The theme for this year's annual World Food Day (Oct. 16) of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations was centered on "Family Farming: Feeding the World, Caring for the Earth."
You could say that for Ursuline Sr. Christine Pratt, those twin goals have applied every day for the past 40 years.
"Food is a pro-life issue because food is about keeping people alive" are continuous words for Pratt. She first uttered them back in 1986 while working to convince the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (now the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops) to include a section on food and agriculture in their pastoral letter on the economy. Because of her campaigning in conjunction with other members of the National Catholic Rural Life Conference (now Catholic Rural Life), the bishops did just that.
Since the mid-1980s, Pratt has served as a leader in the Catholic Rural Life movement, both nationally and locally. At age 70, slowing down is not on her "to do" list — it is still full speed ahead.
On Oct. 23, Pratt, who has served as communications director for her Ursuline community in Brown County, Ohio, for the past three years, joined local farmers and social justice advocates in a Walk of Mercy for the local land and its people in and around the St. Martin, Ohio, motherhouse, located about 40 miles east of Cincinnati.
The walk, which she helped organize, wound its way through the Ursuline's 88-acre farmland and the pioneer cemetery that preceded the sisters' arrival in 1845. The stretch through the farmland in particular symbolizes mercy for the land in every sense of the word.
In 2010, the Ursuline community, with the help of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency grants, placed the farmland in a conservation easement, a legal agreement that swaps development rights in lieu of conservation. In 2015, the community completed the restoration of Solomon Run, a subtributary of the Little Miami River, from a nonfunctioning, low-head dam to its original state as a stream and wetland. That April, the sisters dedicated the site by planting a weeping willow, and have since begun filling the stream bank with native trees and shrubs. Wildlife has taken note.
"We have tons of snakes that are adapting," Pratt told NCR in a phone interview.
'A love for the land'
Although born and raised in the city of Cincinnati, she said, "I've always had a love for the land and for nature." That love has shaped her ministry.
Pratt's work with Catholic Rural Life led her to a position on a bishops' conference task force on food, hunger and land issues. She holds a master's degree from Ohio State University in rural sociology with a concentration on community development, and has served as a nontraditional partner for Ohio State's vice president's committee on development of the school's College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences.
Recently, she discussed her work in Earth care on a panel at the Ohio Interfaith Power and Light's annual Earthkeeping Summit in Columbus.
For Pratt, much of her more than 30 years in the field has been spent working with farmers in the Toledo diocese as a rural life director. That had her educating local parishes about Catholic social teaching and how it relates to the land, food and people, as well as organizing rural life Masses and working on behalf of farmers and rural issues. Her work functions as bringing about "a community of care," she said.
"Farmers and those who care about the land became my partners in all we did. Their honesty, openness, willingness to share their burdens and their joys in their lives help keep my ministry real," Pratt said.
She has brought together large-scale and small-scale operators and traditional and organic growers around the table, where they share common values, listen to differences and together find ways to minister to each other and serve as "best we could the common good."
Pratt remembers the late 1980s, when a severe drought hit Ohio. She organized two liturgies, at opposite ends of the county, for those who had lost their crops. They came together not to pray for rain, but simply to "gather together in their need."
At one meeting, held among farmers and agricultural economists at Ohio State during the drought, a speaker told the audience they had reason to rejoice because the crop situation in Ohio was better than it was in Brazil. The farmers responded by saying there was no room for happiness when their brothers in Brazil were in worse shape than they were.
Connecting farm to city
In working with farmers, Pratt has not forgotten about the city. In 1996, she helped start a community garden program in Toledo for low-income residents: Toledo GROWS (Gardens Revitalize Our World), which began with six plots and has since expanded to include 140 gardens, an urban education center and other urban agriculture programs.
The garden project also blooms with human-interest stories.
She remembers the time when an elderly man who had been a Southern sharecropper in his early life before moving to the city expressed skepticism about the new neighborhood garden at Cherry Street Mission. "Why would we want to do that? Tomatoes are no darned good unless they're wrapped in cellophane," he said.
"His attitude just broke my heart," Pratt recalled.
But at another garden for children, outfitted with a teepee, hay bale and butterfly garden, there was a happier response. When the mayor of Toledo paid a visit, an 8-year-old girl told him, "Mr. Mayor, the garden is the only place where I feel safe."
Occasionally, Pratt gives presentations at local schools around the Cincinnati area, combining whimsy with social awareness. She has held pizza parties where, before kids eat the real thing, they make paper versions, discussing where the chili peppers and tomatoes come from, as well as the role of farmworkers and immigrants in the process, and the carbon footprint associated with delivering the finished pizza to their tables.
As Pratt continues her work as a rural life director for St. Martin Deanery of the Cincinnati archdiocese, she would like to see more people "develop an attitude of attentiveness and gratitude" toward the environment, and work toward public policies protecting it for current and future generations.
"We take our food and water for granted — those of us who have easy access to it. Most of us are not even aware of the many who are not eating so that we may be provided food from far away for our appetites at the expense of theirs," Pratt said.
[Sharon Abercrombie is a frequent contributor to Eco Catholic.]
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