Faithful Have New Food for Thought

By G. Jeffrey Macdonald
Religion News Service
Saturday, September 6, 2008

When Marilyn Lorenz of Alma, Mich., talks about living out her Catholic faith in daily life, she starts by describing what's in her refrigerator.

The produce is grown on nearby farms, and the milk is organic and hormone-free. Meat comes from a local farmer who lets his animals graze freely and doesn't use antibiotics.

"Packing animals in factory farms, I think, is against God's wishes," says Lorenz, who changed her shopping and eating habits after a speaker at her parish broached the issues last year. "It isn't something my faith could ever support."

In bringing faith to bear anew on diet, Lorenz is among a growing movement of believers from various traditions who are exploring how to better reflect their moral values in the ways they eat. A few examples:

· In Pennsylvania, the Laurelville Mennonite Church Center's annual conference on sustainable farming was just for farmers when it started five years ago but this year attracted non-farmers from more than 40 Mennonite congregations in five states.

· Three congregations in Clemson, S.C., teamed up for the first time this summer to host dinners featuring local foods, host workshops on eco-friendly eating and launch "Upstate Locavores," a regional group to promote local food sourcing.

· Methodists in North Carolina, Congregationalists in Massachusetts and Catholics in Michigan have in the past year started organic gardens on church property in part to encourage consumption of foods grown without pesticides or chemically based fertilizers.

· In June, Conservative Jewish lay leaders and rabbis proposed guidelines for ensuring high ethical standards in kosher food production under a new label, the "Hekhsher Tzedek."

Thinking of diet in religious terms is, of course, hardly new. Jews and Muslims have long followed kosher and halal codes, respectively, in order to maintain purity. Although Christians generally haven't required year-round dietary codes, fasting and abstaining have traditionally been important in certain seasons, such as Lent.

For many congregations, today's initiatives are tackling new terrain. The faithful discuss how God might want them to eat in light of new research on health, working conditions in food supply chains and environmental crises.

In the process, they're learning new ways to model the values they profess -- and to tread lightly when seeking converts.

Consider, for instance, the challenge facing James Patterson, pastor of Institute Church of the Nazarene in Institute, W.Va., who now believes that he's accountable to God for both the spiritual and physical health of his predominantly African American congregation, where one in four parishioners suffers from either diabetes or high blood pressure.

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