In this episode, Malcolm and Peter interview Robert and Erin Lockridge. They are self-described “parish farmers” and the founders of Moriah Pie, a pay-as-you-can restaurant in Norwood, OH. (During the episode, they mentioned The Moriah Pie Cookbook; you can find it here.)
As parish farmers, Robert and Erin maintain a network of vegetable gardens in Norwood. They grow food to share with their neighbors and consider their work to be a form of prayer. While they are both Orthodox Christians, their work is not a formal church ministry as such. Rather, it is a personal way of inviting others into a Christ-like attitude.
Too often, we tend to confine our religion to what happens in church, or to a personal relationship with God; the rest of life gets left out. In this way, we can become “Gnostic” without realizing it. Gnosticism was an early heresy that denied the goodness of the physical world. Instead, Gnostics focused on an intellectual pursuit of truth and on attaining a purely spiritual salvation through acquiring secret knowledge.
Robert experienced this disconnect while he was studying theology in Vancouver. He had done a lot of gardening while growing up. As his Faith life deepened, however, he begin to feel that the physical world and material concerns were irrelevant to the important mission of saving souls.
Yet his theological studies didn’t seem relevant to the lives of people in his rough neighborhood. He felt that he needed a way to integrate all the sorrow that he felt and that he needed a way to pray with his body. In this spirit, he began gardening again. He found the process of tending the soil, planting seeds, and receiving the gifts of God through the bounty of nature to be deeply healing and nourishing.
He also found that his gardens allowed him to exercise a pastoral ministry that didn’t require being stuck in an office. He was able to work outside, tending the land, and receiving gifts from God through the people that he met.
In part through reflecting on this experience, Robert came to realize how limited his earlier perspective had been. As he studied theology, he came to realize that every aspect of the Faith is based on the Incarnation of Christ. In Jesus Christ, God came in the flesh. By doing so, he consecrated the material world.
As man, God became fully dependent on this created world to reveal who he is, and to reveal what it is to be fully human and made in the image of God. We’re called to love God with everything we have, and that includes the body.
In one sense, the world was created for us. But in another sense, we were created for the world. God placed us here to tend and care for it so that it might flourish. We were made in the image and likeness of God, and so we are supposed to initiate his act of creation.
This is raised to a new level in Christ. At the very heart of the Gospel is the giving of life so that life might exist and flourish. As those made in the image of God, we get to participate in this self-giving love. In the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, we see the true image of God that we are called to imitate.
The way of the world is that either life is taken so that life might exist, or life is given so that life might exist. The temptation is to take life to protect our own. But as Christians, we are learning to be free of the fear of death so that we can imitate Christ in laying down our lives for the life of the world. We’re called to serve, rather than to strive for domination.
Peter noted that we experience the undying eternal reality through the physical reality. This is the meaning of the sacraments, and in one sense all of the created world is sacramental.
In this way, tending the earth is a good metaphor for the cultivation of our souls. And this interior cultivation becomes a reality through our interaction with the physical reality. We can’t cultivate our souls through thought processes alone, or in isolation. To do so we need community and the physical reality.
A beautiful story that Erin told exemplifies this sacramental understanding. She explained that by washing her children’s feet, she was able to learn how to initiate Jesus—and Jesus washed his disciples’ feet to show us the reality of God’s love.
Feeding Hungry Bodies and Souls
Part of imitating Jesus is feeding the hungry. Even if we can’t do it in the same miraculous way that he did, we can do so by giving our time and resources and participating in the everyday miracle of creation.
While Erin and Robert were on their honeymoon, they were inspired by a waitress in Maine. She seemed to know all the patrons at her cafe and was able to exercise an almost pastoral ministry toward them. They were going to be living over a vacant space that had once been a coffee shop. And so, sitting in that cafe in Maine, they begin to envision what would eventually become Moriah Pie.
The year before, they had run a pay-as-you-can CSA in the neighborhood. Neighbors could buy shares of vegetables from their garden, but there was no set price. In fact, Robert and Erin committed to remaining blind to what people were or were not paying. It was a good project, but it didn’t make as much sense as it could have made to the people of the neighborhood. Many of them weren’t used to using various types of fresh produce, or didn’t want to cook with it; it didn’t fit into the patterns of life in that particular place.
And so Robert and Erin envisioned a pizza restaurant that would allow them to transform their garden produce into something more meaningful. They decided to open it only one evening a week so that they could spend the rest of their time growing the food. And like the CSA, it would be run on a pay-as-you-can basis. It would look just like a regular restaurant, but at the end of the meal, customers would receive an envelope instead of a bill. They could put whatever they wanted into it, and then the envelope would be dumped without anyone looking to see how much any particular customer had paid.
