The introduction to Life Around the Table starts with meeting Howard the goat. And a cranky rooster. And the small flock of quacking ducks that wander freely on this 12-acre spread on Thunder Mountain in North Carolina.


And, of course, Grace Hackney, a United Methodist pastor who has turned her home and gardens into a place of rest, retreat and learning about healthy, sustainable food and faithful eating.

Drawing on her experience with the nearby Anathoth Community Garden & Farm in Cedar Grove, North Carolina, more than 11 years serving rural churches, and her participation in the Clergy Health Initiative, Hackney has created the Life Around the Table project. Its mission is to invite, equip and encourage clergy, congregations and communities to eat together faithfully.

“I was convinced through my work at Cedar Grove that eating is a theological act and that the church didn’t do a very good job of how it ate or fed other people,” Hackney said. “What was lacking was this eucharistic imagination. If we are people of the table, then there should be this eucharistic imagination that opens that table up, and how we eat is going to matter.”

Funded by $572,000 in grants from The Duke Endowment, Hackney created a small-cohort program for UMC pastors in North Carolina called Sabbath Life that is now in its second year. In addition to monthly retreats, the program features weekly boxes of produce from the Anathoth garden.

In the second phase of the project, Hackney and her two part-time staffers are now writing a curriculum called Eating Together that will extend their work into congregations and their communities. It’s now a UMC program, but they hope to expand it to other denominations as well.

Faith & Leadership spoke with Hackney at her home to talk about faithful eating and how it can transform lives and communities. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: What do you mean by “eucharistic imagination”?

When we use the word “eucharist,” of course, that means thanksgiving. And so thinking about living our life in response to God’s goodness means that we’re living eucharistically.

Big-e Eucharist is, of course, the Eucharist, when we celebrate God’s acts in creation and in new creation through the gift of himself in Christ. When we fully start seeing that meal as a eucharistic activity, as this “great thanksgiving,” which the liturgy is called, it should make us start thinking differently about how we live our lives.

And basic to everything we do is eating.

When we begin to understand our lives as a gift, then we become eucharistic people. And when we become eucharistic people, we’ll start thinking, “How can I live every aspect of my life in a way that I can be grateful for at the end of the day, that this is a gift that God has given us?”

Instead of being people who grab and consume, we’ll become people who receive.

Q: What prompted you to embark on this project?

I was convinced through my work at [Anathoth Community Garden & Farm] that eating is a theological act and that the church didn’t do a very good job of how it ate or fed other people.

What was lacking was this eucharistic imagination. If we are people of the table, then there should be this eucharistic imagination that opens that table up, and how we eat is going to matter.

Because of being 11½ years in rural churches, I felt like I could understand the challenges but also the beauties -- that the rural church actually had something to offer urban churches, and that if urban pastors and rural church pastors spent more time together, they would be able to see those connections.

There was also just the need for clergy to have a safe place where they can practice Sabbath and live into this way of life that’s embodied, again, with this eucharistic imagination and how we eat together and how we share our lives together.

Q: I understand that you started with a survey of the 80-odd churches in your district. What did you ask?

Our question was, “How does the way the church eats reflect God? What does it say about God?”

We wanted to look at three things: how the churches eat just as a church body; how they invite other people to eat, whether it’s for fundraisers or open meals or things like mission-oriented programs; and then what were their eucharistic practices.

We asked the question, “Are there people in your community that are hungry?”

Q: What did you find?

We knew that most churches are situated in communities where there’s someone that’s hungry. But the pastors either said “no” or they said “I’m not sure,” so there was a disconnect in what the pastors actually knew about what was going on in their communities around food.

We also learned that 83 percent of the churches surveyed had communion only once a month or less and that clergy rarely preached about communion -- but that there was a hunger for knowing more.

The church potluck is not what it used to be. We learned that there was a lot of catering that happened or going out to eat in small groups and going to restaurants after worship.

The eating of the community was highly based on things like food pantries, so there was little relationship building with the people served through food giveaways, backpack ministries -- very few community dinners.

There were 13 community gardens in our district, of varying sizes, but most of those did not invite the community to come in and eat that food, which we thought seemed odd.

Q: How did you come to create the clergy part of your program, Sabbath Life?

In 2008, my husband and I went to North Manchester, Indiana, to visit a farmer named Jeff Hawkins who has a program called HOPE CSA, which stands for Hands-On Pastoral Education using Clergy-Sustaining Agriculture. Jeff had inherited his grandparents’ farm, and he was a clergyperson in North Manchester.

That was the basis for how we envisioned and imagined what Sabbath Life would look like.

Our mission is to invite, encourage and equip clergy, congregations and communities to eat together faithfully. And so we started with the clergy.

It tied in with where I was at the time. Also, we felt that we wanted to start providing clergy rest, because you can’t do prophetic work if you don’t have rest. And the whole concept around eating is really prophetic work. It’s behavioral-change work.

Q: How does Sabbath Life work?

Sabbath Life is invitational to clergy to spend one day apart a month. Part of Sabbath is reconnecting with our origins and with our creatureliness.

They come and work and learn in the garden with organic, regenerative agricultural methods. That’s from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. We believe that’s fundamental creation work. There are outcomes to that that we might not have imagined, just getting our hands in the dirt, pulling weeds, planting, sowing.

There are so many metaphors that come out of that that a pastor can relate to. We have pasture and pastor, which -- we have adama, which is the soil, and we have Adam. We have even humus and humility.

