Agriculture: A Universal God-Focused Vocation
By Stephen Shelt
As a young boy, I remember wanting to be like the apostle Paul. Not because of my great devotion, but because Paul weathered shipwrecks, beatings, snakebites, and countless escapes from death at the hands of his many detractors, all while traveling the known world. I craved adventure.
I grew up in Jackson, homeschooled by my mom, attending Pear Orchard Presbyterian Church, and frequenting the Belhaven campus where my dad is still a professor. My longing for adventure led me to pursue the military. I applied to West Point, convinced working my way into the Army’s elite would provide me with the mental and physical challenge I wanted, and give me discipline I needed to achieve my ideals and escape a deep sense of inadequacy.
I recall vividly hearing the message on the answering machine. I had been nominated to attend West Point. I was one of the select six thousand who would compete for twelve hundred coveted places in a West Point class.
I never responded to that message. I didn’t understand why at the time. It had seemed like everything I wanted for my life. Yet God was already at work, pulling me in a different direction.
In 2006, as a sophomore at Belhaven, I attended a mission’s conference. With 22,000 people from 144 countries worshipping together, I gained a spectacular vision of some from every tribe, tongue, and nation gathered before the throne, praising God. My heart had been captured for missions.
Two years later, I spent three months in Uganda with Africa Inland Mission, and God continued the arduous process of attacking my pride and my desire for self-sufficiency. In a foreign culture, so many of the traits I prized in myself failed to translate, and I was again a child, learning the basics of how to live and communicate in a utterly different world. God was humbling me, teaching me to delight in seeing his strength made perfect in my weakness.
Uganda took hold of me, and even during those first three months, I was certain God would lead me back, and indeed he did, giving me all the adventure I could wish for and more. The door was opened, and in 2010, I returned to Mbarara, Uganda, to fill the unexpected role of “Agricultural Discipler.” With little previous experience and less than two months of training, I sought to communicate a vision of Kingdom stewardship through agriculture, rooted in Genesis 1, in which farmers could see themselves as caretakers of God’s world, understanding his design in nature and applying it to agriculture. Our goal was to provide the skills and understanding to help Ugandans emerge from poverty, but we had to begin by showing from God’s word the dignity of the creation mandate—the command to work and tend the garden while subduing and filling the whole earth.
For two years I lived and worked in Uganda, teaching, learning, struggling, and gradually coming to depend on God in a world where the unexpected was the norm and things rarely worked out as planned. Those years gave me a passion for God’s glory revealed in creation. I came to understand that we can either suppress or conceal creation’s message by abuse and mistreatment, or we can beautify it, pointing to God’s greatness while providing for His people.
In the long run, I hope to return overseas to share the gospel through a platform of sustainable, stewarding agriculture. At the present, I’m pursuing God’s call through a small business I’ve begun called Garden to Table. I plan and plant organic home vegetable gardens for people interested in the security of knowing where their food comes from and how it’s grown. I see this as an opportunity to engage in dialogue about how we can show the care for the creation God has entrusted us with, even in an urban context.
There is real change that must take place in how we relate to food in this country. In 1945, 50 percent of all vegetables consumed in the US were grown in a home garden. Today, food travels on average 1,800 miles to reach a dinner plate. Food is cheap, but it comes at the cost of freshness, nutrition, and harm to the environment. Christians must be at the forefront of questioning and transforming how we grow and consume food. Our bodies bear God’s image, and what we put into them must be guided by our Biblical theology.
The work that I do is physically and mentally demanding, but I do it with joy, knowing that this is what I was created to do. I daily get to see God’s character on display in his creation, and do what I can to make it even more visible to others.
Stephen Shelt is an avid gardener and aspiring farmer living in Jackson. Feel free to contact him for more information about Garden to Table at firstname.lastname@example.org or call at 601.937.0342.