And we’ll feed them and we’ll talk with them and we’ll listen to them in the hope that spending time on this land will be in some way for them the kind of space and blessing that they need to imagine what God has for them going forward.
So one of the principles that was very important to us, and I think should be very important for any refugium, is the concept of justice. So we priced this, because we got this grant from Lily and from Kenda Dean, at a hundred and fifty dollars, including flights, for 5 days and 4 nights. So many retreats are now functionally available only to the wealthy, but everybody needs Sabbath. Everybody needs rest. So what about those folks who don’t have the financial resources to be able to afford even the church retreat or any kind of vacation? So for 5 days and 4 nights, we want these folks, several of whom don’t have what you might call a significant income, we want to create space for them to dream about what they should be doing.
DR: What a beautiful model, that I hope other people will consider imitating in some way. So in your journalistic work over many years and in writing your 2014 book—which was called Does Jesus Really Love Me: A Gay Christian’s Pilgrimage in Search of God in America—in writing that book and in your own faith history, you’ve seen a lot of the American church. And now these days you’re entangled in the structures of a small denomination, a small Reformed denomination. So you’ve probably seen both the best and the worst of institutional church life. And I just wonder what is your wish for the church in the next 20 years? What do you long for?
Jeff Chu: I long for more imagination. And I say that knowing that what stifles imagination is so often well-intended. So many leaders want to protect their flocks and to do what’s right. But I think sometimes we undersell God’s ability to hold tension and difference and even conflict better than we can. So I want the imagination in the church that allows us to make mistakes knowing that we will fall into the arms of a God who is gracious and loves us beyond what we can imagine. Because if we don’t have that imagination to create space for others to come up with difficult but important ways of telling stories and hearing stories and receiving stories and honoring stories, I think people will continue to seek meaning and purpose in places far from the church. And that grieves me.
DR: I’m really grateful, Jeff, for the ways that you are creating spaces where that kind of renewal can happen. It’s really exhausting work, it’s really difficult work, but you’re doing it with such integrity and such grace, and I’m really grateful for that.
Jeff Chu: I think it helps that it’s… there’s precedent for it, right? I would be stupid to think that I’m doing it alone or I’m doing it for the first time, even though for me it may be the first time. And I think about this passage in Ezekiel–Ezekiel 47–that talks about this river that flows from God’s sanctuary. And Robert Alter’s translation says that there’s all these fruit-bearing trees that are on either side of this water and their leaves shall not wither, their fruit shall not cease, they shall yield new fruit month after month, for their water comes out from the sanctuary and their fruit shall be eating, for eating and their leaves for healing.
And there’s a picture of justice in that. There’s a picture of the expansiveness of God’s healing and who it’s for. And later in that chapter it even includes what Robert Alter translates as sojourners, people who aren’t Jews, people who aren’t of the Twelve Tribes. And it suggests to me that for thousands of years we’ve struggled with creating space and imagining how wide God’s blessing is. So we just have to keep trying.
DR: And that’s the model that we need to place in our imagination and let it… let it plant and grow there. What are the most beautiful places of refugia for you right now?
Jeff Chu: So it’s interesting you say places because at first my instinct is to think of it like a physical location.
DR: It could be. It could be. Or not.
Jeff Chu: It’s been a really hard few months for me. So some of your listeners may know Rachel Held Evans, who co-founded the Evolving Faith Conference and has written beautiful books about faith and doubt and her own spiritual journey, died at the beginning of May and she was very close friend of mine.
DR: She was a masterful creator of refugia for people.
Jeff Chu: And someone who is so open to imagining what it would be like to participate in God’s possibilities. And in the time since then, so much of the world has felt forbidding, because I think we really struggle in American society to know how to grieve, especially in any kind of public ways. So I think the most beautiful places of refugia for me over the last three months have been those places in which people who love me have met me where I am and just let me be. So that was in a friend’s living room, where I was sprawled on the couch and wordlessly, he reached into a chest and threw a blanket at me without me having to ask. It is in a bouquet of flowers that a couple of friends sent me, knowing about this season of grief and just wanting to bring a little bit of life and beauty into it.
It was in a rainstorm that we had here in Princeton last week and I dashed out onto our balcony and moved the orchid that we keep out on the balcony into the rain so that it could get some water. And I found a little bit of refugium in sitting with my husband and just listening to the thunder and looking at the lightning, hearing the rain pour down. So it’s nothing you can capture or build in a physical sense. That’s the beauty of it.
DR: Thank you for sharing that, Jeff. I’m so grateful for you and for what you shared today, and so grateful for your time talking to me today. Thank you.
Jeff Chu: Thank you.