They chose the name Moriah Pie because they wanted to reference the place in Scripture where Abraham names God as the God who provides. Moriah Pie was an invitation to trust in the providence of God.
Robert said that in the modern world we tend to live as practical atheists. We live in a culture and economy that is deeply disconnected from all the relationships on which it depends. We are far removed from all the people and creatures and the land that goes into our provisioning. This disconnection produces a deep form of poverty that leaves us vulnerable to practical atheism.
Moriah Pie allowed those involved to directly experience God’s providing care. Such experiences can produce a truly Eucharistic perspective in which gratitude becomes the foundation of life and every action becomes a way of communing with God.
We are called to work for God, so we shouldn’t worry so much about protecting ourselves. We have to have trust in God, and therefore be willing to go out on a limb. It is important to recognize our needs, but also to be able to receive, both from God and from others. We have to resist the American ethos that says “I can do this all on my own”.
Moriah Pie invited this kind of mutual dependence on one another; many different people gave generously of themselves to make the project a reality.
Erin and Robert explained that while their piazza was not “expensive”, it wasn’t “free”. Some people started to see Moriah Pie as a place to get “free pizza”—but nothing is free in this world. And seeing something as “free” can actually cheapen it.
Certainly, somebody could eat the pizza and walk away without paying anything. This was the expected outcome of a pay-as-you-can restaurant; the food was not priced. It was not expensive, because some people can’t afford expensive food.
At the same time, the pizza was not “free”. As a matter of fact, it was very “costly”, perhaps more so than pizza that could be bought elsewhere. “Cost” is at the center of everything that is valuable; our Faith is a very costly gift. All food comes with a cost, a cost to the bodies and lives of those who grow it, a cost to the community, and even a cost to the soil.
Robert and Erin were OK with the fact that people sometimes walked away without paying anything, but they did ask all the guests to consider the cost, to think about all the effort of growing and cooking the food and running the restaurant. And they asked those who ate at the restaurant to consider giving back in some way, whether through volunteering or in some other way.
Some of the most meaningful gifts were very small. For instance, a homeless man drew a picture for them and left it along with a few pennies. As Erin said, if all that you can offer is three pennies, that might be costly for you!
Bearing the Burdens
Our economic system is premised on hidden, externalized costs. These costs are borne by underpaid workers, and by damaged ecosystems and communities far away. When we buy cheap goods, we don’t see the real cost and its effect on others.
Rather than shunting costs onto other people, we should try to bear the costs ourselves. We should try to keep the costs close to home, where we can attend to them. Robert explained that they’ve chosen ways of life that involve more vulnerability, less control, fewer material goods, and more work; in all these ways, they are trying to avoid displacing the cost onto others, but instead learn to bear the cost well themselves.
By keeping the cost local, we can all become more like Christ. By bearing the costs with one another as a community, the culture of a place can change. St. Paul tells us to bear burdens for one another so that the weak are not crushed by them.
Inefficient for What?
Robert and Erin worked primarily with hand tools. In a world where so many people don’t know how to pray with their bodies, a world that lacks “good work”, using less technology is a sort of witness. To become skilled with one’s hands is something deeply empowering.
Of course, working by hand is seen as inefficient. But we always have to ask: inefficient for what? When Peter Land visited Moriah Pie, he helped to shell black walnuts by hand. It was a rather inefficient process; after hours of work, he only had a small pile of shelled nuts. Yet during that time, he and the other workers enjoyed great conversations and time with one another. A method of work that is inefficient at producing a large volume of food quickly might be the most efficient way to cultivate human relationships. Shared work and food are essential to community life; our modern fragmentation of life is partly a result of an “efficient” economy that values quantity above everything else.
Moriah Pie did not solve all the problems of the world, or even of the neighborhood. Yet it helped those involved to “rest in God”. This is the core task of the Christian life. We have to learn to die so that we might live. We have to learn to trust and rest in Christ, like the Apostle John at the Last Supper. In building community, we have to be careful to be so wrapped up in achieving something that we missed the value of the present moment and what God is offering us.
More about Robert and Erin:
After the closure of Moriah Pie, the Lockridges are now running a breakfast cafe on the same pay-as-you-can model while continuing their work as parish farmers. To support their work, consider purchasing their Moriah Pie Cookbook, which can be found here. It tells the story of Moriah Pie through beautiful illustrations, photos, and reflections, and contains a collection of unique recipes.
Cover image courtesy of Erin Tuttle Lockridge