Ministry for the Bees (and us)

by Ashley Goff

By June of 2011, forty-thousand honeybees called Church of the Pilgrims’ (PCUSA) urban garden home, pollinating our urban garden and the 1,700 acres of our neighboring forest oasis Rock Creek Park. It was in February of 2011 that one of our members, Erin Littlestar, a sustainable agriculture advocate, suggested honeybee hives at Pilgrims to enhance and deepen our commitment to a Christian faith which honors the Earth.

Why bees? Won’t they sting, swarm, and create general havoc in Pilgrims’ backyard? Just the opposite. Our buzzing, fat, furry companions keep to themselves as they are busy gathering nectar and building up their hives by creating beeswax, honey, and honeycomb. Pilgrims Elder for Outreach, Matt Webster, shares that “bees are a way Pilgrims invests in the local ecosystem of D.C. Pollinating our garden, Rock Creek, and the urban gardens of Dupont Circle and Georgetown is another way Pilgrims can give back.”

To create our apiary, Pilgrims partnered with DC Honeybees, a local non-profit which is dedicated to the propagation and health of local urban honeybee colonies. DC Honeybees believes that with the density and floral diversity in an urban area like D.C., natural, urban beekeeping can re-populate honeybees lost to colony collapse disorder, and pollinate urban greenery and gardens.

Situated in our urban garden on the church grounds, the honeybees in our three hives let our garden flourish, providing a healthy yield of tomatoes, eggplants, and cucumbers for Open Table, our Sunday community lunch for the homeless and hungry. When we blessed our honeybee hives on Palm Sunday, we proclaimed that John the Baptist, the one who baptized followers of The Way and Jesus, the one covered with honey, the food his ancestors ate to symbolize God’s liberation and presence, reminds us that in our baptism we are to make way for the One who will come. In our baptism, we are responsible for the creation of space for those our culture would rather do without. With our hive, our garden, with Open Table, we create a Way for healing and justice to be present with more to come.

Not everyone at Pilgrims was on board with the idea of honeybees. Elder Michael Oswalt remembers “not everyone thought that colonizing the church’s back garden with stinging insects made theological or even practical sense. But everyone saw that a portion of the congregation sees it as a new and exciting way to feel God’s presence and message. The hives show how Pilgrims is stretching itself to make sure that members experience Christian community outside of their usual comfort zones. And that’s what’s important.”

By this fall, our honeybees felt like part of the community. So much so, we wanted them to be part of the sacrament of baptism in September. The lectionary texts of Ordinary Time walked us through stories of Genesis and Exodus, providing us with a theological context for the use of honey. In the ancient church, the first meal the newly baptized received was a taste of milk and honey. We incorporated both elements into our baptism liturgy as we dabbed the mouth of 9-month-old Isla McCarthy Ryan with milk and DC Honeybee honey and blessed her with these words: with the living waters, Isla, may the justice and mercy of God flow from you like the sweetness of milk and honey.

Like baptism, our beehives are a strong statement of community; building our church community, through shared work in the garden where we work alongside the bees, and the broader planetary community. Our hives are a powerful and tangible way that we at Pilgrims are connected to the earth, to nature and to the place we live and the living beings we live among. As Erin remarked once about our hives, “a honeybee hive is an incredible metaphor for the Church. We both create something so luminous, so sweet, so nourishing that the outside world can hardly deny its appeal. Our bees create honey. Our job as Church is to create love.”

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