Sowing Seeds & Relationships

Fr. Larry Barnett
February 21, 2008

Tabitha Bark’s organic garden in Taiwan expresses an aboriginal people’s relationship with God’s creation.

For nearly 10 years, Tabitha Bark was a Columban lay missionary in Taiwan, ministering to migrant workers in Chungli City. But her passion has always been food safety and organic farming, part of her wider involvement and interest in ecological issues.

Growing organic. Columban lay missionary Tabitha Bark, who has worked in Taiwan for 10 years, is shown in her garden with parishioners at the DaGuan village church in the TaiAnHePing parish.

Growing organic. Columban lay missionary Tabitha Bark, who has worked in Taiwan for 10 years, is shown in her garden with parishioners at the DaGuan village church in the TaiAnHePing parish.

That’s why she moved to the Columbans’ ministry among the Atayal aboriginal people in the mountains of central Taiwan. Tabitha works among the Atayals in DaGuan, a village of about 50 families that is perched on the edge of the DaAn River.

Not long after her arrival, Tabitha turned the ground in front of DaGuan’s tiny church into an organic vegetable garden, in which she grows chili, green peppers, spinach, lettuce, basil, onions and other green-leaf vegetables. Tabitha says the garden is an important statement about how we, as Christians, hope to live on Earth and is a valuable way to become part of the lives of the people she serves.

After working in Chungli City, Tabitha, who is from South Korea, realized she wanted to live in a place closer to nature. Moving to the mountains among aboriginal people was a logical step. The Atayals depend upon nature for their livelihood by growing vegetables, fruit trees (persimmons, plums, peaches and oranges) and harvesting bamboo shoots.

It is difficult work with often uncertain financial rewards.

For more than 1,000 years, the Atayals have acquired wisdom on how to live together with nature. Tabitha wanted to learn that wisdom.

Tabitha’s organic garden is a visible and practical expression of that mystery. Simply living in the mountains—with its scenic beauty, cleaner air, peace and quiet—is not enough for Tabitha. Growing vegetables brings her closer to nature and the local people. Nourishing and caring for the vegetables is a step toward closer communication with the natural world and educating herself and others about the value of safe food and humans’ relationship to nature.

Better Food & Paying Jobs
To compete with imported food and products from the Taiwan lowlands, the Atayal people have become accustomed to using pesticides and growth hormones to grow vegetables and fruits. Tabitha said her vegetable garden is not so much about organics, but rather about the safety of our food and the unnatural effects pesticides have on food and soil. As soil slowly grows sick with the addition of unnatural additives, we humans, too, slowly get sick.

The message is especially relevant to a small group of Catholic women in the village. They operate a local restaurant that offers aboriginal cuisine to tourists and visitors to the area. The restaurant creates paying jobs for local people, using local products and supporting local cultural crafts, such as weaving.

From the beginning, the restaurant was eco-friendly and raised all its own vegetables in nearby gardens. These gardens are not organic, but the ladies are aware of environmental issues and actively experiment with local remedies for pest control. For example, they spray cabbages regularly with a water/chili mix to prevent caterpillar damage.

Tabitha is clear about the connection between her garden and her ministry as a Columban lay missionary. Humans and nature are both from God, and our lives are interrelated with God and creation. God gave us consciousness, Tabitha says, to recognize who we are, where we are from, why we are on Earth and what we have to fulfill.

Our sin is that we do not live up to this calling. Jesus came to recover and reconcile our relationship with God. Through the cross and resurrection, Jesus offered His life for all creation, so we have the Christian obligation to understand the full dimensions of our new relationship with God and the natural world.

Tabitha sees this obligation in personal terms: “Our journey to understand our relationship to creation in Christ is also a journey to understand more clearly who I am. As a lay missionary, I am committed to that journey.”

Tabitha is also clear that her presence in DaGuan bears witness to the truth that, through our baptism, we are all missionaries. She wants local people to know and live out this truth. Tabitha was baptized as an adult, and her reflection on her baptism has led her to see that our relationship to nature is part of our common call to be disciples.

An organic vegetable garden in DaGuan is an important sign of how we can live in the world through new life in Jesus Christ. Having fresh, healthful vegetables for dinner is reason enough to give daily thanks for God’s grace. They also taste better!

Columban Father Larry Barnett has been a missionary in Taiwan since 1982. He holds a doctorate degree in anthropology.