What happened when we changed the rules

Disenchanted with their consumer lives, Pastor Craig Goodwin and his family agreed to a year-long experiment to only consume what was local, used, homegrown or homemade. It was the start of an adventure in living

Far from being counter-cultural revolutionaries or occupy-Wall-Street activists, we considered ourselves to be a fairly average family living in the suburbs of the Pacific Northwest in Washington State. We had all the major credentials of this status in the crevices of our mini van: petrified french fries from McDonalds, misplaced receipts from Costco, and wrinkled schedules of the kids’ football practices and games. Nancy and I were also Presbyterian pastors who had a growing discomfort with the disconnect between our faith and all the stuff we were buying.

Our discontent came to a head on December 27, 2007. We had one last present to buy – a birthday gift for a niece – and settled on a pink manicure set the size of a deck of cards but packaged in a square yard of cardboard and plastic. After the purchase, I protested that it was a worthless piece of junk and Nancy defensively pointed out that I was the one who insisted that we buy it and move on. This marital dispute grew into a grand conversation about the state of our consumer lives. Nancy turned our heated conversation in a positive direction when she asked a simple and subversive question: “What could we do differently?”

We brainstormed about more redemptive consumer practices and landed on four hopeful new directions: local (which we decided would be a roughly 100-mile radius around our home), used, homegrown, and homemade. At some point in the conversation I wondered aloud, “What if we tried to follow these rules for a whole year in 2008?” Looking back, I can see that this was an outlandish proposal. We would have only three days to prepare. We didn’t even know if we could find toilet paper under this set of rules. But, in a moment of grace and whimsy, we decided to give it a try.

That night, we wrote up a purpose statement for our experiment explaining our rules: “We want to step back from the massive consuming passions around us that lead us to want the new and the next thing. We find that too often we are led to believe that our hope and joy can be found in these items. We want to minimise our contribution to the cultural assumption that all things are disposable, and that once they have lost the shine of newness they have outlived their usefulness. We want to value things in ways other than dollars. To form a new economy of consumable goods in our lives anchored in caring relationships with people we know. We want to integrate our lives and find more joy in the everyday. We want to better shape and raise our children as children of the Kingdom of God.”

Those first weeks of 2008 were a rollercoaster of surprises and discoveries. We rejoiced when we found a source of toilet paper from a local paper mill and we grieved when we found out that it would be a year without sugar, chocolate, and store-bought ice cream. We were aghast when we learned that the local cheddar cheese factory shipped most of their product thousands of miles away and that the local dairy and flour mill filled up differently labelled containers with the same exact product.

The most eye-opening experience during that first month was visiting a local farmer for some winter squash. During our visit he lamented that most of his squash would rot in his barn due to a lack of demand from local stores. With our car listing to the rear from a stockpile of starchy goodness, we went to the grocery to see what local items we could find, only to discover that the produce section was well stocked with butternut squash from a Mexican farm over 3,000 kilometres from Spokane.

These initial experiences helped us understand how disconnected the system was, but they also opened up to us the hopeful possibility of making meaningful connections. For example, our newfound knowledge about who was bringing our food items to market sparked a new way of saying grace before the meal. We naturally and spontaneously began to thank God not only for the food, but also for the farmers and producers who we had come to know through our interactions. Our meal was transformed from an experience of consuming disconnected commodities to participating in a loving community of people we cared for.

Early on in the year, I was asked to describe the logic of our rules to a university classroom of students. I explained: “In my Christian tradition we are guided by the great commandment to love our neighbour as ourselves. We have found that when it comes to so many things we buy and consume that we are disconnected from our neighbours, and therefore disconnected from our responsibility to love them. Limiting ourselves to a local geography is a means to an end. It puts us in proximity to people and makes relationships possible. It makes love possible.”

Along with connecting us to our community in meaningful ways, these rules led to wonderful new experiences in our family relationships. One of the first real tests of the rules was a birthday party for our eight-year-old. Nancy took up the task of baking a cake from scratch and decorated it with leftover Halloween candy. At Noel’s request, I took up the challenge of constructing a flamingo piñata. We all pitched in and despite setbacks and considerable anxiety it was a wonderful celebration. After the party, while we cleaned up the remains of the piñata, Noel volunteered that it was her favourite birthday ever. Not because the cake tasted better than one bought from the shop, or because the piñata was more beautiful than one imported from Mexico. She loved the way these tasks brought us together as a family.

Week after week the adventures accumulated. We downsized to one car and learned to walk to school and work. We turned our lawn into a vegetable garden labyrinth and welcomed laying hens into our household economy. I took a food preservation class and hung my Master Food Preserver certificate next to my Master of Divinity degree on the wall in my office at church.

Slowly, but surely, these strange rules became normal. About five months into our year we arrived at a surprising place as we gathered for dinner. I was comfortably snug in my second-hand shoes and sweaty from the bike ride home from work. Nancy was fashionably attired in her thrift store dress. The girls were fresh from a joyful jaunt in the garden maze, and we were all eager to dig into some local asparagus, field greens, homemade bread, home-churned butter, and meatloaf made from deer meat provided by a hunting friend. About halfway through the meal, it dawned on me that I hadn’t given any of these things a second thought. All of these practices were normal. We’d gone from wondering if it was even possible to follow these rules, to having them be a new, no-big-deal normal.

The greatest discovery of all was learning the meaningful connections between our faith in Christ and our decisions about what to purchase at the shops. I believe eating is a theological act, with deep connections not only to land but to the Creator of the land. More than that, buying food or anything else, is a theological act. For those of us who claim an ultimate allegiance to the Jesus who is redeeming all things (Colossians 1:20), decisions about what we purchase or don’t purchase are vital expressions of our faith. In a world where everything is being gathered up “in Christ” (Ephesians 1:10) we are invited to join in, seeking justice and peace by what we gather up in our arms at the shopping centre and grocery store.

You can read the full story of the Goodwin family’s continuing efforts to live a homegrown adventure in Year of Plenty, by Craig Goodwin (Sparkhouse Press ISBN 978 1 4514 0074 8 £8.99. Visit Alban Books for further info).