Something happens when you’re working with creation -- not against it and not for it but with it.

And then from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. is the table aspect of the day. Folks come in and get cleaned up a little, and someone has been preparing food, and folks make themselves at home here. This is their space when they’re here.

And then they help set the table, help do whatever needs to be done, and then we sit down together for worship. I lead worship with the pastors, and we share the peace with each other after we’ve confessed our sins, and then everybody comes to this table, which has already been set with our meal. We come to this table and share Eucharist, share thanksgiving around this table, which is extended to the food that’s been prepared that day.

So we have two full hours around the table. And then from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m., we have shared silence.

Folks have already been asked to not have any of their technology with them that day, which is a big ask of clergy. If they need someone to talk to or pray with, they can tap me or one of the staff on the shoulder and we can do that. We can go for a walk with them if they want. They’re free to read or draw. Someone yesterday brought a quilt they were working on.

Then at 3 p.m., we come back and process our day. And there’s something we’ve been reading together before we’ve come. The first year, we did Ellen Davis’ “Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture.” This year with that group, we’re doing “Making Peace with the Land.”

Q: What are the outcomes you’ve observed?

First of all, all of our first-year pastors wanted to remain, which says that they found something here. And when asked what it was that made them want to remain, we heard things like, “This is not something you do once and get over; it’s a part of our life.”

Others say, “What’s critical for me is practicing Sabbath in community. If I try to do it by myself, it never happens, but to practice Sabbath in community has just been a real gift.” We also have heard that pastors are changing how they eat.

I think the other outcome is that almost all the pastors in the first year said that their understanding of the connection between our daily tables and Christ’s table has become more clear.

Q: What is that connection? What does it mean to eat faithfully?

To eat together faithfully means that we embody a certain way of thinking about our food in which it’s not a consumer product, but it’s a gift. It’s a huge change.

How do you think about sharing food in a hospitable way, such that food is a gift that you’re going to be thankful for and not just a product you’re going to buy?

We’re talking about food as a journey from barrenness to fruitfulness. In the Scriptures, when God created the heavens and the earth, there was a void, so there was this kind of barrenness.

We see this tree of life, this abundant food that will feed the nations, and so we also see God as gardener in Genesis. We see Christ as the new creation, the first fruit of the new creation.

And so looking biblically at that, we started thinking, how do we describe food that is eaten and shared faithfully?

Q: You talk about “food that LAUGHS.” What does that mean?

It’s food that’s local, affordable, uncomplicated, good, healthy and seasonal. The acronym is food that LAUGHS.

We use the story of Abraham and Sarah and the story of the three visitors who come and are shown hospitality in how Abraham and Sarah prepare the food for them. We remember the story about Sarah laughing when they say she’s going to have a baby.

But the part that we forget sometimes is that after Isaac is born, she laughs again. This time it’s not a laugh of skepticism, but it’s a laugh of delight. And not only does she laugh, but the whole community laughs with her, because something they thought had been impossible happened, and nothing is too wonderful for the Lord, which is the phrase that was used [after she first laughed].

And so we’re taking that and applying it to hunger and how we eat. What would it mean if everyone had access to food that LAUGHS, that is delightful. God, after the creation, delighted in what he had made. He said it was very good, tov, which is not really “good”; it’s more like he really delighted in it.

Q: So you want to influence more than eating habits?

Absolutely -- but eating’s central. It influences everything.

Because it’s all based on God’s love for us and the way that God provides these gifts for us, and ultimately gave himself, the gift of Christ, and we can accept that gift or not.

Or we can even accept that gift not fully understanding it, which I think a lot of us do. It’s not just that Jesus died for our sins so that we can be forgiven, though that’s extremely important, but that Jesus also is inaugurating this new creation of which we’re a part, and we don’t have to wait until we die to be part of that. We can be part of it now.

We all know what happens when you sit down with somebody to eat. All of a sudden, we know each other in a different way, and I think if the church could start living into this eucharistic way of eating, that we just might be healthier. And I say “health” in a broad way -- we may reach some shalom among ourselves.

Q: How can clergy take that to their congregations and communities?

We’ve been thinking about and developing this curriculum, called Eating Together, that is the second part of Life Around the Table.

This past spring -- so a year after we started -- we piloted that program with four of the churches with clergy that were in our cohort. We tested some of our ideas with eight weeks of a class that we did with them and their laypeople and anybody in the community that might like to come.

We’ve taken each of those letters of the LAUGH acronym and looked at it theologically and biblically. One of the purposes of our curriculum is to build community around faithful eating practices, but a second is to learn to read Scripture imaginatively, and then, third, to develop a eucharistic imagination.

So for “local,” for example, we talk about “God is with us” and we talk about the incarnation -- God is here, God is now in this place, not some far-off kind of God -- but we also talk about what it means to have local food.

What does your community look like? Where’s your water source? Who are people in your community that grow food? What are your closest places to go eat, and what kind of food do they produce?

When we piloted it, we had four churches. The first night, we met in the food pantry in that community. One night we met at the local butchery, and we met the butcher. We met at a farm. So the facilitator of the curriculum helps contextualize the class, and then the group is built in the process of this community endeavor.

The way we envision the curriculum working is that we will train facilitators who want to take this into their communities. Folks would then purchase their part of the curriculum. It’s kind of like Disciple Bible Studies.

I’m hoping that the interest would be enough that people would be willing to pay for their materials; the cost would be minimal. By the end of the three years, we hope that it can help sustain the Sabbath Life portion of what we’re doing.