URBANA — Outreach activities at St. Matthew Lutheran Church: bible study, youth ministry, visits to the sick.
And now, farming.
In partnership with a nonprofit, the church has formed a limited liability company, hired a farm manager, and soon will be tilling the earth behind the church and growing peas, collard greens, tomatoes and more produce for the hungry of East Central Illinois.
Sola Gratia — Latin for "by grace alone," the belief that God's grace alone can provide salvation — is the very newly established CSA, or Community Supported Agriculture, farm in southeast Urbana. Members are selling shares of the CSA and will dedicate at least 10 percent of its weekly produce for the Eastern Illinois Food Bank.
In recent years, the church has farmed several nearby acres conventionally, planting and harvesting corn and soybeans. Profits from the endeavor went to the Foods Resource Bank, a nonprofit organization that helps farmers in developing countries conserve soil and water while growing and marketing crops.
"The mission has not changed. We are helping people, but those we serve are a little closer to home. This is our ministry — loving our neighbors," said the Rev. Bob Rasmus, St. Matthew's senior pastor.
Well over a year ago, Rasmus was approached by Brian Sauder, an outreach and policy coordinator for Faith in Place, with the idea of establishing a CSA that benefitted the local hungry.
Faith In Place, based in Chicago with an office in Urbana, works with Christians, Muslims, Jews and people from other faiths on how they can be better stewards of the Earth, Sauder said. Projects have included working with the communities on saving energy, establishing rain gardens or community gardens and advocacy work in Springfield.
"This is first time we have had a CSA as a project. It's a wonderful partnership," Sauder said.
Added Rasmus: "Faith In Place's mission and our mission converged. We are partners in our community on working to help relieve hunger. It seemed like a fit."
The mission? "By grace alone may we share our gifts with the hungry, may we be good stewards of the Earth, may we build a community of cooperation and care."
The group hired Dex Conaway, an Indianapolis-area farmer who has been involved in organic agriculture since 1999. He moved here to be part of the project.
"I saw it as a great opportunity to start it up and see it through," Conaway said. "We really believe in this project."
The 4 acres of land behind the church on South Philo Road will be converted over three years to organic. Right now Conaway is working on installing the irrigation system and ordering equipment like a walking tractor. Because the farm is within city limits, he's also working on obtaining a building permit for a greenhouse. He aims to start planting seeds on March 21.
The organization is selling 50 full shares and 25 half-shares at $500 and $300 a year. A full share is expected to feed about three to four people and a half share is for one to two people.
Some people have purchased shares specifically for the sake of the food banks, Rasmus said. Some also have bought a full share, with the intention of giving half to the food bank.
"We are excited about it," said Jim Hires, executive director of the Eastern Illinois Foodbank.
The food bank has partnered with CSAs in the past when the groups have excess produce, but as far as he knows this will be a first, he said, when shares will be set aside specifically for the food bank. During the growing season, the organization often receives excess produce from farmers' markets and it encourages local gardeners to plant a row for the hungry. Provena Covenant Medical Center also donates produce to the food bank through its garden.
"For the first year, I want to grow main staples that people buy at the grocery store. ... So if they're new to a CSA it will make for a smooth transition," Conaway said.
This year he plans to plant a variety of root vegetables, summer squash, kale, collards, potatoes, red peppers, lettuces and more.
In addition to himself, the farm will be run by a paid intern during the growing season, plus volunteers.
The church plans to have field days for people to help. And there may be workshops or informational sessions about how to cook or grow certain foods, Rasmus said.
This story appeared in print on March 11.