Soil and the Spirit: Happy Easter from Farm Church

Here, worship service includes community service.

Soil and the Spirit: Happy Easter from Farm Church
Crabtree Farms, Clifton Hills, Tenn.

"I am passionate about the role that faith communities could play in our food system."

It was during COVID and St. Peter's Episcopal Church was worshipping outside. As Kelsey Aebi – St. Peter's lay minister – set up the altar, communion table and chairs, the warm sun fell on her shoulders and the birds sang from overhead trees and she realized:

I love this. I love worshipping outside.

COVID ended; Aebi's desire didn't.

She began volunteering at Crabtree Farms, our city's urban farm in Clifton Hills, every Thursday morning; she couldn't shake this question:

What would it look like to worship outdoors in a way that is really intentional? 

So, last fall, she created an answer.

It's called Farm Church.

One November afternoon, Farm Church – an outdoors worship service at Crabtree – met for the first time.

"It was fall and it was beautiful," she said. "We sat along the line of trees. We had a really simple wooden table for an altar. A musician played, the field was full of people in folding chairs, kids on blankets, families in the afternoon."

Farm Church 2023, Crabtree Farms, Tenn. (Contributed photo)

They read Scripture among the trees. Sang old hymns – Be Thou My Vision, Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing – as Cody Ray played the guitar, Aebi delivered the homily and and Rev. Drew Bunting presided over the liturgy.

"It is well with my soul," the crowd sang.

Then, after the formal service, well, another service continued. Everyone that came to worship also came to help, rallying together to somehow stretch the giant plastic shell over one of Crabtree's new greenhouses. It took 50 people.

"It kind of felt like an Amish barn raising," Aebi smiled.

Aebi's Farm Church merges theology with action; there is the receiving during the worship service and the doing during the community service.

"I am passionate about the role that faith communities could play in our food system," she said.

"We make distinct separation between the material world and spiritual world, but they are one and the same."

For Aebi, Farm Church also reconciles the split that often occurs in western religion between the outside world and the inside world. The 29-year-old enters a Master of Divinity program this fall at Sewanee: University of the South's School of Theology. She is an old soul, drawn to the invisible world, able to articulate its presence in our lives.

"I’ve always been interested in spirituality and the idea of something beyond," she said. "We make distinct separation between the material world and spiritual world, but they are one and the same. They are inseparable."

If you are drawn to both the spirit and the soil, perhaps Farm Church is for you.

Crabtree Farms, Clifton Hills, Tenn.

"We will be hosting a Spring Farm Church at Crabtree on April 14," she said. (It begins at 2pm.)

Ask her to describe Farm Church theology, and she comes alive, speaking in sentences that feel like a sermon written as poetry:

To feel the rhythm of the seasons. The breadth of what it can be ...

The leaves, the canopy of the trees, aspects of the liturgy, prayers honoring creation, prayers of the people ...

Witnessing and honoring and being outside and part of creation ...

We walk past last season's kale turning to seed, alongside newly tilled beds, near the tiny lettuce growing inside the greenhouse. All of it, buzzing with spring life.

Kale, Crabtree Farms, Clifton Hills, Tenn.

As we walk, Aebi, who grew up in Cleveland, Tenn., sees God.

Take the compost pile.

"The season of Lent often means repentance and forgiveness, measuring your own weaknesses and difficulties," she said. "But the compost metaphor? We can see repentance as composting. All these hard patterns, over time, we take these things and break them down into something new and nourishing."

Compost, Crabtree Farms, Clifton Hills, Tenn.

Aebi's drawn to the agrarian within the Gospels – "Jesus had a body," she reminds us – so when she's planting, digging around in the soil, bees humming nearby, she feels as much at home kneeling on the land as she does upright in a pew.

Take communion.

"The Eucharist is this really beautiful moment, symbolizing the divine entering the human, material space," she said. "The earthiness of it. We're all eating together."

Food as a Verb thanks the Chattanooga Food Bank, our sustaining partner, for its generous work in the community.

The Chattanooga Area Food Bank believes that no one should go hungry, and through our network of over 250 hunger-relief partners, we provide equitable access to food and resources to end hunger today and build pathways for a healthy, hunger-free future tomorrow.

Aebi's spiritual journey matured in her early 20s, when she began to experience her body as both informed by and infused with the Holy Spirit.

"I was really stepping into the mindfulness of my own body," she said. "And realizing how much spiritual depth is in our bodies. When we have this intention about our bodies, that brings us closer to God."

She paused. We all grew silent, receiving the spring-ness of the afternoon: bees landing on nearby flowers and plants, the warm sun, the growing green.

Crabtree Farms, Clifton Hills, Tenn.

Take prayer.

"That's what it looks like for humans to pray, but what does it look like for everything else in the world to pray?" she asked.

"Everything that is living has this will to live. Prayer is a part of that," she continued. "The flower is blossoming. The grass is so green and the sun feels good on my back. Prayer is having a moment of awareness of God's grace and mercy."

Aebi wants Chattanooga to know: Farm Church is for you. All of you. All of us.

"My hope for Farm Church is a really inclusive atmosphere," she said. "You are invited."

Bring your picnic blanket, folding chair, Bible and your work gloves.

"You’re worshiping with your body," she said, "and worshiping with your heart and soul."

Kelsey Aebi, Farm Church, Crabtree Farms, Clifton Hills, Tenn.

All photography by Sarah Unger (

All design by Alex DeHart

All words by David Cook (

Story ideas, questions, feedback? Interested in sponsorship or advertising opportunities? Email us: and

This story is 100% human generated; no AI chatbot was used in the creation of this content.

Dig in. (It's free)